PHOTOS: Baking With Fire—How the First European Colonists Made Bread

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As Massachusetts and much of New England remain in the grips of an unrelenting superwinter, with some modern Bostonians boldly facing unprecedented snowfall by diving from second-story windows into snow piles (see #BostonBlizzardChallenge), we thought we’d take a look back at the customs of their early Colonial forebearers. In particular, how they contained the most primal of elements — fire — to meet their most basic of needs — food.

Edible recently got the chance to catch up with food historian/archaeologist, cookbook author and “wood-fired cooking enthusiast” Paula Marcoux, who was in town giving a two-part slide show and live-fire demonstration detailing how the first settlers cooked and, most importantly, baked bread.

“The people that came from Europe and colonized New England were huge bread eaters. Bread virtually equaled food to them,” said Marcoux at her Brooklyn Brainery lecture “Ovens on the Edge: How the First European Colonists Baked Bread.” “A meal was not a meal if bread was not involved,” she continued. “And you could, basically, if you had to, live on bread of some form as far as they were concerned.”

But understanding bread baking in the days of yore goes way beyond a recipe. First you need to know the oven. Only it turns out history’s cupboard of oven artifacts is surprisingly barren, and despite their role in sustaining daily life, up until recently archaeologists have largely dismissed vestiges of baking. This dearth of data has driven Marcoux’s investigations. Her slide show at the Brainery included outtakes from her vast experience consulting on modern archaeological digs, working (in historically accurate attire) at living history museum Plimoth Plantation and her own oven-building efforts.

The specific type of oven she’s talking about, the enclosed kind used by Colonists pre-1720, dates back to Roman times and uses “retained heat.” It works like this: “So you’ve made a fire in the oven, you’ve got it good and blazing hot, and you let it burn down to coals,” says Marcoux, explaining how the oven floor and walls at first cover up with carbon. “When the oven’s good and hot, it burns the carbon off and you wind up with this nice, clean oven wall. You clean out all the coal, sweep out the ashes, chuck your loaf of bread in there and, voilà, 35 to 40 minutes later you’ve got this loaf of bread.”

Which is just how it went the next day at a live-fire demonstration of this and other techniques at the Old Stone House’s outdoor hearth (see photos), where we baked bread in a wood-fired oven — bread in an iron pot, on a griddle, under ashes.

Marcoux presents these methods and many others in her extraordinary cookbook, Cooking with Fire: From Roasting on a Spit to Baking in a Tannur, Rediscovered Techniques and Recipes that Capture the Flavors of Wood-Fired Cooking (Storey Publishing, May 2014). It’s lavishly photographed with sweet and savory recipes and includes detailed instructions for building a fire pit or even your own wood-fired oven, as well as easy bonfire cooking hacks. You won’t regret picking up a copy and may find yourself creating some customs of your own. Find out more on Marcoux’s website.

Wish you could have seen the demo for yourself? The Old Stone House is talking about re-starting a regular community baking series there, with hopes of eventually raising money to build a new and better oven. Stay tuned for developments.

Photo credit: Clay Williams

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