Dreaming of French Country Pottery

A book I often take down from my bookshelves and reread is The French Country Table: Pottery & Faience of Provence by Bernard Duplessy with photos by Camille Moirenc. I never tire of looking at Moirenc’s photos of rustic French pottery in tiled kitchens. I dream of flying to France to see these pots for myself. I want to pick them up and run my fingers down their sides. I sit at my wheel and wonder; can I infuse my own work with such vigor?

Duplessy, though his writing is a little too snappy for me, gives us a brief history of pottery in Provence, going back thousands years. Then he takes us on a tour around the kitchen, describing the various culinary vessels. Moirenc’s lush photos of these wares grace nearly every page. We see the sartan (skillet); pignate (stew pot), tian (bowl or gratin plate); oule (stew pot) pégau (potbellied, one handled pot with a pouring spout); plus storage jars; cheese strainers; and even roof tiles. I skip past the highly decorated faience at the end of the book. It’s the partially glazed pieces that call me.

I love the section on skillets in which Duplessy tells us that experienced cooks “’baptize’ the skillet with hot water and ‘anoint’ it with oil before each use, as well as to allow it to gradually grow accustomed to the heat.” I think the fat bodies and thick rims of the large storage jars (doliums and jarrons) are just the right proportions. And oh, the pitchers! Splashed with green or yellow glaze. Deep orange ones. Best of all, wet ones, fresh off the wheel!

Interspersed with all the photos of pots, are photos of potter’s workshops and well-stocked showrooms, potter’s hands at work, boards of drying pots, and glimpses of the potters themselves. Since the book is written for decorators and collectors more than potters, it is all presented in the most romantic fashion.

We are told that we must visit the potters’ festival in Cliousclat in June. Duplessy assures us that there are so many potters in the region it is a “republic of potters.”

There are lists of potteries and their addresses and phone numbers at the back of the book. Since it was published in French in 2002 and in English in 2003, just as the web was really taking off, we are not given websites or email addresses. That’s ok. The photos in the book are enough clay porn for me.

French Fry Cups or Whatever

As our lives have become both more harried and more informal, table settings have become simpler. I don’t mean everyone is using paper plates, though I am sure many households use them more often than not. But there do seem to be fewer plates and bowls on the home table than a generation or so ago. Bread plates, pickle dishes, salt cellars, and sauce boats are not quite things of the past but neither are they part of our daily meals. Even we potters who love table settings probably set our tables with dinner plates and salad or soup bowls and a few serving dishes and leave it at that. After all, we have to clean up just like everyone else.

So I was intrigued when I saw French fries served in parchment paper cones in special metal and ceramic cups in the pages of a glossy food magazine, and then on the cover of – yes, believe it, a French fry cookbook – and again in another magazine, all within a few days. Fast food restaurants have been serving fries in individual paper bags or little cardboard cups forever. How classy to serve them in real dishes, specially made, on a finely set table! I was intrigued.

I decided to make some myself. I happily threw a bunch, somewhat larger than a generous mug with slightly curved sides and subtly outward turned lip, all matching. They fired nicely. They would, I thought, look lovely with golden fried potatoes held upright within their walls. The beauty of it — a bouquet of string potatoes!

But after making them, I wasn’t sure what to call these new pots. I had to call them something or no one would know that they were for fries. Google offers French fry cups, French fry holders and fry cups. I suppose fry cup is best, but it seems a bit inadequate. If we are asking cooks to serve a very humble and ubiquitous food in a special dish, that dish needs a special name.

And then there is the question of where the thing belongs on the table. To the right of the dinner plate? The left? I think the top center, which would make it convenient for the diner, but really I have no idea what Miss Manners would say. Has Miss Manners heard of a French fry cup, handmade by her local potter?

The parchment paper is an even more complicated matter. I love the stuff. Who doesn’t? It feels nice, works great for baking, and is absorbent.  It seems that everyone is using it these days. In fact, there is a whole cookbook devoted to parchment paper being published this fall. But you buy the paper in rolls.  One has to take out scissors and cut it into half circles to make those little cones that look so attractive in the Fry cups. Right. Just what the home cook wants to do after a week at the office or shop and guests at the door.

Oh, and now I understand why some Chinese restaurants have plastic food in their windows. If I had plastic French Fries, I could put them into my parchment paper lined hand-thrown cups cups and everyone would know what they are for. But I don’t have plastic French Fries and I am not sure they would look that great in my pots anyway. Real fries would look great, but they wouldn’t last long because I would eat them. And if I didn’t, they would get cold and soggy and look horrid and I would have to dump them into the compost heap.

A small sign will have to do. And I guess Fry Cup will be the name.

