The largely deforested and agriculturally ravaged Azuero peninsula was colonised shortly after the conquest, and its strong indigenous population mestizied within a short time. Today the peninsula's rural inhabitants live in a network of small, evenly dispersed settlements, whose layout, and adobe dwellings closely resemble those of medieval Spain.
The following photographs and notes were taken in four villages lying on a northwesterly line roughly parallel to, and approximately 5 km from the coast, in the province of Los Santos. The distance from the northernmost village, La Laguna, to the southernmost, Pedasi, is 17 km. The sources were elderly inhabitants of the region and owner-operators of the ovens, their names being recorded only when given voluntarily. Due to the coincidental nature of my observations, conflicting information and linguistic difficulties, discrepancies to these notes are inevitable.
Fifty years ago Pedasi had five exterior wood-fired ovens in daily use. Today most of the bread consumed in the village is transported from the capital where it is baked in electric ovens at commercial bakeries. There is though one exterior oven in regular use, its operator selling his bread and cakes in competition with the "long life" bread baked in the national and provincial capitals.
There are two ovens in Purio. The one photographed is in the back yard of its builder and operator Dona Marselina Sanchez Sanchez. Said to be "easy", it took her and her now deceased husband four days to build fourty years ago.
Three ovens were photographed though there are probably two others in the village. All three ovens were built by their operators and are similar in size, style and the manner in which they were constructed.
There are no bread ovens in La Laguna though there is a "honey oven".
Honey ovens share the same construction principals and materials as the bread ovens of the region. As a low constant heat is required to avoid burning the syrup the clay walls of the oven provide excellent thermal storage. The syrup pan is made of aluminum, rather than steel, again to avoid burning the syrup. On the pole protruding from the pan is attached an aluminum colander (out of view) used to stir and pour the sugar water as it is heated to speed up evaporation. The loading opening is arched with a section of a forty five gallon steel drum. The eye is visible to the left of the left handle of the milk churn. The walls of this oven are built around a frame of three-inch diameter straight branches driven into the ground vertically in the form of a circle. The clay is jammed, by hand, between and around the branches that remain inside the oven's wall. As they are surrounded by clay the branches are said never to burn.
Note: For photograph and brief text describing the 'Trapiche de caña" (traditional horse powered apparatus used to extract sugar water from cane).
Additional Notes and photograph
The trapiche de caña, here being rotated in an counter-clockwise direction by two men. Normally a horse would power the trapiz. The effort is transferred to two, blunt-toothed steel rollers into which the cane is fed and crushed. The sugar water is squeezed from the cane and collected by means of a piece of galvanised guttering and a jug.
It is said that drinking large amounts of fresh sugar water will cause extreme drowsiness.
Note regarding construction. The clay used in the construction of the ovens is dug from the ground locally. In La Laguna we were shown an area of cracked dry ground said to be perfect. The 'clay' was sandy, containing ample small range aggregate, and slight vegetal contamination. Once dug from the ground, the 'clay' is placed in a mud pan and saturated with water. It is then worked into a uniform consistency by foot. Some straw is added to the clay used towards the exterior of the dome.
Note: Discrepancy. Initially I had presumed that the oven domes were made by casting the wet clay on to a dome shaped form made of pliable branches, which would eventually be burnt away by the first couple of curing fires, as is the case with the Quebecois traditional ovens. It was not until entering La Laguna (on our way out of the region) and hearing the account of the construction of the honey oven that it became evident that, at least in this case, the branch form was completely enveloped in clay and remained inside the ovens walls. At this point I cannot say whether the domes of the Pedasti, Purio and Mariabe ovens were built onto or around their branch forms. We also entered the settlements of Los Asientos, Las Cabezas, Venado and Los Pozos to the South West of Pedasi though no ovens could be found in these villages. Hopefully some of the questions raised by the information gathered here will be answered during future visits to the region.
Montreal, May 2000