There is quite a lot of story to this one little pot.
In July 1888, to the great excitement of the residents, the newly-elected president of France, Marie François Sadi Carnot, decided to stay for the summer at the Château de Fontainebleau outside Paris. As the New York Times noted, “The residence of the Chief Magistrate at one of the country palaces is a new departure, but it seems that M. Carnot has… arrived at the opinion that the President of the republic ought always to maintain a certain amount of state.”
And Fontainebleau would certainly deliver. It was built in the 12th century as a royal hunting lodge at the edge of a well-stocked game park, but Francois I (1494-1547) decided to expand and transform it into a true Renaissance palace. The improvements continued during the reigns of successive monarchs to add an array of wings and courts hosting lavishly decorated galleries and apartments. By the time that President Carnot chose it for his residence for the summer legislative recess at the turn of the 20th century, Fontainebleau consisted of 1,500 rooms set in a 230-acre park.
Though the palace had hosted royalty for centuries, it was still notable that the newly elected (and popular) President would come to stay in the Louis XV wing for a couple of months. The Abeille [Bee], the local newspaper, got busy with a series of human interest stories to satisfy the public’s curiosity. One journalist sought out the retinner of the palace’s batterie de cuisine to get a glimpse of the array of copper in the palace kitchens.
I love this article not only because it is evocative and beautifully written but also because it is chock-full of useful information to help recognize and authenticate the palace’s copper. I recently acquired this bain-marie from the Etsy store of a very nice antiques dealer in Vermont, and while I had no reason to question its authenticity, I have a pleasant feeling of confidence that this is one of the series of pots described in the article above.
|Type||Tin-lined bain-marie pot with iron handle fastened with three copper rivets|
|French description||Bain-marie à sauce étamé, avec queue fer munie de trois rivets en cuivre|
|Dimensions||15.5cm diameter by 15.5cm tall (6.1 by 6.1 inches)|
|Thickness||0.8mm at rim|
|Weight||1038g (2.3 lbs)|
|Maker and age estimate||Unknown; 1845-ish|
This is a bain-marie à sauce, a tall and narrow pot with a projecting iron handle that was set with a cluster of others inside a water bath to keep sauces at a steady temperature. It was originally tinned inside and out, and you can see the last remaining area of external tinning just above the iron handle. (I chose Val Maguire at Southwest Hand Tinning to restore this pot with her gentle touch and we opted to leave this tin in place as a reminder of its working past.)
It is prominently stamped on one side with a series of marks that I can identify thanks to the article above.
At the top are the initials “L.P” for Louis-Philippe beneath the royal couronne. French heraldry designated specific crown designs for the various ranks of royalty, so if you spot a piece of copper with a crown on it, look carefully at the details: the arrangement of prongs, ornaments, and fabric denote rank and will help you identify the former owner. The crown in this stamp clearly has overarching pearled prongs that join at the top, a design that belongs to the rank of king.
Beneath the L.P. and crown is a second faded mark consisting of two letters with curlicue flourishes, lightly stamped. I had to go hunting for this one but I think I’ve found it: “LP”, the personal crest of the king, as shown in this example from a piece of Sèvres porcelain. (Note also the same royal crown, carefully depicted with pearled prongs and fabric.)
Below the name Fontainebleau is the number 2 and the date 1845. The “2” is most likely an identification number for the kitchen so that the pot could be stored in the right spot and also pulled into service when the kitchen needed it. (Anecdotally, I have read that many large kitchens didn’t specify pots by size for their recipes, but rather by number — for example, “take the number 2 bain-marie and fill it halfway with water…”.)
The “1845” is likely the date of manufacture for the pan, or at least the date it was put into service. As the story in the Abeille mentions, pots serving Louis-Philippe were stamped either 1845 or 1846. When Louis-Philippe ascended the throne in 1830, he did not expand Fontainebleau as monarchs had done before him. Instead he undertook the first restoration effort at Fontainebleau, focusing on furnishings and repairs rather than increasing the footprint. This effort took several years and my guess is that the kitchen’s batterie de cuisine was eventually augmented as well.
Taken together, these stamps align with the Abeille article. But I’m a little curious why Louis-Philippe is represented twice — once by the twined LP, and again by his initials and the crown. Could the twined LP be an older mark? Could this pot have been in service at another location and brought to Fontainebleau in 1845? At the moment I do not know.
The construction of this pot looks to me to be perfectly in line with pre-industrial French craftsmanship, hand-cut, hand-shaped, and hand-hammered. Perhaps the strongest indicator to me of this pot’s age is its handle. I believe it has been forged — that is, hammered into shape over an anvil. The flatness of the baseplate, the irregular surface of the handle shaft, and the rat-tail curled hanging loop are all signs of forging rather than casting. My study of the advent of iron casting continues but at the moment I believe forged handles represent work up to the middle of the 19th century, before technology improvements made casting a more efficient metalworking technique.
As was the body of the pan, the handle was tinned, and remnants still cling to the iron.
