A Book About Butter for Potters

At a recent show, a tall middle-aged man came into my booth and, picking up one of my dome covered Brie bakers asked, “Is this a Canadian butter dish?” I had no idea what he meant by a Canadian butter dish, but assured him that he could use it however he wished. He explained that in Canada, butter comes in round discs, not sticks as in the U.S.

In Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova, Khosrova tells us that during the Middle Ages and later, butter was often shaped into long tubes by the dairy maids who were responsible for butter making. Purchasers would bring a tube home, and slice it into rounds as needed. So, my Brie maker would have made a perfect butter dish not only for Canadians but also for fifteenth century peasants. The book is full of similar fascinating tidbits and facts. Though it is not specifically for potters – I exaggerated a bit in the title – if you are a potter interested in food and food history and the relationship of particular foods to pottery, it will be a fun read for you.

Khosrova, a former pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America, takes us on a world tour as well as a historical tour. The first butter, she tells us, was made from the milk of sheep, yak and goats. To make butter, she explains, the milk, or if it has been separated, cream, is agitated until it thickens and clumps. She writes, “The Sumerians of 2500 B.C.E. used special terra cotta jugs for holding the milk and a plunger-type tool (called the dash or dasher in English) for churning.”

Early churns were made of animal skins.  Khosroba traveled to Bhutan and describes the making of Yak butter in similar leather bags. But, as with the Sumerians, pottery has always had a place in butter making. Pottery jugs and pancheons were also important. Pancheons, which are one of the most beautiful pottery shapes that I can think of, were large, wide mouthed pans, with flaring straight sides, used for settling the milk so that the cream could be skimmed off the top. Churns were commonly made of wood, but glazed stoneware churns kept the cream cooler than other materials, which helped with the process, and was cleaner.

Curiously, Khosrova does not discuss butter dishes, French, which preserve the butter’s freshness with a water seal, or the various lidded ceramic dishes popular today. She does, however, conclude her book with a wonderful collection of recipes for pastries and sauces, each of which cries out for a pretty handmade serving dish. Or so it seems to me.

Walter Keeler

Walter Keeler set up his first pottery in 1965 and moved to his present workshop in 1976. Though he is adamant in calling himself a functional potter, influenced by historical European pottery, his teapots and jugs are unlike those of any other artist.  In Walter Keeler Emmanuel Cooper and Amanda Fielding look at Keeler’s life in clay, his ideas and growth, and, the pots themselves.

“All my pots are functional,” he explained to David Biers in a Ceramic Review interview quoted by Fielding. “”It is a fundamental justification and a challenging starting point. If the pots could not be used, I would rather not make them.”

Fielding notes that his Ideas on functionality are of interest. “The function of a pot, in a practical sense, is a very deep thing…because function goes beyond whether you can pick an object up by the handle or raise it to your mouth, it has other implications too,” Keeling explains. “In certain company you would not drink out of a mug, you’d drink out of something more refined…The fact that you can play with that, if you have a mind to – you encourage people to stick their little finger out – seems too rich and important…I think that if you work in the crafts, then somehow that’s where your heart should be.”

And, most tellingly, he explains, “If you make a very ordinary teapot, people will say, oh that’s just a teapot, and walk away, but if you make a teapot that poses questions – I’m a teapot, but what sort of teapot am I? Would you use me, how would you use me? – then people have to engage with that.”

Fielding describes his work as “mischievous, slightly subversive.” Cooper tells us that the shards he found as a boy first drew Keeling, like seemingly many UK potters, to pottery. He keeps his shard collection to this day. Inspired by metal cans and containers, Whieldon ware, Staffordshire creamware, and German salt-glazed pottery, Keeling works in both earthenware and stoneware. His pieces begin with thrown forms, which he reassembles, with carpenterly skill, adding extruded handles, generous pouring lips, and his signature sprig of concentric circles.

This is a thoughtful look at one of the more celebrated potters of our era and his personal philosophy of pot making. It is published by the Ruthin Craft Center. Sadly, we have lost both authors, thoughtful and important contributors to the ceramics literature. Happily. Keeling is still very much with us, and potting.

