Slice of life: Wood fire bread baking in Volleges

September 9th, 2012 | Posted by Gregoire Michaud in Daily life... | Travel

There was no option: While I was back home I had to bake bread in those century old wood ovens.

Before flying to Switzerland, I asked my family to scan all the news around that topic to see if there was any baking going on while we were there and lucky us, the small village of Volleges was baking rye bread for the National Day.

We had no idea who were to people, nor did we know where the oven was.

We were told that the bread making was starting at 08:30. We arrived just on time and were greeted by two lovely ladies from the village which told us we couldn’t go inside because people were heating up the oven and that the dough would collapse if we open the door. Indeed, the temperature was about 6 degrees and I could understand the heat loss effect, but the collapsing of the dough was just a myth and I smiled within – why? Because I straight away knew that these people who came together much earlier than us to knead the dough weren’t bakers. They are people from all walk of life. Farmers, carpenter, housewife and so on… none of them had proper baker’s training in their lifetime, but what they had more than many professional baker I meet these days is an absolutely superb spirit!

As I mentioned above, we were all complete strangers and there was just a few sentences exchanged before we are all around an old wooden table located in the “Chambre des pates” (the dough room) where a wooden stove heats the room to make sure it ferments well. In the mountain, this stove is particularly useful during the cold winter.

Back in the days, each family was baking bread only twice a day and the sourdough starter was passed from family to family.

After a few dozen of boule done, tongues started to relax and everyone got to know each other better. And since I stepped in the production it (somehow) accelerated the shaping and we were done earlier than planned. As usual in my region, there is no time to waste and within a few minutes we were served with a proper aperitif. A glass of Fendant (white wine made of Chasselas grape) at 09:38 a.m. – and yes, this is not uncommon where I come from, but it always makes me smile – grape juice for breakfast, I said!

While we were waiting we had a fabulous chat, but nothing about who we were and what we were doing in life. It was just about what was happening in the village, and it was a lot of fun, trust me! Along the chats, we also came to talk about the history of bread in the village and how is the oven being used nowadays. The oven is being cared for by an association and it is rented to whomever wants to use it. For example on that day, the people rented it.

The dough mixer is one of the earliest mechanic model that ever existed. Prior that, the kneading was all done by hand in a dough bench that is today used as support for the shaping table. On that day, we prepared a mix of whole wheat and rye bread.

We could witness how the ashes were removed from the massive baking chamber, unlike some oven, all the burning wood was removed. Then, we measured the heat of the oven by throwing a handful of flour on the hot stone. The flour turned brown fairly quickly, thus, using a wet mopping cloth, we cleaned the stone twice to clean it, but also to cool it down a notch.

Another throw of flour gave us the green light to load the breads in the oven. The man sifted some flour over the breads and scored them with a knife. Now, any professional baker will look at that scoring by raising an eyebrow, but hey, it did the job well! Then, each bread was placed in the oven carefully to fit all 120 loafs we shaped on that day. Each weighed 600 grams and trust me, that’s a lot of bread going at once in one single wood fire oven.

We had to wait until the breads who were in the back of the oven were done first since they went in first and more heat was present in the back of the oven. While we waited, we had another aperitif! :)

Then came the non-stop switching of loaves from front to back and from left to right – it was super fun because it needs to happen fast in order to keep the door close to keep a maximum of heat inside the oven. Once all the loaves were baked we took them out of the oven and let them cool on the wooden rack, just like they did one hundred years ago.  And since the job was well done, we had to celebrate with a final aperitif! Nothing we could do about that, it’s just part of the culture!

We took home 3 loaves for sampling and like many dark and dense loaf, it was more enjoyable the next day.

A great ancestral tradition kept alive by villagers. I hope the youth will come along and support the efforts because this kind of bread making is brings you not only real bread, but also real community values. You come across people you don’t know, and you walk out with new friends. You learn how the wood from the forest is grown and used in a clever way. It’s not the practice in itself that teaches you values, it’s the experience: One million time more valuable than playing cooking Mama on WII! ;)

I put together a little movie which you can watch here and where you can see most of the steps I talked about.

Below is the gallery of photos for the day – check it out! 

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  • Jeremy

    Sorry we missed each other…busy August! Looks wonderful and ancient!

    • http://gregoiremichaud.com Gregoire Michaud

      Yes, it was pretty hectic for me too! So sorry – but I think we will meet sooner than we think! ;)

    • http://gregoiremichaud.com Gregoire Michaud

      Yes, it was hectic for us too! So sorry…
      I’m sure we will meet sooner than we think! ;)

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