“This is where things started to get a little out of control.”
VFC says: This guest post is written and photographed by Chris N.
As an ex-chef, and I do stress that point as I am way past working in a pressure cooker so to speak, I have always had a passion for copper cookware. My very first piece was made in NZ by St Clair, a well respected maker of fine copperware. Over the years we bought more until we had a substantial array of pots and pans, about 15 in total. These took pride and place in the kitchen of each and every house we owned. They were not for just display and we used them every day, so in due course the shiny copper dulled and became blackened with age but we loved that look.
Life has many unexpected twists and turns and we ended up living in the south of France remodeling houses and eventually turning one into a chambre d’hôte (bed and breakfast) complete with retail wine shop. My wife Faith spent her days fussing after waves of guests, mostly French with the odd spattering of Kiwis, Aussies, and guests from Russia to Spain and everywhere in-between. I filled my days learning how to make wine under the tutelage of Simon Coulshaw from Domaine des Trinités (an expat Pomm) living the dream in France. Sunday mornings were my time out and I did the rounds of flea markets hunting for that bargain every visitor to France wants. Something to bring home as part of our adventures.
On one cold Sunday morning I spied a copper pot and having a passion for copper picked it up to inspect it more closely. Wow, it weighed a ton, like nothing I had ever used before. My lovely set of St Clair was made from pressed 1.5mm copper with tin lining and there I was looking almost dumbstruck holding a pot made from hand-beaten 4mm copper. Needless to say I bought it on the spot. I raced home with my new acquisition to show Faith. “That’s nice,” she said, “but we already have a pot that size”. I pointed out the fact that this was a vintage hand-beaten pot; she carried on fussing over the guests.
The following week I found another couple of pots of similar age and quality (I was on a slippery slope), cleaned them up and placed them strategically in the kitchen. Faith wasn’t having a bar of it. “If you want to display them put them in the wine shop”. A fatal mistake as within a week I had customers enquiring if they were for sale and of course I sold them. My hobby had taken on a new meaning and I advertised in local papers and travelled far and wide in search of new and exciting bits of French history. Word soon got out that there was a crazy Kiwi living on the canal du Midi that paid good money for quality collectable copperware. My stock soon outstripped space in our little shop so I turned to selling online and was soon doing a brisk trade in vintage and antique copper pans. Most were sold to clients in the USA and I soon had a regular following demanding branded copper. This fuelled my fire and I soon had complete sets from local châteaux with the owner’s crest or stamp. Noted makers from Villedieu, Lejeune, Gaillard (probably the most collectable and most expensive), Dehillerin, and Bourgeat just to name a few. My Sunday passion had become an obsession and we couldn’t go anywhere without stopping at every second-hand shop we passed.
This is where things started to get a little out of control as we planned to move back to NZ at some stage. My workshop had become a museum to French copper history! Some of these pots weighed in at over 10kg and one complete set from a château in the Loire had a total weight of 45kg making it a shipping nightmare. (Sadly, it is long gone!) We arrived back in NZ a little earlier than expected much to the delight of friends and family who unsurprisingly enough all wanted a set of copper pots, so after selecting just the right sets for everyone we still had lots to offer to discerning buyers in NZ. The problem is I want to keep them all but I guess sanity will prevail. My current personal collection was just over 200 dating back 500 years with about 40 in the kitchen including a 14kg (30 lbs) hand-beaten copper Paella pan.
I think my favourite piece is a salmon poacher circa 1800, 70cm long and weighing in at 9kg (almost 20 lbs). Just the right size to do Kingfish filets as that is the local easy catch here in the north of New Zealand. It’s not for sale.
In the photo below, left to right, is a daubière; a large Dehillerin pan weighing 8.5kg (18.7 lbs); the Paella pan; an early Dehillerin pan from the restaurant “Dupille” on the banks of the Seine that burned down in the late 1800’s; a very rare Paul Manzoni sauté pan; and a nice oval roaster that used to have a ring at either end. The Dupille pan still looked like it had been in a fire when I found it so have had it re-lined but have left the outside original.
Here’s the Paella pan. It weighs 14kg (30.8lbs).
This sauté pan is one of only a few pieces made by renowned artist and sculptor Paul Manzoni. They were made for the elite of Europe during the late 19th century and very few survived two world wars. This is probably one of the rarest and most collectable pieces of copperware in the world. Weighing in at 5.7kg (12.6 lbs) with cast metal handle and huge copper rivets (the middle rivet of this pan is 29mm wide) it boasts sharp lines with thickened rim and base. It measure 28cm diameter. This piece was commissioned for the Grand Dining room at the Basel railway station.
Sadly we have had to sell off many pieces for sanity’s sake and because we now live by the beach I’ve given up trying to keep them all highly polished. However we do entertain a lot and everything in the kitchen gets regular use. We are moving houses and some stuff is now packed far into the storage container but it will be like Christmas when I get to unpack into the new kitchen. My wife is dreading that day.
VFC says: Chris, you are a delight! Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful collection and the stories behind the pieces you cherish the most. Congratulations on your impending move — I’m sure that when you unpack your collection in your new house it will magically expand to take up all the available space!