The handle baseplate is a flattened oval. The copper rivets are small and round and the inside rivet heads are flat and not quite flush-set.
Dovetails are another indicator of this pan’s age. The jagged yellow seams around the perimeter of the base and up the side under the handle are the seams where sheets of copper were joined to form the pot. The smith cut tabs along the edge of each sheet, interleaved them, pounded them together, and then sealed the join with hot brass. This was the technique to join copper sheets until the advent of welding in 1901, and my estimate is that dovetailing was phased out completely by 1920.
You can also spot a small dot in the center of the base — that’s the mark left by the point of the compass that the smith used to draw the circle he would cut for the base. This is an additional sign that this pot was made by hand without the benefit of machine-powered presses or cutting tools.
The pan is made of quite thin copper — just 0.8mm, with no additional thickness in the base. My 16cm modern-era bain-marie is only 3cm taller but, at 2.5mm thickness, weighs more than twice as much. That said, a true bain-marie pot destined to sit in a bath of warm water does not need to be made of thick copper. The chef needed a bain-marie to hold the temperature of the sauces steady without scorching them; the pot’s job was to move heat into the sauce as efficiently as possible but otherwise to stay out of the way. That’s a great role for thin copper — its extreme responsiveness is exactly what you want here.
That thinness really contributes to this pot’s antique feel. I am genuinely surprised that it has survived with no damage for so long, but perhaps its royal provenance made it precious to its owners. This is a good thing, because the other owner stamps on this piece suggest that it was not always in royal service. The other side of the handle has more stamps — “BD”, “11”, and “6” and the word “CHIBOUST.”
Numbers and initials can be hard to interpret. Two-digit numbers are often the pan’s size in centimeters, but not always — is this case, the “11” and the “6” aren’t close to any of the pan’s measurements. They are more likely an identification number to help kitchen staff store and retrieve the correct pan at the chef’s request. And the “BD” could be a former owner’s initials, or even separate “B” and “D”.
But the “CHIBOUST” is much more informative.
Alexis-Eugène Chiboust (b. 1811) opened his pâtisserie in 1836 at 236 Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris and began unleashing a series of culinary innovations that rocked the Parisian pastry scene and earned him a place in the Pantheon of great French pastry chefs. In 1840, he revealed his eponymous crème Chiboust, a blend of custard and Italian meringue that served as the key ingredient in a divine pastry also of his own creation that he named le gateau Saint-Honoré.
And that was just the beginning. A pass through Le mémorial historique et géographique de la pâtisserie [The Historical and Geographical Memorial of Pastry-Making], published in 1865 and extending to five editions through 1900, describes several more Chiboust inventions such as ambroisie [ambrosia], a flourless almond cake; le Régent, a stacked cake with apricots and kirsch fondant whose height could be adjusted according to the intended sale price, named for Philippe II, duke of Orléans, “known for his pomp and stock market speculation”; l’ananas Chiboust, an elaborate dessert made of pineapple-syrup-infused tiers of cake studded with thin slices of pineapple tipped with frosting; and les Pommes de terre, rounded pastries enrobed in chocolate cunningly crafted to resemble potatoes. The shop was active from 1836 to 1861 when Chiboust was forced to relocate the shop down the street to number 136 to make way for the impending construction of the Théâtre du Palais-Royale. I don’t know how the firm fared after that — there aren’t any listings in the commercial directories after 1862. But I do know that in 1885, forty years after Alexis-Eugène opened its doors, Pâtisserie Chiboust was liquidated.Here
My bain-marie would have had to make its way from Fontainebleau to Chiboust prior to 1885 to receive that second stamp. Was the pot released from service as part of another refurbishment? Louis-Philippe abdicated in 1848 and was replaced by Napoleon III, whose renovations at Fontainebleau could have extended to replacing some antique pans such as this one. But the most disruptive event was the capitulation of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which handed the château of Fontainebleau to the victorious Prussian forces from 1870 to 1871. Perhaps a few copper pans were “liberated” and ended up in Paris, though we know from the Abeille article that many Louis-Philippe and Napoleon I and III pieces survived until President Carnot’s sojourn in 1888.
This piece, separated from its siblings at Fontainebleau, is a survivor as well. As I write this in the year 2020, it is 175 years old, perhaps even a little more. It amazes me that it is still here, still with tight dovetails, still with its iron handle firmly in place. It reminds me that while kings and empires rise and fall, these sturdy little kitchen tools live on, passing from hand to hand. My thanks to Brenda who sold it to me and to Val Maguire who lovingly restored it, working with me to make good decisions about what to clean away and what to leave in place. Though this pot has settled into a life of ease with me, it has earned its marks of long and proud service in the palace of kings.
This was a fun post to write — there is quite a lot of history attached to the château de Fontainebleau. Here are a few of the hard-to-find gems that helped me.
- Guide artistique et historique au palais de Fontainebleau
- Le mémorial historique et géographique de la pâtisserie
- Recherches sur Fontainebleau