Instead of using their home ovens, some Swiss residents continue a tradition of baking bread in a communal, wood-fired oven. I visited one of these ovens a few weeks ago in the canton of Neuchâtel during the 20th anniversary celebration of its renovation. On a beautiful late-August day, the tables were heaped with sweet and savory baked goods from the village oven, with about 200 people gathered to enjoy the feast.
Swiss Communal Ovens
I knew Swiss communal ovens for bread-baking existed in the alpine villages of Valais, after having seen one for the first time in Grimentz a few years ago. These ovens are typically used to make Pain de Seigle, a dense rye bread that has a long shelf-life—a stable food source for the long, hard winters in the mountains.
In general, these ovens are referred to as four banal in Suisse Romande. Four means oven in French, while banal, which usually means boring, also has an older usage for describing something “possessed in common” (i.e., something shared for the common good). If you’re looking to visit a four banal in Switzerland, here are just a few examples of some that I’ve recently discovered:
- Blatten – Backofen Blatten
- St. Martin – Le Four Banaux d’Eison, Liez, Praz-Jean and La Luette
- Charrat – Le Four Banal de Charrat-Vison
- Dombresson – Four à pain du Val-de-Ruz
- Val d’Hérens – Le Four Banal de Nax and Mase’s Confrérie du Blé et du Pain
Le P’tit Four
In the small village of Wavre, you’ll find a tiny building situated next to the school that houses a communal oven: Le P’tit Four de Wavre. The current building dates back to 1843 (the year is carved above its wooden door), although I’ve been told that an oven appears in the same location on maps from the 18th century. After falling into disrepair over the years, the villagers got together in 1995 to renovate the oven and maintain it as a gathering place for community members.
Today, the oven is managed by a nonprofit association with a committee of eight members. For an annual fee of CHF 10, you can join the association and gain access to the oven. The association sponsors various activities throughout the year, such as seasonal festivals, bake sales or an afternoon pizza snack for the schoolchildren.
For its 20th anniversary celebration, the feast included breads, pizzas and tarts. The volunteers also cooked Saucisson neuchâtelois in the ashes of the hearth. I hope to return some day soon to try out the oven myself!
Do you know of any communal, wood-fired ovens in Switzerland that I haven’t mentioned? If so, please leave a comment below or send me an email. Thanks in advance for your help!