This hard-working little pot has a lot of history.
- Type: Tin-lined soup pot in hammered finish with brass handles fastened with three copper rivets
- French description: Bain à potage étamé et martelé avec poignées en laiton munies de trois rivets en cuivre
- Dimensions: 16cm diameter by 18.5cm tall (6.3 inches by 7.3 inches)
- Thickness: 1.5mm
- Weight: 2504g (5.5 lbs)
- Stampings: “Chaudronnerie Lefèvre Frères Villedieu (Manche),” “W L”, “3 1 52”
- Maker and age estimate: Lefèvre Frères; 1900–1920
- Source: Etsy
French cuisine concerns itself not only with the food on the plate but also the appreciation of the guest who will consume it. It is soup, the very first course, that has the crucial function of inspiring a sense of anticipation for the meal to come. As no less an authority than Antonin Carème wrote in le Cuisinier Parisien (1842),
The soup is given the prerogative of starting a good meal; and when at the table a gastronome encounters a soup that reveals the science of the cook, the sweetest joy spreads over his face at once; his observant gaze admires the elegance of the service, the large rooms and the entrances; at the same time that his active stomach is preparing for copious digestion.
I repeat, soups should be considered the agent provocateur of a good dinner.
Jules Gouffé, in Le livre de cuisine (1902), assumed this was already known: “I should not need to stress the importance of soup, which is justly considered the essential opening of any dinner, ordinary or extraordinary,” but in order not to overwhelm the reader he restricted himself to the absolute minimum 20 or 25 soup recipes that he considered foundational to hundreds of others. For his part, Auguste Éscoffier felt no such compulsion to restraint, and Le guide culinaire (1903) began with eighty pages of soup recipes and variations.
What cooking vessel could possibly be entrusted with the crucial task of conjuring from the brute ingredients of stock, wine, vegetables, cream, butter, and meat an explicit expression of invitation — nay, provocation — from the chef to his guests?
Behold: the soup pot.
It may look at first glance to be quite similar to a stockpot — they are certainly related — but there are key differences. Where the stockpot is broad to facilitate the skimming away of fat with a perforated écumoire over hours of simmering large batches of stock, the soup pot is narrow, intended to be nestled among other pots and pans on a busy cooktop. The tall shape is best suited to fine-textured soups — consommées, bouillons, purées, veloutés, crèmes, and smooth potages — that can circulate via convective currents as opposed to thick stews that need to be stirred with a spoon. A kitchen would have soup pots sized as needed for the expected volume and variety of foundational soups that would be amended with garnishes, croutons, or slivers of meat or vegetables as the evening’s menu offerings required.
This diminutive pot was made for an unusually cramped kitchen.
It’s stamped by its maker, Lefèvre Frères, which operated in Villedieu-les-Poêles from 1900 to 1980 until it was sold to Etienne Dulin, who transformed it into l’Atelier du Cuivre. This pot is also stamped for its owner: “W L” for Wagons-Lits, indicating it was owned by Compagnie Internationale Wagons-Lits (CIWL), the railway company that operated train service across Europe from 1874 until the 1960s. It carries the number 3152, possibly the number of the specific restaurant car to which this pot was assigned. I believe CIWL 3152 would have been built a few years before voiture-restaurant CIWL 3348 that was built 1928 and is currently on display at a museum in Mulhouse. (Given this pan’s construction I think it may have been made well before then, so it’s possible 3152 could mean something else.)
I don’t know exactly what this particular restaurant car looked like, but it was probably very similar to the one below. You can see the chef at the far left and the few copper pans at his disposal — this little pot would have had to work hard to earn its place in such a compact and busy kitchen!
Update: I posted a question to the model train forum LR PRESSE and member Pierre very kindly confirmed that “3152” likely corresponds to a “dining car built by the Compagnie Générale de Construction (CIWL, Saint-Denis) in 1927 (reconstruction of the WR [wagon-restaurant] 542).” This date is later than I would expect for this pan — the dovetail construction would be quite archaic in 1927. Either I am wrong about the date of the piece, or it was stamped for 3152 later in its life. The pot doesn’t have any additional markings that I can find that could be earlier stamps.
This pot was restored by Erik Undiks at Rocky Mountain Retinning and he did a wonderful job. He achieves a beautiful shine on the interior.
Its rivets are flush to the interior surface, and the external rivets are smooth and flat. This is handwork, and beautifully done.
This is a dovetailed piece, which dates it to the late 19th century prior to the adoption of hydraulic presses and welding techniques that changed how copper pieces were joined. The seams run up one side of the pot under the handle (opposite the stamp) and around the base.
Unfortunately, one point in the seam is starting to fail. You can see a tiny crack on the outside that extends to the interior. I haven’t tested the pot to see whether or not it is watertight.
But this flaw does not diminish my appreciation for it. I think it has particularly lovely character — fine scratch marks, like a texture. It was definitely hammered — one can see the hammering most clearly on the interior tin — but the exterior hammering has faded, likely due to polishing. Erik Undiks did a lovely job as always polishing the copper without removing this surface texture that I love so much.
It’s a gorgeous little piece. Its small size makes sense for use in a small kitchen on a moving railcar; I can imagine it tucked between sauté pans and saucepans on a busy cooktop as the train flashed through the European countryside, and I am very happy that its travels have brought it to rest with me.