This here is a lean mean poaching machine.
- Type: Tin-lined fish kettle in hammered finish with brass handles fastened by three copper rivets; fitted lid with brass handle fastened with two copper rivets on each side
- French description: Poissonière étamé et martélé avec poignées en laiton munies de trois rivets en cuivre; couvercle emboîté avec poignée en laiton munie de deux rivets sur chaque côté
- Dimensions: 60cm long by 18cm wide by 13.5cm tall (23.6 inches by 7.1 inches by 5.2 inches)
- Weight: 7522g (16.6 lbs) with lid and lifter; 4652g (10.3 lbs) pan body alone
- Thickness: 1.1mm
- Stampings: “Pichon Fabricant Brest”
- Maker and age estimate: Pichon; 1950s to 1960s
- Source: FrenchAntiquity (Etsy)
In French cuisine, there is reverence for delicate fish like sole, salmon, scallops, and trout, and poaching is the gentle cooking method developed to preserve their tenderness and flavor. Boiling water is considered too rambunctious; a true poach is a low simmer that immerses the fish in liquid hovering at about 180°F (82°C). One must also preserve the physical integrity of the fish and so special care is taken when moving the fish into and out of the poaching liquid to avoid tearing the flesh.
Imagine for a moment the miracle of a perfectly intact filet of sole, completely cooked yet flaky and tender, not simply enrobed in its flavorful sauce but infused with it. You may ask yourself, how does a chef achieve this miracle? My friend, behold the poissonière: the fish kettle. (This is yet another of the manifold instances where the French term is far more mellifluous than the glottal Germanic English.) The secret to the fish kettle is its lifter: a platform shaped to fit the interior and fitted with two vertical handles, designed to lower the poisson (fish) and its accompaniments into the cooking liquid and then hoist it out. The chef is relieved of concern for the welfare of the fish during the insertion and removal, and can maneuver the precious cooked fish from the platform’s open flat surface without the need to lever it from within the confines of the kettle itself.
This particular poissonière is rather large and would have been made for a restaurant. At the start of the evening, the chef would fill it about half-way with stock, wine, and aromatics, heat it to a boil, and set it to simmer; over the course of dinner service, it would receive, poach, and then surrender successive batches of filets. Fish kettles were made in different shapes and sizes: a truitière is a shorter version sized for one or two trout-sized filets, while a turbotière is shaped like a kite to accommodate the diamond-shaped turbot. But regardless of the species of its intended subject, all fish kettles share the same characteristic lifter and fitted lid to protect the fish and preserve the precious moisture. (You may also on occasion find rectangular daubières with lifters, a thoughtful addition to assist with the management of a braise.)
Don’t let the thick rolled rim fool you — like its smaller cousins, this poissonière is made of thin copper. The thick rim conceals an iron wire around which the copper has been wrapped to lend this pan some structural rigidity. The copper walls are only 1.1mm thick — presentation grade for a saucepan or sauté, but appropriate for a poaching vessel like this. The moment you fill a copper pot with more than an inch or so of liquid, the water’s thermal properties take over: the temperature of the water cannot exceed 212°F (100°C), and its convective currents spread that temperature evenly through the entire volume of the liquid and into the walls of the pan. In response, the copper obligingly equalizes its own temperature to match the water. It doesn’t matter if the pan is 1mm thick or 5mm thick or anywhere in between: the water extracts any excess thermal energy from the copper and dissipates it as steam. (Of course, all bets are off if the pan boils dry, which is why this poissonière lid fits so snugly.)
The craftsmanship of this piece is mid-20th century to my eye — it shows the artful hand-finishing of a machine-shaped piece. For example, the brass handles are fastened by copper rivets that have the smooth polish left by a riveting machine.
There is no dovetailing but rather a very subtle line visible on the interior of the pan running around the circumference about an inch above the base. This the seam where the machine-cut sheets of metal were welded together to form the whole. But still, there are marks of hand-work all over: it is hammered on all its surfaces in an irregular pattern, indicating that someone took the time to work the copper by hand.
This is a beautifully made pan. The “Pichon Fabricant Brest” stamp means it was made in the Pichon family chaudronnerie in Normandy.
I am a dilettante when it comes to vintage French copper; my curiosity is piqued by what I see and what I buy, which means my knowledge is dominated by Mauviel, Villedieu-les-Poêles, and marquee Parisian makers like Gaillard and Jacquotot. I recognize my shortcomings and seek to remedy them but my progress is sporadic. This “fish kettle” gave me the opportunity to address gaps both in my collection as well as in my experience of French copper, which is part of why I leapt at it — the other part being my trust of Stephen Nash of FrenchAntiquity, who has always brought me beautiful copper to cherish.
I’ve had to reconstruct the history of Pichon based on just a few records on the Internet, but here is what I know. As of 2001, the Pichon family had worked with copper for four generations, making it a 20th century family of chaudronniers. The most likely candidate for the maker of this pan is Claude Pichon who operated Établissement Pichon at 3, Rue Racine in Brest until his retirement in in 1989. His daughter Sylvie — who learned the business from her father — restarted the business sometime around 2000, but I do not know if she has continued to the present day.
I am very happy to have this. It is my first poissonière and most likely the only one I will own — it’s a big pan. I like that it’s a little unusual. Pichon was a new name for me and it was a pleasure to research it, even as the fruits of this effort were so meager. If you know more about the family and their work, I would be very grateful for a comment or an email.