This pot can take anything I throw at it.
- Type: Tin-lined oval cocotte in hammered finish with brass handles fastened with three copper rivets; fitted lid with brass handle fastened with two copper rivets on each bracket
- French description: Cocotte ovale martelée et étamée avec poignées en laiton munies de trois rivets en cuivre; couvercle emboîté avec poignée en laiton munie de deux rivets sur chaque côté
- Dimensions: 33.3cm on the long axis by 22.5cm on the short axis (13.1 inches by 9.3 inches) and 16cm tall (6.3 inches)
- Thickness: 1.6mm
- Weight: 4038g (8.9 lbs) without lid, 5100g (11.2 lbs) with lid; inner rack is 430g (almost 1 lb)
- Stampings: Établissements Allez Frères Paris; 34
- Maker and age estimate: Allez Frères; 1880-1900, possibly earlier
- Source: FrenchAntiquity (Etsy)
When I set out to write about this piece I wasn’t quite sure how to classify it. It has qualities of different pots: the proportions of a stewpot; a fitted lifter, like a fish poacher; and the length and voluminous capacity of a daubière, sized for braising a piece of beef or lamb or even an entire chicken.
But this pot is neither fish nor fowl, so to speak. It’s oval, not round like a stewpot, though it would work wonderfully to make stew. It’s deep, not shallow like a fish poacher, though it would be perfectly happy poaching some fish for you. And it doesn’t have the cap-style lid of a daubière, though its well-fitted lid creates a fine seal for a long braise.
So what is this, if it’s none of those things and yet all of them at once? Naturally, the French have a word for a pot like this: a cocotte.
A cocotte is almost a state of being rather than a specific type of pot. It’s a round or oval pot with a lid that you reach for to make a weeknight stew, to braise a piece of beef, to take whatever you have on hand and make it into a meal. In French, the word has additional meanings: the sound a chicken makes; a term of endearment; a particularly fashionable prostitute. Imagine throwing all those things into this pot with some stock and a bouquet garni and you just might end up with a pretty tasty little dish.
Cocotte is sometimes translated as Dutch oven, but that’s too narrow a definition — a saucepan, rondeau, stewpot, and even a sauté pan can temporarily become a cocotte if you put a nice fitted lid on it. Aside from that, the only other rule (actually, it’s more of a guideline than a rule) is that a cocotte can’t be too large — this is for family cooking, not some big production. In fact, some cocottes are single-serving pieces, and that’s fine. It’s all good.
What this means to me is that this pot, even though it’s more than a hundred years old with all its elegant brass handles and shiny rivets, has a very straightforward purpose: to take whatever I put into it and make it the best it can be.
And this particular cocotte is equipped to make it pretty darn good.
First and foremost is the addition of a lifter. As mentioned above, a lifter usually accompanies a fish poacher, as it provides a platform to lower a delicate fish filet into poaching liquid and then remove them without having to handle the fish directly. This lifter makes this cocotte a poaching vessel as well. I think this lifter is made of tin — it is thin and somewhat flexible, not stiff like steel. The hole pattern is a tiny bit irregular, a subtle reminder that each one was hand-punched.
The lid weighs a solid kilo — 2.2 pounds. It is well-fitted to the pot: there is a centimeter or so of inset drop and the flange running around the edge is broad. Both of these features help create a good seal with the rim of the pot when the lid is in place. This is a pot intended for moist-heat cooking — stews, simmers, and braises — and the lid is a crucial requirement for those functions.
The handles and rivets are large and solid. The interior rivets are flush with the inner surface, a sign of hand-craftsmanship.
This cocotte is antique but so well made that I can’t be sure if it’s partially machine-cut or -formed or completely handmade with a high level of skill. It’s dovetailed around the base and up one side, showing how individual pieces of copper were cut and fit together to form the body of the pot. (There is a dent at the join of the base and sidewall seams but it doesn’t seem to have affected their integrity.)
The pot is stamped “Établissements ALLEZ Frères Paris” on the body and lid, with the additional notation “34” for its length across its long axis. This gives me an opportunity for a deeper look at Allez Frères and I found far more history — and mystery — than I expected.
Allez Frères began in 1803 as a quincaillerie (hardware store) run by François Victor Allez (b. 1773) and his brother Louis Charles Nicolas Allez (1763-1844) at 40 quai de la Mégisserie in the 1er arrondissement in Paris. This is a prime location along the riverfront of the Seine, across from the Île de la Cité between the Pont Neuf and the Pont Notre Dame, just south of Les Halles. (A mégisserie is a leather tannery — a smelly business usually located on the riverfront to take advantage of the flowing water.)