Pots with Recipes

In her book In the Potter’s Kitchen: Handmade Pots for Home-Cooked Recipes, Colorado potter Sumi von Dassow has taken the unusual step of including recipes for the various types of pots she discusses. Along with directions for making a sauerkraut crock, she tells us that three cabbages, shredded and weighted in brine, will fill a ten-inch crock. In the section on ovenware, she offers directions for making covered casseroles and various baking dishes: round, oval and squared, plus recipes for spinach lasagna, onion quiche, and pumpkin pie. Von Dassow seems especially enthusiastic about baked Brie, showing photos of three quite different bakers and giving us four recipes (oh yum! Baked Brie with Caramelized Onions and Herbs!).

Throughout the book, she exhorts potters to do the same: include recipes with the pots you make.  Writing of butter and cheese dishes she suggests, “You might want to include a recipe for herb butter or cheese balls with these items.” Later, discussing olive trays, she says, “if you have a favorite canapé recipe, you could include that as well.”

The book is written for two audiences: potters who make pots, and cooks who purchase and use pots.  Following chapters on the history of cooking and pottery, and extensive advice for non-potters using pottery, the book is organized by use in the kitchen: ovenware, stovetop ware, ware for the microwave, serving dishes and storage jars.  There are sequential how-to photos for specific pieces such as apple bakers, juicers, and tagines and lots of photos of finished pots. Thirty-eight potters, including von Dasso contributed pots and recipes. I was pleased to see my friend Robbie Lobell’s flameware casseroles and a spread showing how she makes her rectangular baking dishes. I have one of her early rectangular flameware pots that I love to use to roast chopped carrots and onions drizzled with olive oil and topped with sprigs of rosemary.

Flameware by Cook on Clay

Von Dassow’s advice for potters is extensive, practical and often opinionated. Of course she is opinionated – she has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about kitchenware. What’s the point of writing a book like this unless you have opinions?  “It’s important,” she writes, “to keep the intended function in mind when making a baking dish…you can make a dish and sell it and leave it up to the customer to figure out what to do with it, but if you know what your dish is for, it will be easier to sell.” She tells us that putting a foot ring on a baking dish is ok, but not really what works best, or what cooks prefer. Oh dear! I put foot rings on my baking dishes and casseroles with the notion that they will be going directly to the table while still hot from the oven and that, when warm, foot rings are kinder to wood tables than flat bottoms.  Perhaps I need to rethink?

And I never thought to include a recipe with each pot, though I have on occasion included one in my newsletter. I make a lot of round, straight-sided baking dishes that can double as serving dishes or bowls. They are perfect, I think, for bread pudding, cheesy potatoes au gratin, or a baked egg dish with broccoli and mozzarella and chunks of rustic bread, a recipe I cribbed years ago from a chef friend. That’s how I imagine my baking dishes being used when they leave my studio, but I have not actually sent them off with recipes attached. Now I  think I will.

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Fannie Farmer’s Bread Pudding with Alterations

Butter the baking dish. Fill it with:

2 cups dry breadcrumbs. I like to use at least half rye bread with caraway seeds.

4 tablespoons butter

2 cups hot milk (this makes a firm pudding)

Let cool.

When room temperature stir in:

½ cup sugar

2 eggs beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch of salt

½ cup raisins, or more if you like

Place in the middle of the oven and turn on to 325F

Bake for one hour or until firm. Serve slightly warm or chilled.

Pottery in Provence

A few years ago I saw some wonderful French earthenware jars for sale in a New Orleans shop and fell in love with them. Foolishly, I didn’t purchase any. So expensive! How would I carry them on the plane? Typical flawed thinking. Perhaps, a return trip is in order? But that would make for a really expensive pot wouldn’t it?

Happily, Noëlle Duck and Christian Sarramon, the author and photographer of A Home in Provence: Interiors, Gardens, Inspiration have also fallen in love with rustic French pottery. Although their book is for interior decorators who dream of furnishing rooms in a sun washed manse, nearly every photo features pottery.

