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Le Creuset and others

This is one of my very favourite cooking pots. It's showing its age a bit, but it's very old. I think I bought it in England, maybe even France in the 60s which would make it almost 60 years old. And even if, in fact, I bought it here in Australia it would only be ten years younger. It's brilliant for omelettes - the Spanish omelette, frittata kind, and also for sautéed dishes. And even after all these years it still cleans pretty easily. I use it a lot.

I had in my head that it was a genuine Le Creuset pot, and actually it is, but from a different heritage. Let me explain.

Le Creuset was founded in 1925 when two Belgians met at the Brussels Fair. Armand Desaegher was a casting expert, and Octave Aubecq was an enamelling expert. They decided to join forces and came up with their original bright orange, classic casserole - the one with the circular lines on top and a black knob. The colour was said to be from the bright orange of the molten iron.

They still make this design but today you will find a much greater range of products. There is a Le Creuset store in our local Doncaster shopping centre and I wander in there occasionally but I never buy anything because they don't have the ones that I like, which I now discover are actually from a different company. Besides they cost a fortune - $375 as a sale price for what you see above.

But back to the history. The two men set up a factory in the village/town of Fresnoy-le-Grand two hours north of Paris - and it's still there, and they still basically make their pots in the same way as they did when it opened. Each pot is virtually individually hand-crafted and 80% made of recycled iron - railway lines and the like. If you would like to see how they are made read David Lebovitz's account of a visit he made back in 2015. The name Le Creuset, means 'crucible' or 'melting pot' - again after the molten iron.

But there were rival companies and one of them Les Haut Fourneaux de Cousances is the one that designed my pot. Pots I should say because I have a few. And mine are also Le Creuset because Le Creuset acquired their rival in 1957. Les Haut Fourneaux de Cousances began making cast iron pots in 1553! and their design differed in that the lid had a sort of dish in it.

You put water into the lid and this enabled the food in the pot to remain moist, as the steam would hit the lid which cooled it, turning it back into liquid. They also did not enamel the base of their pots, and this black one is not enamelled either - well I don't think it is, but the coating, whatever it is, is pretty non-stick. I used to have one like the photograph above. That too was an absolute favourite because of the shape. You could pot roast a leg of lamb or a chicken in it much more easily than in a round one. But my husband lent it to a work colleague who suddenly found himself separated from his wife, without any cooking implements. Alas I never got it back. I have never forgiven David for this and if I saw one somewhere I would buy it in a flash, whatever it cost. I do have a round one of the same design and an orange enamelled one too. They also are all at least 50 years old. I actually don't use them all that much any more, but I should, as they are perfect for induction cooking tops. I think I don't use them as much because I don't make as many casseroles or pot roasts. Maybe I should go back to that style of cooking.

However, it seems that the disadvantage of the above kind of pot is that it is not quite as hygienic.

"cast iron works by absorbing the various fats and greases that are cooked in it into tiny pores in the metal, which helps create a sort-of nonstick surface (except to those of us who have tried to make fried rice in ours), and it’s not exactly hygienic." David Lebovitz

But as I said I have had mine for years and I'm not dead yet.

In my cast iron collection from Le Creuset I also have two small frying pans - one I use for pancakes, the other for making chapatis and toasting spices. But the star of the collection is a long griddle pan which stretches over two of my cooking spots on my induction stove. It's brilliant - so much better than the hideously expensive Gaggenau in bench barbecue grill that I had in Adelaide. Yes it splashes a bit of fat around but not nearly as much as the Gaggenau and is so much easier to clean. This modern one is a tiny bit different but not much. And David made me a beautiful wooden block to bring it to the table on.

Every time I go to France I look wistfully at all the Le Creuset pots, for they are cheaper there than here, but alas they weigh a ton and we are travelling by plane, so it's just not possible. I think I may have actually bought at least one of my original pots in France, but that would have been when we lived in England and could just put it in the car to bring back home. No baggage allowance to worry about then.

But back to the history again. The company was bought by Paul Van Zuydam in 1988. Paul Van Zuydam is South African and at the time was Chairman of the British company Prestige. He encouraged Prestige to buy Le Creuset, but they dithered, and so, in the end he bought it himself and left Prestige to manage it. Le Creuset was ailing a little at the time and had scattered production units for it various products all over the place. Van Zuydam invested in updating the original factory and now all Le Creuset pots are made there. Also under his leadership they have branched out into producing all those other things that they do now.

I gather one of the reasons Le Creuset have opened up a shop in Doncaster is that they are very trendy again. They have diversified their colours enormously and their product line too - they make stainless steel saucepans and spatulas, now for example. I'm not quite sure when they started diversifying into new colours, but I gather yellow was a big thing back in the 1960s. Below is a shot of some of the colours now on offer. I believe it depends where you live as to what colours you can find in the shops - the purple is popular in France, and the Japanese like black. I'm not sure what we like here. I vaguely remember seeing various shades of blue and green and maybe even pink. But I gather it's the millennials that are driving the resurgence in popularity. They look good you see, and you can post pictures of them on Instagram. They're a fashion item.

Yes Aldi, K-Mart and Ikea make much cheaper imitations, and people do swear by them, but Choice did a comparison and came to the conclusion that they were pretty good, but really did not last as long as the genuine article. The coating came off and they chipped. Of course they don't cost nearly as much - some are as little as $29.00 - so you could replace them every few years, but it's not the same is it, and also not very environmentally sound? Le Creuset items are family heirlooms.

But why you should you have a cast iron pot anyway? Surely stainless steel is better? Well there are reasons.

"A cast-iron pot can withstand high temperatures up to around 250°C, whereas a stainless steel or copper pot is usually only oven-safe up to 190°C." Choice

Make sure the knob on top is not plastic though. That will melt.

"As it turns out, professionals and dedicated hobbyists have been using enameled Dutch ovens for generations because they work well. They distribute heat evenly, they brown foods well, they can be transferred to the oven without fear, and they clean up easily." Amanda Mull - The Atlantic

I probably won't be adding to my collection any time soon, but maybe my children will grab them when I die. And it's nice to have something French in the kitchen.

"In these days of globalization, it’s intriguing to see something that’s made in France that remains a worldwide icon, and hasn’t changed its philosophy nor the way it’s made, yet is still relevant." David Lebovitz


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