In 1810, François Victor took over management of the business. Based on genealogical records, it appears that Louis Charles returned to their birthplace in Fleury-la-Forêt in Normandy, but Louis Charles’ son Adrien Honoré Allez (b. 1789) stayed in Paris and in 1817 opened his own quincaillerie at number 2 along the quai, just down the street from his uncle. From 1817 to 1826, there were two Allez quincailleries — F. Allez aîné (the older) at number 8 and H. Allez neveu (nephew) at number 2. In 1827, Francois Victor closed his shop, but Adrien Honoré continued until 1842, when his son Émile Adolphe Allez (1818-1892) took over the shop, which then became known as E. Allez fils (son).
It is in 1856 that the firm transformed from a family business into a large commercial and retail presence. The company was renamed Établissements Allez Frères and moved off the waterfront to a monumental building occupying a full city block at 1 Rue Saint-Martin (also 12 quai des Gèvres and 11 Avenue Victoria), still in the desirable neighborhood close to Les Halles. The quincaillerie now offered “household goods, scythes, sickles, pickaxes, stonework, sharpening stones, cast iron and iron wholesalers, polished cast iron furnaces, fireplaces, heaters, garden furniture, teapots and metal Anglais.” (I believe metal Anglais refers to a special industrial alloy of tin, copper, and antimony invented and produced in Sheffield.)
But my interest in Établissements Allez Frères is centered on one product line: copper cookware stamped with its name. The company was offering articles de menage — housewares — to include cookware; a catalog from 1878 (shown at right) has a small exemplar casserole lurking amongst the other marvels offered for sale. When were they produced and sold? And who made them?
I found my first clue in the firm’s listing in 1883. Among the impressive array of products — “heating appliances, kitchen stoves in steel and cast iron, furnaces in polished cast iron, laundries and washing machines, household articles, cutlery, goldsmith, dealer in wrought, tinned, and enameled iron by state manufacturers, gardening and harvest tools, kitchen furniture, hydrotherapy apparatuses, baths, tools, locksmith, skates, equipment for stables and cellars, garden furniture, commissions, export, and articles from Paris” — is one item that caught my eye: fabr. de cuivrerie à Villedieu-les-Poêles. Note that they did not use the term dépôt or articles de Villedieu as some of the other quincailleries did — that meant that the store was reselling branded items. The use of the term fabricant — manufacturer — suggests to me that Allez Frères was working with one of the chaudronneries in Villedieu to produce its own line of cookware.
So which Villedieu chaudronneries were active around 1883? I have had a hard time finding an answer. The industrial almanacs covering the period after the 1870s that I can view online are focused on Paris, not the entire country; while I can find good lists of chaudronniers in Villedieu-les-Poêles up until 1870 or so, I don’t have good visibility after that point. But if forced to guess, I would say that Allez Frères most likely reached out to Mauviel-Gautier Frères, Lecellier, or Villain-Havard Frères. Mauviel was making custom copper for Grands Magasins Du Louvre around this same time, and the brass handles on those pieces look identical to those on this cocotte. Grands Magasins had a distinctive custom cast-iron baseplate style just as Allez Frères did — I have a saute that I will write up soon so that you can see the similarities. Would Allez Frères have approached a different chaudronnier so as to differentiate itself from the Grands Magasins, or conversely, would they have turned preferentially to Mauviel, which had already demonstrated its ability to provide top-notch custom copper?
In 1900, the listing for Allez Frères changed again: instead of referring to fabr. in Villedieu, it simply listed cuivrerie (copper forging) among its products and capabilities. Does this mean that the company ceased its relationship with its Villedieu partner in favor of another? Or did Allez Frères set up its own chaudronnerie? As of 1884 and into the 1900s, the firm maintained a property at 18, 19, and 20 Rue Chanoinesse in the 4th arrondissement described as dépendances de la maison Allez Frères, and I wonder what the “dependents” were. Other contemporaneous addresses along the street are commercial storefronts — painters, furniture makers, tailors, some professional offices — but this location on the Île de France, the very oldest and most cramped part of the city within a stone’s throw of the cathedral of Notre Dame, seems like an inconvenient site for an industrial metalworking facility. It seems more likely to me that this was a light workshop just a few blocks away from the storefront at 1 Rue Saint-Martin rather than a full chaudronnerie with hot forges and large presses. A second and perhaps more likely possibility is the Allez Frères succursale (subsidiary) factory in Bordeaux. I don’t know exactly when this facility was opened, but the earliest ephemera I see are dated 1903. Could this have become the relocated cuivrerie? I don’t see enough Allez Frères examples to detect a change in the style or craftsmanship, but I do note that a factory established or repurposed in 1903 would likely have had modern-for-its-time mechanical presses and forges, obviating the need for dovetails and other hand-crafting techniques.
Allez Frères survived and prospered into the 1930s. I don’t know exactly when the store closed, or why, but it’s possible it was another casualty of World War II in Paris. The records I’ve used to this point to look at the store’s copper production, paltry as they are, peter out after 1900. I’m fairly confident that Allez Frères pieces like this one, with its hand-crafted details, are likely from the pre-1900 production in Villedieu, and I am leaning towards Mauviel as the unidentified partner. As always, if you have better information to speak to this, I would welcome it!