We see large antique terra cotta jars and flowerpots set out on a gravel terrace. Urns planted with box or standing century at a windowsill. There are “Classic pots in natural clay from the Raval Pottery in Aubagne and enameled jars from the Poterie du Soleil at Biot …[and] vases flanked with medallions, including one in the shape of a child’s head from Anduze.” And oil jars, water jugs, bowls, tians, splashed with green or yellow glazes. And then there are roof tiles and floor tiles and tiles for the wall. Enough to make one’s heart race.

In the chapter called Ceramics and Glassware, Duck and Sarramon celebrate highly decorated faience as well as the simpler pottery that I love so much and even offer a few photos of pots in process. Not a book for potters exactly, but if you like old earthenware jars with swelling shoulders made from the pink clay of Provence, you will want to take a look.

The Art of German Stoneware

When I was a kid, German beer steins were popular with my New Jersey relatives. Even my Irish/English grandparents had a decorative stein on the mantle over the fireplace in the living room. When he was old enough to indulge, my cousin John actually drank from a stein for a period and was, as I recall, quite pleased with himself though other family members thought he looked a bit silly. All my relatives at the time lived in northern New Jersey where many residents were German (including half my family) so that might account for the fad. The beer steins in question were brightly colored in red, cream, tan and blue glazes with faux relief decoration.

Reading Jack Hinton’s The Art of German Stoneware, 1300 – 1900 from the Charles W. Nichols Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I was reminded that authentic German drinking vessels and bottles were far more interesting than the gaudy steins that so intrigued my Jersey relatives.

Hinton opens, “Robust but refined, durable yet delicate, German stonewares are practical ceramics that frequently surpass their utilitarian character through their fine construction, sparkling colors and finishes, and excellence and variety of forms and ornament. From the late sixteenth through the seventeenth century these wares were among the most common decorated ceramics found in Europe and the colonial world, and made their way into households across a broad spectrum of society.”

Germany was blessed with abundant deposits of stoneware clay. Fired to high temperatures, stoneware is durable and impervious to stains and thus very useful.

Early in the sixteenth century, potters working along the Rhine began to employ sprigs, molded decorations that they applied to the exterior surfaces of their pots. They also employed salt glaze and cobalt, lending their work a distinctive appearance.

Through all the centuries of stoneware production, vessels for drinking and decanting remained important, but stoneware was also used for storage jars and bottles, preserving foodstuffs, and, eventually for sanitary ware.

Hinton takes us on a quick run through history, focusing, of course, on the pieces in the collection. There are two very appealing unglazed jugs from the early fourteenth century, nicely thrown, one with a particularly elegant transition from the curve of the belly in and up through the neck and lip. There are bottles, pitchers and jugs with the famous “bearded man” (Bartmann) face applied to the neck. The faces were made in molds and attached to thrown vessels. They were largely made by potters in Cologne and Frechen but widely traded. One from the mid-sixteenth century, brown, salt-glazed, stands just six inches tall. Here the face and beard reach three quarters of the way down to where the belly transitions in towards the foot. And there are many examples of white/gray, and blue and white salt-glazed pieces, heavily decorated with applied seals, rondels, medallions, swags, animals, crests, and faces.

“Social developments, such as improvements in living conditions and emulation by middle classes of the customs of the elite, were an important stimulus for diversification of the forms created,” Hinton writes. “The elaborate ornamentation of stonewares also helped to shift the impression of these utilitarian wares to that of luxury ceramics worthy of display. Potters benefited from a focus on making more refined wares as a means to increase their profits.”

The photography in The Art of German Stoneware is good. I especially liked the inclusion of contemporaneous paintings, many of them Dutch, showing the stoneware in use. Reading this, I did  not long to make similar pots myself, as sometimes happen to me when I am in the midst of a book, but perhaps you will.

