“We still do it as we did 3,500 years ago”: Gabriel Taviot, 55, beard, cap and eyelashes covered with a veil of gray dust, strips the surface layer of “the millstone” with his rake.

He skims the clod with his crust of straw and earth and, cautiously, so as not to damage the charcoal, which is brittle like glass, reveals the bits of black wood which sag on the ground in fumaroles twirling through the tall trees. .

On the very floor of the Arthonnay forest, in the depths of the Yonne, Gabriel has been setting up his coal millstones for decades.

“We install 1.20m straight pieces of wood by drawing a circle, on a diameter of 5-6 meters, then we cover with straw and earth, leaving a chimney in the middle. We make like a volcano. Then we light by letting embers fall into this chimney. The flame rises and we plug the funnel to smother the fire”, he explains.

It will be 900 degrees in the heart of the “volcano”: the steamed wood. After 72 hours, we pick up the coal with a rake.

The ritual has “not changed” for millennia, assures Gabriel. Historians have indeed discovered traces of coal millstones since Antiquity.

However, the profession almost disappeared. “Here, in Arthonnay, there were up to 50 employees who worked in the charcoal,” recalls Gabriel.

But, in 1988, when he took over the family business which had existed since 1870, oil and then electricity had very nearly buried coal.

“It was very hard: we only started to earn a living in 93-94, and again thanks to the sawmill specializing in luxury wood that we opened next door”, explains Gabriel.

– “The last of the Mohicans” –

From the height of his 65 years and “thirty years” of practice, Gérard Grigis, Gabriel’s assistant, confirms.

Eyebrows gray with dust, blue eyes hard to make out behind shimmering black glasses, Gégé also evokes a tormented past. “Oil almost made us disappear. And gazos (gas heating, editor’s note) almost replaced us”.

“But the rise in the price of gas and fuel has changed everything,” he trumpeted, proud of this pendulum swing.

“I can’t supply. We have too much demand”, explains Gabriel Taviot. “As gas prices rise, more and more people are turning on the little coal stoves that we used to see in maids’ rooms.”

A resurrection all the more savored as the charcoal burners are an endangered species. “We are the last of the Mohicans”, summarizes Gérard Grigis. “There are more than retirees who make it for folklore or their personal consumption, in village festivals”.

Fortunately, the company Gabriel Taviot is delighted to have ensured “the succession”. Or rather to have “passed the fire”, as they say between charcoal burners.

“It’s a job that I love”: Thibault Remisio, 30, thus perpetuates the tradition, after falling in love with Gabriel’s daughter. And of the profession.

“We’re out in the open. We’re free,” he says, heaving shovelfuls of coal into the forest pierced by the autumn sun.

“His” millstone, he tells it with stars in his misty eyes. “When you turn it on and plug it, the fumes run from the bottom. It feels like you’re walking on mist. It’s beautiful.”