The baking house and the baking oven had for many centuries comprised part of the self-sufficient agricultural culture: the farming family baked their own bread using their harvested grain, in addition to flans, special breads and other pastries on festive occasions. That didn’t occur in the home, but out on the estate.
Men and women
Traditionally the women made sure the fire stayed alight (in the hearth and in the oven), and prepared the staple foods, such as bread. When home-baking bread in the Kempen it was usually the woman who was responsible for mixing and kneading (physically heavy work that demanded stamina). Men (husbands or older sons) were deployed to stoke the oven and to ‘throw’ the bread into the oven. The man sometimes kneaded the bread, but shaping the loaf remained the women’s remit. The children helped too. Most families had a weekly, fixed baking day – often on a Friday – but this wasn’t the case throughout the Kempen.
Baking bread requires precision (estimating quantities), knowledge (estimating temperature) and timing (kneading, rising and baking times). Moreover, when making all sorts of specialities you had to have a grasp of all manner of baking techniques. So, expertise was needed to bake bread. In terms of home-baking this was a matter of passing down knowledge - from father and mother to son and daughter, as well as titbits and tips that were shared among the family, and exchanged with the neighbours etc. Perhaps a level of experimentation was also involved. Baking bread was something you had to get to grips with over time, during which habits, knowledge and expertise were not only passed down from generation to generation, but despite which, you had to garner experience in order to get it right.
The custom of placing an oven in a separate construction, with a tiled roof, away from the living quarters, livestock buildings and the barn, was due to the risk of fire. An elderberry in the vicinity and houseleek on the roof safeguarded against fire, or so folklore went. Elder also repelled mosquitoes.
Baking ovens with a roof of reed or barren broom occasionally caused fires. Which resulted in all manner of edicts. In Munsterbilzen in 1768, for example, two-thirds of the baking houses still had a thatched roof. A regulation stipulated these be replaced with tiles. Yet there were also farms where the oven was inside, such as in the Vorselaar residential home in Bokrijk. Then it usually emitted out into the open fire. Sometimes the baking house leant against a façade of the residential home.
Baking houses were a particular phenomenon in the Kempen, Maasland and Haspengouw. In Kaulille, 86% of homes had their own baking oven in 1604. In the north-west of the Kempen that phenomenon was less prevalent. According to a 1941 census, of the 6,609 farms in North Brabant (that pre-dated 1900), 937 had their own baking house and 3,328 farms had an oven located in or against the residential home.
What the baking house looked like differed from region to region. The type of baking oven and/or baking house you had said something about your social status. ‘Open’ ovens, where the oven wasn’t located in a small building, were exceptional. An example of this can be found at Bokrijk, originating from Zonhoven, on the Helchteren residential home estate. Sometimes such an oven stood under a small lean-to. The benefits of the open oven were that it cooled down more quickly, and that consequently the oven hood was less likely to crack. Preparation then took place within the residential home.
In most cases there was a separate small building though; the baking house. The oven was either located inside the building or comprised part of a separate building, against the small building. If the oven was wholly located inside in the small building then there was just one roof. This was the case with the baking house from the Uitschool farm in Oevel (this baking house was dismantled in 1937), and with the baking house from the Hooghuis in Tessenderlo. This phenomenon also arose outside of the Kempen. However, for the most part a space was added on for the actual oven. In such an instance the oven rested against the baking house and had its own, lower roof (such as with the baking ovens from Meeuwen and Heist-Goor in Bokrijk). From time to time the oven rested against one of the longer outer walls (at Bokrijk, the baking house from the Contzenwinning Klein-Hoeselt). That was usually attributable to the estate layout.
The baking implements were stored in the baking house, and it was also there where the dough was prepared. (In the cold wintertime, preparations – so mixing, kneading and rising – were sometimes undertaken in the residential home). Usually there was a kneading trough and a table, or a rack upon which the bread could be left to rise, and then cool. Everything needed to light the oven was stored here too. There was one access doorway, and one or several small windows. One of the windows would be located opposite the oven opening (or as close to as possible), to provide sufficient light for peering into the oven. Often there would be no window panes, just wooden shutters. Sometimes the small building would be architecturally embellished, and the wall clamps dated. The size and dimensions of these small buildings varied enormously. A loft was rare. The floor comprised exposed earth, tamped loam or paving. The interior walls were whitewashed.
The location of the baking house on the estate, and the position of the access doorway to the baking house, were usually decided in such a way as to facilitate access to the baking house from the home. In some regions, however, the oven was situated on the street-side of the estate. (Sint-Maartens-Latem, Asse, Alken). These may have been communal baking houses that were accessible to others to use. As such, sometimes several farms within a hamlet shared a single baking house (Westerlo), or one or more poorer neighbours utilised a richer farmer’s baking house. They would pay for this in working days or in fuel, for example. Municipal baking houses, accessible to an entire village, weren’t found in Flanders but did exist in Germany.
The oven hood or arch was made of loam or stone. The loam versions were often replaced with a stone version in the nineteenth century, some with a loam layer covering. The oven floor was made up of fireproof tiles; the oven base usually of stone. The oven itself had a large opening; also known in the Kempen as ‘oven holes’ or ‘oven mouths’. In the opening behind that – the stoking area – the fuel was stoked and the bread was baked. The oven could be closed with a lid made of wood and/or iron - oven door, oven cover, plug or oven sheet. Often there would be a storage section beneath the oven where the fuel, usually faggots, could be stored. The smoke came out via the oven opening and cleared away under the hearth’s mantel that surrounded the oven.
The baking house dies out
After the Second World War bread was increasingly bought at the bakery, or was delivered to the home by the baker. The generality of electricity meant the disappearance of baking in a stoked oven. For those who continued to bake at home, ‘modern’ gas or electric ovens were increasingly used. The baking houses became obsolete. Some were rescued and given a new lease of life as a storage area, washhouse, working area, livestock building or chicken coop. Most, however, became dilapidated and were dismantled at some point.
According to the Museum of Old Techniques (Museum voor de Oudere Technieken (MOT)) at the start of 2017 there were still just under 3800 baking houses left in Belgium.