Conclusion: As classy as they look in magazines and on the covers of specialty cookbooks, I fear Americans will not embrace hand made fry cups. Oh, their tables would look tastefully look-at-me. Pretty. Very pretty. Guests would be dazzled. But if I have to explain what exactly these pots are for, and they have to buy one per person and cut parchment paper half-circles for each, well, no, they are not going to put fry cups on their wish list. Nice idea. Fun to imagine oneself doing. No takers.

So, I will likely end up with a party load of fry cups. I will bedazzle my guests. I have enough to feed a good crowd, each person with his or her own fry cup placed elegantly above his or her dinner plate. Oh, how impressive and lovely!

Except I don’t recall ever serving guests French fries.

I could forget the fries and call these new little pots, um,  – parfait cups! Yes, parfait cups. Or tumblers. Or, how about table vases, a little cluster of flowers at each place setting.

Advanced Pottery

You might think that after all these years, I would have stopped bringing how-to pottery books home, but actually I love to look at them. It’s interesting to see how other people do things. With YouTube, every potter and her sister have published a video demonstrating throwing or decorating or assembling. I like those too. You can see so much more in a video than pages of stills. But there’s something about a book, the quietness I think, that makes for savoring.

In Advanced Pottery, Linda Bloomfield visits what she calls “leading” studio potters at work. She describes, in text and photo, their processes as they each make a signature piece. We see Ruthanne Tudball create a teapot, affixing spout and handles while the soft pot is still on the wheel. We watch Sun Kim make his porcelain, lidded jars, cutting darts in the sides to make the bottom square. And then there’s Claudia Clare, who stands on a chair and beats the top of a coiled pot with a wine bottle. The pot is taller than she is. The wine bottle is empty. Hmmm.

Bloomfield gives the most pages to Doug Fitch who makes robust lead glazed slipware.  We see him attaching and stamping sprigs, pouring white slip over leaves he has gathered and stuck onto the walls of a pot, and combing and drawing through wet slip on one of his very large earthenware jugs.

Trained as a materials scientist, Bloomfield holds a BSc in Engineering Science and a PhD in Materials Science. She worked as a researcher before setting up her own studio in California and later in London. She makes wheel thrown porcelain tableware which she sells online and in shops.

Tomie dePaola Pot Collector

Yes, that Tomie dePaola, the well-known illustrator and author of children’s books. I love his books. Strega Nona enchants me. Big Anthony makes me chuckle. The blues and yellows and pinks and reds and oranges of Tomie’s art make me happy.

So, I was thrilled to be invited to the celebration at his house yesterday –yes, really, his house — in New Hampshire. The cause for celebration was the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for Lifetime Achievement that he recently received. And to add frosting to the happiness,  the Meriden Public Library named their children’s room for him. Much to be joyous about.

There were, I think about two-dozen guests, maybe a few more. I had my camera with me, but thought it might be gauche to attend a party in someone’s house and start taking pictures. Whom am I kidding? It is most certainly gauche. But one by one, other guests took out their cameras, and so, unable to restrain myself, I did too.

The house is surrounded by lush gardens planted with old -fashioned flowers such as black-eyed susans, daisies, catmint, hydrangeas, coneflowers, and false indigo. There’s a stone terrace, brick courtyard, decks, a borrowed view of a cornfield beyond a split rail fence, a small orchard, and numerous borders and island beds. I wandered, taking shots in the photographically too bright sun, dreaming of revamping my own gardens as soon as I got back to Connecticut.

The house itself is filled with folk art. Everywhere you look, there is something to see, all in carefully staged vignettes. And there are pots. Lots of pots. They are tucked here and there, lined up on the floor close to the wall, in the kitchen, on ledges and shelves, in cupboards, on tables. So, needless to say, I took photos of the pots. I hope I didn’t seem too pot obsessive, but I probably did.  When I took a shot of the empty flowerpots outside, one guest gave me a “she’s peculiar” sort of glance and nodded knowingly to another guest.

My favorite piece was the early American red ware platter. The edges are somewhat chipped but otherwise it is in great condition.

Here are a few more pots from around Tomie’s house.

Upon seeing his fine collection, I felt a little foolish that I had brought him one of my own spoon jars but it was too late. It was wrapped in a fancy bag with tissue paper and sat on the bench in the entry with all the other presents. There was no way to retrieve it without being noticed.

Tomie’s new book, due out in September, is Strega Nona’s Gift about a holiday feast in Italy. I am sure there will be pots in the book. There were some nice bowls in Strega Nona’s Harvest. Hey, maybe Strega Nona could visit an Italian potter in her next book? You know, someone to make some dishes for her, or maybe some flowerpots for her garden.

Note: Tomie will be at the Connecticut Children’s Book Fair in November.