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The young Frenchman who lights the oldest oven in the city

Valentín Papin came from Brittany to work with a century-old oven in Villa Ortúzar, a quiet neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
Stories of ordinary people
valentin-lepi
01 November, 2019

There’s a kind of secret in this quiet street of Villa Ortúzar, a corner of Buenos Aireswith houses of low height, cobbled streets and occasional hangover of street art. Now called L’épi, the building at Rosetti 1769 has been a bakery for generations and its secret has been preserved over time: there is a century-old wood-stone oven with a diameter of six meters. Built in 1911, when bread was distributed door-to-door through the neighborhood, the oven continues to operate 24 hours a day under the tutelage of a young Frenchman named Valentin Papin.

Valentín is a native of Nantes, in western France, and began to work in a bakery at the age of 15. As a baker uncle, he always wanted to experience life abroad, so he organized an internship in Buenos Aires while studying at university with French chefs and entrepreneurs Olivier Hanocq and Bruno Gillot, owners of L’épi.

Now at 25, he’s back and his plan is to stay in Buenos Aires. “I’m here,” he says. “I like Argentine life and work. I am young and it is a very good opportunity to be in charge of production and work in such a craft way”, he continues.

The work is, as he explains, certainly artisanal. The oven is lit twice a day and only with firewood, allowing you to make two bakes, at 5 pm and 4 am. Once the temperature reaches 260°C, the breads make their way; more delicate items, such as brioche, enter once it has cooled to around 200°C. By the way, the temperature never drops to 180 degrees before the fire comes back on for the next batches.

“ The process is continuous. We never left him,” says Valentín. “From 4 in the morning to 12 in the evening there is always someone. People at noon turn on the oven for the team that comes at 17 and they do it at midnight for those who start at 4. Each one works for the other; it is a family, no one sees the product from start to finish, like an orchestra in which one starts playing and others follow the melody,” he continues.

They work with naturally sourced dough, virtue that brings their challenges and makes it even more important to work together. “There are things that can fail,” Valentín recognizes. “The weather influences a lot: sometimes it starts well in the morning and then comes a thunderstorm with lots of humidity and heat. We have very long fermentations, so it is difficult to handle them. You never know how the mass will react, you must always be attentive, talking a lot between everyone”.

By way of closing, he concludes: “I love the way we work here. In Europe, we usually have machines to do some parts of the work; but, for me, machines can’t replace the hands. They may imitate them, but not replace them.”

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