History

How it was made: High-top daubière

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As John Fuller Jr. says, “The cover is a difficult piece of work.”

I’m really enjoying Fuller’s Art of Coppersmithing, published in 1893 as a memoir of his apprenticeship at an English coppersmith in the 1840s. The book has detailed descriptions and diagrams for how he measured and assembled a range of copper items completely by hand. Fuller was an Englishman writing about coppersmithing in the mid-19th century, but I believe the techniques he describes were in broad use across Europe and can inform our understanding of French work of the same era.

With that in mind, I’d like to turn to his description of how to assemble a “braising pan” — what the French would call a braisière or daubière. The English style of pan that Fuller learned to make has a lid with a raised rim, the style I call a high-top (a term I have borrowed from Steve Nash of FrenchAntiquity). This pan was designed for an open kitchen hearth: the pan would be nestled directly into the coals of the fire, with more hot coals piled into the cavity of the lid’s rim to provide the “all-around heat” required for braising.

Shown below at left is a rendering of a finished braising pan from Fuller’s book. (Note the distinctive twin-rivet handle baseplates in the English style.) For illustrative purposes, I will compare it to my own high-top French daubière on the right. My French pan is rectangular and the lid has a top handle instead of side handles, but in other respects the construction of the lid appears identical.

 

Fuller’s cross-section shows that this type of lid is formed from two pieces of copper: the “cover,” the flat piece that spans the body of the braising pan, and the “case” that forms the vertical walls. As you can see below, Fuller calls the flat cover M in the diagram, with the turns and bends in the case identified a, b, c, and d. He marks the narrowest points of the case as x and z.

 

Fuller’s narrative begins with the construction process for the case. The first task is to figure out how long and wide to cut the strip of copper. The bends and folds add extra width to the vertical rim and the smith had to calculate all of these in advance in order to cut the case to the correct size. The size of the body of the pan — the kettle, as he calls it — determined the length of the case, but the width followed a predetermined formula for its bends and curves.

Let us make a cover, and let the kettle measure 15 inches long and 11½ inches wide. Now, the outside case or pan of this cover at a, Fig. 187, is about 3 inches deep, and the wire, No. 6, would require another ½ inch to cover it. The rim b which covers the kettle is 1 inch deep; add a quarter for seat and an eighth at c to turn on the inside to keep the cover proper in, the cover proper forming the bottom of the real braising pan. The strip, then, to form the upper pan of this cover would be 41 5/8 inches long and 4 7/8 inches wide.

My French pan is about 13 inches long by about 7½ inches wide (33.5cm by 18.5cm), two inches smaller than Fuller’s example, but the measurements of the sections of the lid are quite similar. The vertical walls — “the outside case or pan,” as Fuller calls it above — are about 2½ inches (6.5cm) tall, a mere half inch shorter than Fuller’s formula. The “seat” is almost exactly ¼ inch (about 9mm), and the rim measures about 7/8 inch (2.3cm), just slightly shorter than Fuller describes.

Once the correct dimensions of the case were calculated to accommodate the circumference of the pan and the convolutions of the rim, the process of shaping it could begin.

Cut it out, bend round and braze the joint; trim the seam, knock it down and anneal; take in a course on the head secured in a square shank, as shown in Fig. 188, until the size at x-z, Fig. 187, is a good ¼ inch smaller all round than the cover M

There’s a lot going on in the passage above, and Fuller is using a sort of shorthand notation to refer to tasks that he perhaps considered so foundational to the craft as to need no explanation. The smith bends the strip of copper into an oval and “brazes the joint” — that is, he cuts, interleaves, and brazes a cramp seam, or dovetail, to close the loop. Below is the dovetail on my pan’s lid with its distinctive crenellated look. Interestingly (to me, at least), the inside portion of that seam is one of the messiest dovetails I’ve seen on my French pieces. The corresponding outside surface of the seam looks neat and clean and I’m not sure what created the need for the excess brass braze on the inside surface.

 

The next step is to take the loop of copper to the anvil and “take in a course” — lay down a series of sequential hammer strikes — to spread and flare the copper above the midline. This creates the slight funnel shape of the vertical walls. Below the midline, the copper was left flat and straight.

As Fuller notes above, the narrowest point of the case should create a span ¼ inch less than the diameter of the pan itself.

… now turn it up and work down the seat with a mallet on an anvil, Fig. 189, and bring up the narrow rim to fit the rim of the cover M, Fig. 187.

Figure 189 below shows the case piece in position, upside down against the anvil head, and you can see the lid beginning to take shape. The smith uses a mallet to define the indented shelf that Fuller calls the seat and shapes the bottom inch or so into a straight-walled rim.

The finished braising pan that Fuller shows above seems to show rounded curves from rim to seat to the vertical sides, but on my pan the transition from rim to seat is more defined. Perhaps the oval English lid required rounding to accommodate the changing contours of the curved shape.

 

Next raze out the upper part or flare evenly all around until it measures 16½ inches the long way, and turn the edge for the wire;

The very topmost rim of the lid is reinforced with a ring of wire to help it hold its shape, which means the copper along the rim must be curled over and around it. Visualize what this process is like for a flat plane of copper bent into an oval ring: the copper must be spread and then also compressed to form the contours of the shape. As Fuller uses it, razing is the term for reducing surface area — that is, introducing a curve into a sheet of copper by wrinkling it and pounding the wrinkles flat. Flaring does the opposite, increasing surface area with hammering that thins and spreads the copper. The smith would have used these two techniques as needed all around the rim to induce the copper to curl like the crest of a wave.

When I flip my lid over, I can see that the copper is mostly but not completely wrapped around the iron wire, leaving a bit of the wire visible. Below on the right is the section where the two ends of the wire meet just to the left of the lid’s dovetail seam.

