Cooking with Copper
‘Don’t ever do that… again’, said Quentin Bacon.
One of the world’s greatest food photographers was standing in front of our gleaming copper pots and pans, his disappointment as palpable as if someone had just cut his hair with a pocketknife. The pans glowed orange, seemingly shining from within, as if polished by Medieval illuminators. We usually let them tarnish to the colour of cinnamon but on a whim I asked the staff to polish them for Quentin’s visit, only to watch his smile fade as he looked at them. That’s the thing with copper pots though: what they represent are always larger concepts than just pots and pans.
I can remember when each individual pot, pan and roasting tray that has come into my life, the length of each their idiosyncratic histories as obvious as the choice of metal used to line the vessel. Those that are lined with stainless steel are modern and were astonishingly expensive. Bought in France, Spain or Italy but always produced in Normandy, they are Ferraris of pots and pans, the ones that every cook would prefer if price were no object. Quick to heat and cool, their thick, dynamic 3mm thick copper shell is protected by a stainless steel interior. And save for a moment of profound foolishness-mainly, leaving them empty on a flame until their bonded metals separate from one another- there is no reason to expect them not to last for hundreds of years.
No one picks one up without making a comment on their weight. Most groan. Many even expect help, like you would carrying an overpacked suitcase up the stairs. The largest one we have cost 680 Euro, 750 Euro if you count shipping but it’s a workhorse and an good bet that if there are students in the building of our cooking school in Italy, that that pot is over a flame. If our Italian cookery school had a heart- that muscle that never stops working- it would be this pot.
We have a few oversized but shallow pots that have no lining metal, the raw copper exposed in ways that concern me. Several of them, I’ve never even used for this reason, in spite of the fact that they are sold as ‘preserve pots’, the sugar thought to protect the pan from leaching copper into the human blood-stream (Copper is toxic to our livers). My university roommate used unlined copper for his twice-daily polenta for 5 years, as did his mother and all of her neighbors up on the Austrian border. They seemed fine.
Research-based medicine tells us that the barrier of sugar protects the fruit from absorbing copper and thus is safe, providing that the sugar goes into the pot first, and that the jelly/jam/marmalade is removed when still hot. And polenta’s low acid seems to protect us as well.
The lion’s share of our pots and pans though, are lined with tin, each pan’s history, long and winding, involving multiple generations of owners, countries, cities and kitchens. Bought from auctions, flea markets and antique stores while traveling through various cities of France and Spain many are engraved with the names of the dead. Even the few that I bought in Italy have the initials of non-Italians, their family initials in letters that don’t appear in the Italian alphabet. Several pieces were born in the mid 1800’s, each likely now retinned more times than years that I have been alive.
The same year we opened our cookery course in Italy I learned that most tin is worn away not over a flame but in the sink, that scrubbing is the biggest culprit. Now each time I hire a new assistant for Anna, I put these two chairs nearly touching each other and I have the conversation. ‘Do you see this pan? It is very expensive and the each time the pan is retinned costs me between one hundred and one hundred and fifty Euro, plus the time it takes to drive to Specchia, back and forth, twice. (To my knowledge, there is only one tinner left in the entire Salento, a population of 1.5 million).
Tin’s peculiar colour and odd shininess causes many unfamiliar with the mental to scrub and scrub in what turns out to be an ever-escalating use of scouring pads, chemicals and feverish fervency of ‘Signora shine’ (elbow grease). I now look each new signora in the face, I speak slowly, our knees so close together as almost touching. ‘These pans are special. They are not like the ones you know. They will never shine like a mirror but when they are clean they will glow like the inside of an oyster shell.
Cleaning the outside of all copper is easy, and vinegar and salt do better than even the most expensive of potions, polishes and powders. We make our own vinegar at the school and undiluted, it cleans an order of magnitude faster than commercially-prepared vinegar.
My absolute favorite state for our copper is cleaned but tarnished, that is with no burned on stains but with the low-watt glow of a warm, tarnished patina. It is, upon reflection, what Quentin wanted to find, that Old World sense of lived-in, well-worn tradition. 15 years into this job, it is precisely what our Cooking School does, tugging the two equators for our students, until the New World and the Old almost touch.
Or simply ‘respond’ to write us.