Community Ovens in the Massif de Megal

Below are detailed the community ovens of 4 hamlets on the slopes of Mount Chenis in the Massif de Megal, Haute Loire. Also shown for comparison are ovens in several other hamlets in the immediate area.
Many of the ovens have not been regularly used in recent years, and some of the hamlets partially deserted.
Information specific to each oven is unfortunately lacking. The limited notes below were acquired by speaking to the few residents of the hamlets old enough to remember the days of regular communal baking.
The landscape of Auvergne has been characterised by an extended period of volcanism, the last events of which occurred as recently as 10 000 years ago.

Le Peyre de Bard from the summit of Mont Rouge.

Interesting is the local vernacular seen in the form of the bake houses, which are built from irregular pieces of basalt and Trachyte.
The roofs of the bake house are of Phonolite, an acid lava rock which cleaves easily in to plaques. Being readily available, the occurrence of phonolithe has contributed greatly to the distinctive form of the bake houses and their chimneys. These plaques of dressed phonolithe when used as a roofing material are called Lauzes.
The dressed stones framing the door and window openings of the bake houses are usually arkose.

The vaulted bake chambers of all the ovens were originally from Tuf, a rock taken from the plugs of certain ancient volcanoes. Tuf in French or Trifu, in patois, is formed when magma picks up granular contaminants from the chimney wall, as it is forced up through the chimney, forming relatively light agglomerate.

The moduls that make up the voussoir and keys of the bake chambers were quarried, dressed, and assembled by the original occupants of the hamlets, who besides being farmers, were also masons, and carpenters.
The bake houses were built by the community, and are usually located next to L'Assembly, or communal assembly hall.

According to an amateur historian the ovens are at least 200 years old. At this time the area was not under direct control of the state but was administered by a local seigneurie or lord. It is not known which, but some of the ovens were built by the seigneurie in return for a perpetual share of the grain harvest, a portion of which was passed on to The Crown.

The Lord's Oven

As times have changed and many outsiders moved into the hamlets, the habits of communal living have dissipated.
This is directly reflected by the ovens, which if at all, are now fired only during the annual village festival.
At one time though, communal interaction in all aspects of living was a survival necessity which the local population well understood.

In general the ovens are maintained in reasonable condition, appreciated by the residents as a symbol of the hamlets heritage.

The largest single factor in the demise of communal baking in the area was the establishment of artisanal bakeries in the nearby town of St-Julien-Capteuil.
Prior to this, the residents of the hamlets on Mount Chenis would take their grain down to La Chapuze to be milled, which being located on the fast flowing Sumene, was the nearest hamlet with a mill.
Bread would be baked in the community ovens every three weeks in summer and every fortnight in winter.

Once the bakeries were established in St-Julien the bakers would buy the grain from the hamlets and have it milled.
The residents of the hamlets having the option of fresh baked bread daily, and being freed from the laborious task of making dough and firing a large oven, gradually lost the habit of baking their own bread. This period of transition occurred from the 1930s until the early1950s, when regular use of the communal ovens was completely abandoned.

La Chapuze         Altitude 850 m

The bakehouse was locked.

Marcilhac         Altitude 950 m

Note the clay mortar exposed beneath the missing Lauzes at the right of the roof pinion. The Lauzes were layed on to a bed of clay mortar spread directly onto the planks covering the roofs frame.

The interior of the bake house showing a full set of tools. From left to right: a peal, right angle ember rake, a second peal, and mop.

Like the oven at Roserols the original bake chamber in tuf has been rebuilt in refractory brick. This apparently was done between 1920 and 1930, according to a local historian.

The Marcilhac assembly to the right of the oven.

Rocherols         Altitude 1000m

The hearth in clay tiles. The hearth has probably been replaced but in the original materials and form. Note the square opening to the ash dump. Many of the ovens have had their hearths replaced in refractory brick that have covered the original opening to the ash dump, the ashes being raked directly out of the ovens loading opening.

The entrance to Rocherols, with the oven at left of centre.

Mount Chenis to the right Mount Rouge in the center and Le Peyre de Bard to the left, seen from the North East.
According to a 77 year old resident of Rocherols, the tuf used in the vaults of the ovens in Marsilhac, Rocherols and Mountchenis was quarried on Mount Rouge, which is 1kmEast of Montchenis, the highest of the three hamlets located on the slopes of Mount Chenis. A small mountain by comparison mount Rouge is accessible from Monchenis by a track running over relatively flat ground. The point at which the tuf was extracted from this trachyte suc is no longer known, and there is no obvious evidence of quarrying, that could be found, around the base of the mountain.

Montchenis         Altitude 1050 m

Now a ruin, the Montchenis oven, according to a resident of Rocherhols, simply fell victim to neglect.

Though the roof of the bake house has collapsed the oven is still standing, barley protected by its Lauzes.

The loading opening and avaloir.

The vault in tuf. It is from the base of the voussoir at top left, that the two specimens of disintegrating tuf were taken.

These pieces of tuf were chiselled from the ruined ovens bake chamber.

The specimens are stained from decades of water infiltration and so are not necessarily typical in colour. Most people say that tuf is maroon. These pieces were surprisingly light. Some people say tuf was used as it withstands high temperatures, and because it is the only local stone that can be dressed.

The oven of a residence in the hamlet.

Much smaller than the community ovens.

Aupinhac         Altitude 830 m

The bake house has had its Lauzes replaced by clay tiles.

Interior of the bake house showing the steel shield used to close the loading opening and ember rake. The void beneath the hearth serves as storage for ash and embers and also helps the hearth become warmer faster.

The bake chamber in tuf. Note the size of the key.

Montferrat         Altitude 850 m

The bake house in the hamlet of Montferat. The lintel over the door is dated 1837

The well kept interior of the bake house. Hinged steel door.

The voussoir in tuf.

The voussoir immediately behind the avaloire, in this well maintained oven, have been replaced with brick.

The recently replaced hearth in refractory brick.

The oven, at left, of a private residence in Montferrat.

Les Granges         Altitude 660 m

The bakehouse was locked, and the key not in any of the usual hiding places.

Le Pertuis

The bake house was locked and the key holder not to be found.

Firing Of An Oven

The following series of images show the firing of a residential bread oven in the municipality St-Julien –Chapteuil. Haute Loire. The oven is of the same traditional construction as the ovens detailed in the notes above, the bake chamber being of Tuf. The oven was pre-heated with a priming fire the day before baking in order to reduce firing time.

The bake house, like the residence, is about 180 years old. Though the oven's vault has not been disturbed, the facing, and structure of the bakehouse have been restored by the present owner. It was the owner of this oven that put the Mountferrat community oven in to operational condition after decades of disuse.

Wood load consists of faggots, small branches and thin off-cuts from a local saw mill.

The fire is lit at the front and burns backwards for about an hour and a half.

A certain amount of secondary combustion is taking place in the avaloire.

The recently renewed granite lintel. Had to crack.

The lintel of the avaloire is backed with refractory brick splits, but even so is receiving considerable thermal shock .

The tuf bake chamber ready to be cleaned for baking.

Marcus Flynn


Articles by Marcus Flynn

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