Soup Tureens and Other Important Matters

On Sunday during the Potters Market at the Coventry Regional Farmers Market, a fellow came into my booth and, upon seeing my soup bowls, told me a story about his cat and the tablecloth that she pulled off his table during a soup party he was hosting. His soup bowls, each with covers, smashed as they landed on the floor, but his tureens (yes, plural) remained intact.

That got me thinking not only about the possibility of hosting a soup party, but also about soup tureens. In Elements of the Table Lynn Rosen tells us,  “The soup tureen holds about three quarts and is one of the largest serving pieces on the table. Its many beautiful shapes and designs are a very dramatic and lovely complement to your table décor.” She speculates that the tureen may have had its origins in the large communal bowls of the Middle Ages. The showy, lidded tureen as we know it today, was perfected by French potters in the seventeenth century.

There are, Rosen assures us, rules for soup tureens. For instance, if when you set the table, you put soup bowls out, then you are to serve the soup at the table from a tureen. You must never bring a pot from the stove and pour soup into the bowls. Horrors. If however, you do not set the table with soup bowls, then you must fill the bowls from the soup pot while standing at the stove, and serve your guests with the filled bowls at the table. In this case, you are not to use a tureen at all.

Not many home cooks bother with soup tureens today (one more dish to wash?), but they are appealing to make. Tureens give us the opportunity to throw larger than we throw other tableware. We can make the domed lids higher than we might for a casserole, and we can have interesting knobs. Most potters, and I count myself in this group; make matching ladles, though in reality, a ceramic ladle is a ridiculous idea. We should I suppose, make two, so that when the first breaks, our customer has another.

Rosen has a lot to day about soup bowls too. There are, she tells us, four kinds: rimmed, coupe, cream, and bouillon. The rimmed, “more accurately called a rim soup plate,” is about 9.5 inches in diameter, and, surprise, has a wide flat rim. If you have only one style soup bowl in your cupboards, she recommends this one. She even gives permission to use it for pasta. The coupe is rimless and used for informal settings. It can double as a cereal bowl. The cream soup bowl has two handles and a saucer but holds less than the other two bowls, because cream soup is “so rich.” Personally, I am more inclined to eat a lot of cream of broccoli soup and less of a clear broth and escarole soup, but no matter. The bouillon is actually a cup with two handles. Diners are encouraged to finish their soup by drinking from the handled bowls, but never from the others.

Rosen, who writes with great authority (no self-doubt here), has much to say about other table items, such as various types of plates. She adores the salad plate (7 ½ to 8 ½ inches) and passes on a recommendation from the French manufacturer Bernardaud that one should have twice as many salad plates as dinner plates.  Now that’s a happy thought for a potter. She also tells us that during the Victorian era, salad plates were sometimes crescent-shaped “to fit neatly with the dinner plate.” Interesting.

Elements of the Table: A Simple Guide for Hosts and Guests has only one chapter on “China” but if you make dinner sets, it is a fascinating read.

Romantic Countryside

Sometimes you need a daydreaming kind of book, something escapist to take you to a romanticized place where the garden never looks weedy and there’s always fresh baked bread on the table. Jasper Conran’s Country is just such a book. Every page has at least one of Andrew Montgomery’s wistful photos of rural England. Just flipping through and looking at these photos is enough to transport you. The text feels like an extra bonus.

There are hollyhocks by cottage doors, cows in the meadows, rushing streams, fishermen’s ancient shacks, glorious roses, shabby chic interiors and a baby lamb in a kitchen. This is not a book about ceramics but you can’t have a book about the English countryside without pottery.

We see a two page spread of an auricula theatre with three dozen lovely English flower pots each planted with a single auricula. Conran writes, “I was intrigued by an auricula threatre. Auriculas were the height of fashion in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when they first began to arrive in Britain from Continental Europe and enthusiasts, often in stately homes, used these tiered ‘theatres’ to display their prized plants to their friends.”

There are flowerpots in the gardens. There are rustic tile floors. I especially liked the large cream and brown slip-trailed oval dish set off by itself on a dark wooden table but wondered at the painting of two shoes on a pillow that hung on the wall behind it. Fine export porcelain from China, blue and white and polychrome, graces the grander rooms.

