I suspect this unusually-shaped fish poacher was a custom-made piece.
- Type: Tin-lined salmon-sized poaching pan in lightly hammered finish with brass bracket-style handles fastened with two copper rivets on each end and a tinned copper lifter
- French description: Saumonière étamé et martelé avec anses munies de deux rivets sur chaque côté et une plate-forme étamée
- Dimensions: 58cm long by 26cm deep by 7cm high (22.8 by 10.2 by 2.8 inches)
- Thickness: 1.0mm
- Weight: 4694g (10.4 lbs) with lid and lifter; 3586g (7.9 lbs) body and lifter alone
- Stampings: None
- Maker and age estimate: Unknown; 1960s-1990s?
- Source: FrenchAntiquity (Etsy)
Steve Nash at FrenchAntiquity calls this a saumonière — a poaching pan for medium-sized fish such as salmon — but its shape is unlike any fish poacher I’ve seen before. It’s somewhere between the broad kite shape of a turbotière and the smooth lozenge of a poissonière or truitière. Of course, as with many French copper pans, shape is not necessarily destiny, because one could poach any number of things in a pan like this. It could take a single large fish or several filets laid out over the broad surface area of the lifter.
I think this was a custom order not just for the unusual shape but also because it has some charming imperfections that would have been resolved over a true production run. To start, take a look at the geometry. It’s asymmetrical across its short axis.
It must have been a tricky pan to make. On the base there are some faint straight lines that I at first took for scratches on the copper but that I now think are measuring marks. They run directly across the long and short axes of the pan and continue up the sidewalls. I think these were marks the smith made in the flat sheet of copper to mark the diamond shape. But somehow in bending the sheet up to form the sides, the smith mis-aligned the pan’s “hips,” so to speak, so that they don’t line up exactly with the guidelines.
The lid is also asymmetrical. I wonder when the smith realized that the geometry of the base of the pan was a little off!
The lid does not quite form a solid seal. It fits better in one orientation than the other, but even the “correct” orientation leaves a little gap in places between the edge of the pan and the flange of the lid. But considering the poaching method, I don’t think this is a functional problem. A tight seal over a poaching vessel would elevate the interior temperature and might cause an unintended boil-over; after all, poaching is not done at a boil but at a gentle simmer. (Early French copper catalogs show turbotières and poissonières sold without lids.)
In contrast to the pan and lid, the lifter is cut in a symmetrical diamond. Looking down from above, you can see slight gaps where it’s fitting a little loosely within the larger pan. But the lifter sits flat on the floor of the pan and the slight misalignment doesn’t affect the pan’s performance one whit.
I think the lifter is beautiful. The punched holes help it drop evenly into the poaching broth without splashes or sloshing. This irregular starry pattern is certainly hand-work; Erik Undiks at Rocky Mountain Retinning, who restored this pan, tells me that the lifter is made of copper. Note that the holes are in two diameters, suggesting to me that it was drilled or punched twice — perhaps the smith decided that the large holes were not enough and it needed additional perforations to help it sink and rise smoothly in liquid.
The lifter’s handles are welded into position, indicating to me that this is a 20th century pan. The acetylene torch was patented in France in 1901, and welded seams and joins started showing up in copper pans within the first few decades of the 20th century, supplanting brazed dovetails. I think this pan is much later than that, but it’s worth keeping in mind that welding was an early 20th century technique.
Other elements of the pan lead me to suspect it’s mid-20th century. The handles are slender unadorned brass rods curved into shape and flattened at the ends into mounting brackets that hug the body. There are two small businesslike copper rivets on each bracket. This feels like a 1960s to 1990s pan out of Villedieu, not the Mauviel factory that at that time was cranking out uniform pieces for Williams-Sonoma and other high-volume US buyers, but instead a smaller maker like Atelier du Cuivre. But as the pan is unstamped, I don’t know for sure.
I find the lid knob particularly charming. It’s a little askew, as you can see — another unrefined element of the pan that makes it feel like custom work to me. The base of the knob is soldered in place.
This pan has a thick rounded lip called a rolled rim. Sections of iron wire or bar were shaped around the lip of the pan and then the copper was curled over it and neatly tucked under. A rolled rim provides structural support to help a thin copper pan keep its shape, and it’s a common feature on fish poachers.
Erik Undiks did a magnificent job with the restoration.
But the pan was in good shape already. As you can see from the photos below from the Etsy listing, the exterior of the pan had been well polished and shone beautifully but the interior and lifter needed to be retinned. Steve Nash at FrenchAntiquity has an excellent eye for quality copper and this is a beautiful pan even with worn tin.
I debated a bit whether I wanted to have this pan retinned immediately or not. I have a process I work through informally when I look at a piece of copper online to decide whether to send it straight to retinning; it puts a pan through some stress and my current thinking is that I don’t automatically retin antique pans intended for display. This particular pan will most likely be a display piece for me, so the condition of the interior tin was not paramount in my decision to buy it.
However, I know from Erik Undiks that retinning the perforated lifter pans in these poachers is challenging. (I think it has to do with getting the tin to adhere cleanly and evenly to all the nooks and crannies of the holes.) I knew that if and when this pan needed retinning it should be done by an expert. I also sought Steve Nash’s advice on this — one of the benefits of working with a kind and knowledgeable seller like Steve is that he is very responsive to questions and gives honest assessment and advice about his pieces. He agreed that if this pan were to be restored it needed to be done by an experienced retinner, and those are few and far between these days. I decided to have the pan sent directly to Erik, and I am very glad I did.
As I say above, I believe this is a pan from the 1960s to 1990s or so, most likely out of a small shop in Villedieu-les-Poêles. The welding on this pan marks it as 20th century work and the simple modern handles feel mid-century to me. But it also has some deceptive marks of age. One end of the lid has held some corrosive liquid for some time, enough for the copper to pit slightly. I don’t know what chemical reaction did this. It’s a very minor issue for me, however, and to my eye it actually adds some character to the pan. But it’s also instructive: this pitting is not necessarily evidence of great age. I have pans from the late 1800s with this same pitting, but this copper is no more than fifty or sixty years old by my estimate.
I am really grateful to Steve Nash at FrenchAntiquity for finding this piece, and to Erik Undiks at Rocky Mountain Retinning for restoring it and taking such care with the tricky lifter. As I am happy to repeat, I would encourage any copper collector to work with them to find and care for special pieces like this.