Charcoal-burners - Auvergne Charbonniers
Bougnat, the coal-man from Auvergne
Charcoal or charbon in French used to be associated with Bougnats or charbonnier - coal-men.
Bougnat comes from Charbouniat, a contraction of Charbonnier (coal-man) and Auvergnat.
The first Bougnats worked as water-carriers and opened small bistros.
However, they progressively converted to the coal trade, as Paris’ water distribution network improved and eventually served all buildings.
Converting was easy, though.
The production of charcoal was indeed a traditional activity in Auvergne, a country known for its dense forests.
Their bistros bore the sign ‘Vins et charbons’ - Wines and coal.
Customers knew that when the wife served at the counter, her husband was busy delivering coal!
The coal trade dwindled over the decades, however, the name Bougnat has remained attached to bistros’ and brasseries’ owners.
Auvergne, a country of forests
Today 27% of the territory of the Auvergne - over 700,000 hectares and 4.5% of the French forest - is made of forests.
The Allier and Cantal departments have large forests of oak and beech.
However, the Puy-de-Dôme and Haute-Loire have a majority of softwood such as pine, Scots pine, spruce and Douglas fir.
The forestry surface of the Auvergne doubled over the last 150 years.
This resulted from the afforestation of the disused agricultural land and spontaneous growth.
However, the production of charcoal has now given way to wood processing.
This activity is a major economic asset for Auvergne as it indeed generates a significant number of jobs.
The production of charcoal, though, was traditionally linked to the history of Auvergne.
The production of charcoal in Auvergne
Here is Wikipedia's definition for Charcoal:
“ Charcoal is obtained by charring the wood in a controlled atmosphere by pyrolysis (in the absence of oxygen).
The method allows to obtain the wood, by the temperature rise, the fractions liquefiable (pyroligneous acid) and gasifiable: its humidity and any plant or volatile organic material, to leave only the carbon and some minerals.
Micro and nanoporous structure of this "coal" gives it particular qualities.”
As you can read, pyrolysis produces a series of chemical reactions leading to the creation of charcoal.
From the 19th century onward, charcoal was therefore produced in huge metal cauldrons that acted as furnaces.
The wood would be placed inside the furnace, then set alight.
Most furnaces had a hole at the top to evacuate water steam.
Those that did not, had their lid slightly open before lighting, in order to allow steam to escape.
100kg of wood burnt in these furnaces produced 25kg of charcoal, but also ethyl alcohol, acetic acid, wood tar, fuel gas and a large amount of water (almost 50kg).
The furnaces allowed the recovery of these tar and gases.
Some of these furnaces were removable, and could thus be moved to different locations of the forest, right by the timber.
The lumberjacks worked tirelessly, felling trees, logging them then leaving them dry, as dry wood chars faster and produces larger quantity of charcoal.
The logs' standard dimensions were 45cm up to 60cm long, and up to 20cm in diameter.
However, the broader logs had to be shortened, the longer had to have a smaller diameter.
Their quality and homogeneity indeed contributed to the quality of the charcoal, and Auvergne charcoal was one of the best!
Auvergne charcoal-burners - A long tradition
However, the old Auvergne charcoal-burners knew this!
They did not need a ruler to measure the length of their logs, nor use a furnace.
They had inherited their skills from their fathers, generation after generation, since the earliest times.
They used the pyrolysis method, with the only difference that they didn't use furnaces.
Instead, they piled their wood in the manner of an Indian teepee, which they covered with clay.
They left a small opening at the top of the pile in order to allow steam to escape.
The first logs burnt the oxygen present in the pile, therefore increasing the heat that transformed the remaining logs into charcoal.
They knew how to check the temperature to avoid flames and ashes that would have affected the quality of their charcoal.
The production of charcoal was quite a skilled job!
The only witnesses of this bygone era are the many places and villages of Auvergne called Charbonniers or Charbonnières.