Four pages are devoted to Tim Hurn the Dorset potter who works in a pretty brick dairy shed that he converted to a studio. Hurn must like the photo in the book of him stacking his anagama because he has it on his homepage. I like it too, and the photo of his unfired bowls and jugs ready for the flame. And I wish my workshop were as pretty as his, with a vegetable patch in front, and fields and hills all around. That is exactly the reason to peruse a book like this, to fantasize and imagine.

The Plates and Forks of Alexander Calder

If you are a functional potter, you have pots in your kitchen. You probably collect the works of potters you admire, but you also likely have made things for yourself or tested works in your own home. Or perhaps you keep the slightly imperfect mugs and jars that emerge from your kiln and sell the rest. Don’t we all serve our cats their dinners on seconds? And some of us are tempted to make a few architectural things, a table or countertop, a bathroom sink, even a fireplace.

I suspect the same is true for craftspeople working in other mediums. The woodworker builds her own cabinets or doors, the weaver makes his own bed coverings, the blacksmith makes a garden gate. But meeting a fine artist, especially a sculptor or painter doing the same is unexpected.

So I was surprised to discover (while reading Calder at Home: The Joyous Environment of Alexander Calder by Pedro E. Guerrero) that the inventor of the mobile made many utensils for his own kitchen which his wife Louisa, who did the cooking, used. He also made candle sconces from corrugated sheet metal and the bottoms of beer cans, lamps from gelatin molds, and various other household items. If he saw a need, he snipped and bent and fabricated whatever metal he had at hand to create the solution. He was also fond of making toys from empty coffee cans, cigar boxes and wire for the young people in his life.

The Calders had an old farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut, which they painted black, and an old stone and brick house in France, followed by a house built to their specifications in France. In each home, Calder’s mobiles hung from the ceilings, sometimes crashing into each other, and his paintings hung on the walls. Louisa hooked numerous brightly colored rugs using her husband’s designs, which he enlarged and transferred to the rug backings for her. She spread her rugs out on their floors, close together, and gave what they couldn’t use away to friends and family.

From 1969 to 1972, Calder designed porcelain plates for Sévres, “using the same technique as his gouaches.” However, Guerrero tells us that there is no evidence that the Calders used these factory made wares on their own table.

What’s interesting about Calder at Home is it gives us a glimpse into an integrated life. Calder’s art filled his homes and the outbuildings and land that surrounded them. But as focussed as he was on creating his soaring stabiles and mobiles and gouaches, he also devoted himself to making things for the family’s domestic life. I might not want to eat from his Sévres plates either, but who wouldn’t want to try one of his forks? They invite picking up and holding in your hand. They are the antithesis of precious, thus also inviting use. In his home life, it seems, the great artist was also an excellent designer.

The Plates and Forks of Alexander Calder

If you are a functional potter, you have pots in your kitchen. You probably collect the works of potters you admire, but you also likely have made things for yourself or tested works in your own home. Or perhaps you keep the slightly imperfect mugs and jars that emerge from your kiln and sell the rest. Don’t we all serve our cats their dinners on seconds? And some of us are tempted to make a few architectural things, a table or countertop, a bathroom sink, even a fireplace.

I suspect the same is true for craftspeople working in other mediums. The woodworker builds her own cabinets or doors, the weaver makes his own bed coverings, the blacksmith makes a garden gate. But meeting a fine artist, especially a sculptor or painter doing the same is unexpected.

So I was surprised to discover (while reading Calder at Home: The Joyous Environment of Alexander Calder by Pedro E. Guerrero) that the inventor of the mobile made many utensils for his own kitchen which his wife Louisa, who did the cooking, used. He also made candle sconces from corrugated sheet metal and the bottoms of beer cans, lamps from gelatin molds, and various other household items. If he saw a need, he snipped and bent and fabricated whatever metal he had at hand to create the solution. He was also fond of making toys from empty coffee cans, cigar boxes and wire for the young people in his life.

