This set of pots aren’t just lovely to look at — they’ve also solved a mystery.
|Type||Three tinned bain marie pots in hammered finish with cast iron handles fastened with three copper rivets and fitted lids with button knobs|
|French description||Trois bains maries entièrement étamés avec queue de fer munie de trois rivets en cuivre et couvercles à bouton|
|Dimensions||12cm diameter by 14cm tall
(4.7 by 5.5 inches)
|14cm diameter by 16.5cm tall
(5.5 by 6.5 inches)
|16cm diameter by 18cm tall
(6.3 by 7.1 inches)
|Weight||1000g (2.2 lbs) pot only;
1200g (2.7 lbs) with lid
|1400g (3.1 lbs) pot only;
1700g (3.8 lbs) with lid
|2400g (5.3 lbs) pot only;
2700g (6 lbs) with lid
|Maker and age estimate||Mauviel for Gaillard; 1960s-1990s|
French cooking is very serious about the quality and variety of sauces for its dishes, and no self-respecting restaurant would be caught dead without a caisse a bains-marie on the heat with an array of bains-marie à sauce at the ready. The double-boiler is a proven method to provide controlled indirect heat to a liquid; the outer container, filled with water, reaches no higher than 212°F (100°C) and bathes the inner vessels with steady warmth. If you’ve ever scorched a soup or curdled a sauce, you might have wished at that moment for a way to avoid superheating the bottom of the pot — exactly the problem that a bain marie can solve for you.
This set of Gaillard bain marie pots belongs to Stephen Whalen and they’re a special find. You will immediately notice that they are tinned on the outside, even the lids. This was intentional: the 1956 Gaillard catalog, as shown on the left, clearly shows and states that the bains marie à sauce are entièrement étamé — tinned inside and out.
Why was this done? The answer, my friends, is science: the water bath of a bain marie was intended to be salt water. Early chemists (that is, alchemists) discovered that salt water evaporates more slowly than fresh water. What this meant at a practical level was that if you used salted water instead of fresh water for your water bath, it would last longer before you needed to replenish it. (The marie in bain marie comes from the Latin maris, meaning ocean, which spoken with a French pronunciation sounds just like “marie.”)
We now understand why: salt water has a slightly lower specific heat than fresh water, such that it freezes at a lower temperature and boils at a higher temperature. (The exact temperatures depend on the salinity and ambient air pressure.) Unfortunately, this persistence comes with a downside: corrosion. Copper exposed to salt water and air will rapidly oxidize. You can imagine how this process would go to work on a copper pot sitting for long periods in warm salt water, lifted out every now and then, and replaced for another few hours.
The most straightforward way to prevent this would be to armor the outer copper against contact with the salt, and that’s exactly what they did: in addition to lining the interior of the pot with tin, they continued to tin the exterior as well. So to my mind, the question is not so much why this practice was done but rather why it was ended! I suspect it was an aesthetic issue — as we all know, tin darkens and wears away. And let’s face it: pewter-gray tinned pieces don’t quite have the same visual pizzazz as brightly polished bare copper. Knowing why the tin is there may give you and me a newfound appreciation for the phenomenon, but this is not the sort of thing you’d expect to see on display in Williams-Sonoma.
In any event, it is rare to find a bain marie with intact outer tin. Stephen Whalen has managed to find a matched set of three by Gaillard, complete with their original couvercles à bouton, the button-knob lids.
I think they are gorgeous. Notice how clear the martelage pattern of hammer marks is on the exterior surface. Stephen believes this could be the original tin from Gaillard and I think that’s possible.
These pots have a distinctive handle with a shield-shaped baseplate and a lozenge-shaped hanging loop. This handle does not look French, and to my eye more closely resembles an arrow-shaped English style. But it is most definitely French.
In fact, thanks to reader Michael B. who supplied a 1988 Mauviel price list, I can state with some certainty that it is definitely Mauviel. The item below is this exact piece: bain marie à sauce, entièrement étamé, couvercle à bouton. If you look carefully you can see that the handle has a shield-shaped baseplate. I have one just like it — sadly not entièrement étamé — that my mom bought at Dehillerin in the early 1980s.
Well well well. This is the best evidence I’ve seen that Gaillard was sourcing pieces from Mauviel during the post-war period. According to Jean-Philippe Jacquotot-Carisé, Gaillard and Dehillerin followed the same path as Jacquotot after WWII, choosing to focus on restaurant, hospitality, and catering supply rather than the consumer market. Jean-Philippe tells me that the “big three” (Jacquotot, Dehillerin, and Gaillard) all stopped making conventional copper cookware; if a customer wanted a set of pots, the company would turn to Mauviel or one of the Villedieu makers and add its own stamp to the pieces.
And now we also have evidence of which stamp that was. The Gaillard mark on this pot is a little tough to spot as it’s partially obscured by the tin, but it’s in the usual location to the left of the baseplate. This is the version of Gaillard stamp I call the “small arch”: the letters are tall and narrow in a plain sans-serif typeface. On the right is a clear example stamp from my own daily-use saucepans.
Interestingly, I do not see a “Made in France” stamp on this piece. My current understanding is that the addition of this country-of-origin mark came about as a consequence of the formation of the European Economic Community in 1957. If this pot is indeed not marked like this, it suggests that the piece could have been made prior to that year. Could it be that Gaillard had already begun outsourcing to Mauviel by the mid-1950s?
In fact, could the bains marie à sauce entièrement étamés avec couvercles à bouton shown in the 1956 Gaillard catalog at the top of this post be Mauviel make as well? The bouton knob on those lids does look an awful lot like Williams-Sonoma’s standard acorn knob…
The revelations keep coming! I don’t know how much more excitement I can take! My sincere thanks to Stephen Whalen for sharing this with us, and to reader Michael B. for sharing the Mauviel price list from 1988. Little by little we are making the connections that helps fill the gaps in our understanding of these pieces.