Clayworks WFO logoClayworks WFO header image

A History of Wood Fired Ovens

Records have shown ovens in 4300 BC Bulgaria, early Roman times, in Peru, Turkey, Spain, France and parts of Asia.  The earliest remains of ovens were found in the eastern half of the Mediterranean Basin from the second millennium BC.  They were a squat clay mound, beehive in shape, with internal shelving and an opening in the base for ash removal, they were principally used to bake bread.  The consequences of Spanish invasions and colonization ensured the progressive use of this new technology throughout Europe and Asia.

European villages tended to have a limited number of ovens in the centre of the village for communal use.  The old village ovens were usually built into a small building that resembled a chapel, placed near the well, the church and the wash house.  The early European families cooked bread, casseroles, sweet and savoury pies, roasts and cakes. They were a popular gathering and gossiping spot for the town and a meeting place in the evening for courting couples.

Clayworks Wood Fired Ovens - general history

 

Clayworks Wood Fired Ovens - general history

In much of Europe the ovens were owned by nobility or the Church.  They charged the locals a fee to bake or fined them if they avoided using the communal ovens. 

As time progressed so did the rules and regulations on who could use the oven and what could be done with it.  The Fournier (official baker) who had done the work to cut the firewood and heat the oven was declared the owner of the heat.  Therefore when he had finished cooking no other Fournier was allowed to use the oven for a certain time span after he had finished baking.  No fruit or firewood could be dried without his permission. 

Published rules forbade the drying of certain crops, determined which timber could be used, who had the purchased right to clean the ashes out (this was sold as fertilizer) and who had the purchased rights to take the breadcrumb sweepings away (this was used as chicken feed). 

After the Revolution most French rural ovens became public property and remained in use in small villages until after World War 2.  Most communal ovens had a wooden plaque on the outside of the oven building with tags on it that showed the order that each family cooked in.

  

In Quebec ovens were continually built over many hundreds of years and were readily available to most families.  Apart from cooking their traditional foods they also used them for sterilizing feather stuffing of pillows and mattresses.  Bed linens and eating utensils of the sick were treated in the same way.  Ovens were used to dry out flax for linen making, and timber for furniture making, even pre-shrinking newly woven woolens.

In England public bakeries were uncommon.  Families in many districts baked their own breads from the luxury of their own property.

Clayworks Wood Fired Ovens - general history

 

Clayworks Wood Fired Ovens - general history

After World War 2 with the general movement of populations back to the larger towns and the availability of better transport, bread began to be sold.  Convenience was born as it was easier (no extra firewood to cut, no kneading, no time at the oven) and the bread was not expensive.  In a number of countries bread prices were set and subsidised by Governments. 

Today, some French villages hold festivals every year when the oven is brought back to life with fire, and the smells of food cooked over the centuries wafts through the air yet again.