The Calders had an old farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut, which they painted black, and an old stone and brick house in France, followed by a house built to their specifications in France. In each home, Calder’s mobiles hung from the ceilings, sometimes crashing into each other, and his paintings hung on the walls. Louisa hooked numerous brightly colored rugs using her husband’s designs, which he enlarged and transferred to the rug backings for her. She spread her rugs out on their floors, close together, and gave what they couldn’t use away to friends and family.

From 1969 to 1972, Calder designed porcelain plates for Sévres, “using the same technique as his gouaches.” However, Guerrero tells us that there is no evidence that the Calders used these factory made wares on their own table.

What’s interesting about Calder at Home is it gives us a glimpse into an integrated life. Calder’s art filled his homes and the outbuildings and land that surrounded them. But as focussed as he was on creating his soaring stabiles and mobiles and gouaches, he also devoted himself to making things for the family’s domestic life. I might not want to eat from his Sévres plates either, but who wouldn’t want to try one of his forks? They invite picking up and holding in your hand. They are the antithesis of precious, thus also inviting use. In his home life, it seems, the great artist was also an excellent designer.

Dish Obsession

Like many women of her generation, my mom (she’s 85) has a small collection of plates displayed on a rail that my dad made for her many years ago. The plates are mostly souvenir plates, one with the capitol of Connecticut, another with a black and white drawing of an old church in town, one with a lattice rim and fruit in the center that she bought just because she thought it was pretty. She also has a set of “good” dishes, special brown Thanksgiving plates with a rural scene that we used only for Thanksgiving and Christmas when holidays were still at her house. These dishes were never, ever used any other day of the year. More seriously, she has a collection of flow blue in a glass front oak cupboard, but I do not recall any flow blue plates.

She was never a genuine collector. She did not have “malaldie de porcelain, or ‘porcelain sickness,’ an overweening desire to acquire more and more pieces…” the disease of moral turpitude that Shax Riegler writes about in his new book, Dishes: 813 Colorful, Wonderful Dinner Plates.

Riegler began collecting fifteen years ago, beginning with a near complete service for twelve, called Babina. Working on a PhD in Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, he is the features editor at House Beautiful. I would think the book itself would earn him his PhD. It is a sweeping meditation on plates with a timeline beginning with the 1454 entry for Isacco del Dondi of Pauda who ordered “a service of tin-glazed earthenware, including forty-eight plates, decorated with his family’s coat of arms,” and ending with the commemorative plates made in honor of Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton. Most of the plates are factory made, but he does include forty-one plates from contemporary potters. I l am drawn to Kristen Wicklund’s stoneware hummus plates with high sides and earthy tones.

I never particularly liked my mom’s fancy plates, and as an uppity teenager, developed a bit of snobbery against the gilt edges of a few of her pieces. Yet her small collection did make me think about how a plate should look. And the notion of special dishes for special occasions still makes an impression on me, though except for family nostalgia, I would not set a table with the Thanksgiving plates.

Plates can be made primarily to show off the food served on them, or they can be decorative and look best on a nicely set table before the food is brought out. Many plates, though functional, are never meant to be used but rather, like my mom’s, are kept on plate rails or hung with special hangers much like paintings. The challenge for a working potter is to make a plate that both looks good with food on it and looks good on its own. We each have our own ideas about this.

Perusing the book, I look at the chintz—patterned plates made by Royal Winton and, though they might look nice on an outdoor table with a white tablecloth, I cannot think of a single food that would look good on them. But there are plenty of plates that would enhance a meal, including a deep red from Red Wing Pottery and a green and brown from McCoy’s. Two plates that are particularly intriguing are about the pottery process itself and are meant for display. One is, surprisingly, a Fiesta plate from the 1939 World’s Fair depicting a potter throwing a large jar. The other, far more valuable, is from 1520 and shows a maiolica painter at work.

What’s so useful and interesting about Dish is the opportunity to look at so many plates one after another and think about them. Robert Bean’s photos are excellent.