Looking out over the Village Green at Chiltern Open Air Museum stand two labourers’ cottages from Leagrave in Luton. Originally a barn, the building was divided and converted into dwellings in the 1770s, as dated by a George III copper farthing found when the building was dismantled.
One side of the cottages provides a picture of 1920s life, but the other replicates the cottage at the time of conversion, complete with open fireplace and a hole in the wall sealed with an iron door. This is a vaulted bread oven made of brick and lined with lime, which played a key part in the diets of the families who lived there 250 years ago. Brick ovens were used extensively by the Romans, and this method of baking continued into the 18th century.
Jenny Templeton, a Museum volunteer, has been bringing Leagrave Cottage to life, baking bread in this traditional manner. As an experienced re-enactor with a background teaching cookery, she has used her knowledge to master the skills required to bake a batch of up to 10 delicious loaves.
Before baking can begin, wood has to be gathered and a small fire lit in the front of the oven. This is gradually fed and spread across the oven floor so that two hours later, all that remains are glowing embers and any soot has burnt off the walls to leave them white hot.
Without the aid of modern thermometers, there are different methods for checking the temperature is just right. A little flour sprinkled on the oven floor should quickly turn brown but not burn, or striking the side of the oven produces sparks. Some cooks would use a white stone that changed colour as it heated and these were historically known as ‘wise men’ in Buckinghamshire.
Once the oven is hot enough, the embers are raked out using a ‘scuffle’ (a long-handled hoe) and ash removed with wet rags tied to a stick, known as a ‘mawkin’. The risen loaves are carefully placed into the oven using a ‘peel’ or paddle, before the door is closed and sealed with clay or leftover dough. Once this has dried out and begins to fall off the bread is probably done, though a good sense of smell is required to prevent any burnt bits!
The phrase ‘the upper crust’ stems from this historic way of baking. Loaves made in this way often emerge from the oven with a layer of ash covering their base. This was cut off for the gentry, leaving them with only the soot-free top of the loaf.
If you’re a budding historic cook, you can join Jenny for an Experience Day baking in Leagrave Cottages and see if you can perfect a loaf of your own using the traditional bread oven. Experience days cost £35 for one or £60 for 2 when booked together.