 

… now make the cover M and tin it inside and scour clean and fit the cover to the rim, planish and smooth both;

The cover, as Fuller calls it, lays flat across the top of the braising pan body. In comparison to the complex convoluted case, the cover is a simple flat oval with an inch-wide rim. If the smith has cut and shaped the case and the cover correctly, the case should slide neatly over the cover with 1/8 inch of the case’s rim extending below.

… then put in the wire, set the cover in the seat tight; then turn the edge of the outside rim over it, as shown at c, which finishes the cover or real braising pan. Finally put on the handles and clean.

Now the smith wraps the reinforcing wire around the upper rim and curls the copper over it to hold it in place. Then he pushes the cover up tight inside the case, ensuring that it was snugged up into its seat, and folds the bottom 1/8 inch of extending rim “to turn on the inside to keep the cover proper in.”

Here’s how the underside of the lid looks on my piece. The cover forms a seamless cap overtop the body of the pan. (This seamlessness is a good thing to keep condensate from creeping into the crevices.) On the right you can see that a little more than 1/8 inch (5mm) of the rim has indeed been folded over to hold the cover in place.

 

What’s interesting to me about the construction of this lid is that there is no brazing or other sealing of the cover and case pieces — they are simply pressed together. This means that the crevice between the two pieces is not necessarily water-tight. That is fine for the intended purpose of this pan: that raised lid is meant to contain hot coals and ashes from the fire, and ashes settled into the crevice don’t seem to me to do any harm to the copper. But should I ever cook with this pan, I will take care to minimize the amount of moisture that could seep into this area.

 

So here is the lid next to the body of my braising pan.

This is a relatively small daubière and the lid dwarfs the body of the pan. But thinking about how this pan was intended to be used, I can see a reason why the lid is so tall. The sidewalls of the lid are there to contain the hot coals tumbled inside; if those sidewalls were proportionally shortened for a smaller pan, the coals could more easily spill out. Keeping hot coals in the lid of the pan was crucial. As Fuller notes above, this specially engineered lid is what made a “real braising pan,” and I suspect the sidewalls were kept tall for this reason.


About this pan

This is a lovely old piece, and while it is unstamped I believe it was made in Paris between about 1880 and 1907.

 

This beautiful and well-made pan has survived in very good condition and that’s reason enough to draw the interest of any collector, but patient readers of this site will immediately guess why this specific collector wanted this piece: the scrollwork handles. These distinctive handles caught my eye a while back and I’ve made an effort to find examples and identify the maker. (This one is another special find by Steve Nash at FrenchAntiquity.) At the moment I believe these handles were used by Charmois starting in the 1880s and then Lasnier from 1888 to 1907.

I would place this particular pan at the early part of that date range. Based on what I have observed, the high-top lid design was beginning to fall out of use by the 1890s. I wish I had positive evidence of this, but instead I must guess based on the limited information I have at hand. The earliest daubière I can find in a French catalog shows up in 1879 at Allez Frères and it’s not a high-top but instead a flat-top stick-handled style similar to this one. I consider that style to be a transitional form between the high- and flat-top, and to see it at Allez Frères — to me, a reliable barometer of the tastes of the French housewife — suggests that the evolution away from the high-top was already underway by 1879. My 40cm Duval daubière, reliably dated between 1885 and 1896, is a flat-top style.

The second data point is how the things are built. The high-tops that I own — and I only have two of them, so again, I caution that my observations are limited — are beauties of antique hand-craftsmanship. (Check out the swing-handled daubière.) They are dovetailed and formed from sheet copper that appears to have been shaped by hand. As evidence of this, please take a look at the photo below of the corner of this piece and notice the long vertical planes of hammering. I suspect those planes came from bending the copper — laying a course, as John Fuller would say. That’s the degree of hand-work that I associate with the mid-19th century.

I’m just so grateful this piece has survived. Daubières are just thin-walled boxes and it’s a miracle that any of them have made it from the 19th century without being crushed. Look at this lovely thing. The dovetails are just beautiful.

 

Finally, I feel compelled to celebrate the lid handle. The same scrollwork design on the side handles is also echoed on the lid’s handle brackets. This is what I love so much about these antique French pieces: it’s such an extravagant detail.

 

In my opinion daubières are among the least practical pieces of the traditional French batterie de cuisine. I can’t in good conscience advise you to buy one on the pretext that it’ll come in handy. (I did look up some rather tasty-looking daubière-based recipes but they’re not exactly weeknight dinner endeavors.) But the early examples we have today, like this one, are precious things. I’m glad you’re reading this, and that you have made it all the way through this long post to the end. May you find and cherish your own precious things, too.

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4 Comments

  1. A worthy and devoted description of the “elderly lady” of French cuisine.

    A few decades later, cast iron versions of these Daubieres by Doufeu came onto the market, which also had a concave, i.e. recessed lid. However, this was not intended to hold coals or embers, but chunks of ice or just water. This should allow the juices to condense on the inside of the lid and drip back onto the roast. This reduced the risk of the food being dehydrated. However, this method could not prevail in the long run. There are now simpler variants that allow drizzling.

  2. I have the perfect outdoor fireplace to try this one out. If you are ever in Santa Barbara, there can be daube!

  3. Interesting to read how it was made, I can imagine such a piece being the demonstration of competence at the end of an apprenticeship. Certainly the work of a master craftsman. It probably owes it’s survival to the fact that it was pretty much obsolete by the time it was made.
    I reckon that seam will be sealed by now by the tin. The inside of cramp seams are often a bit messy but usually hidden by the lining. It must be nearly impossible to polish away excess brazing from the inside without power tools.
    I award it first prize for the world’s most beautiful bread bin.

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