Here’s another iconic French household brand which is also a family run business, now in its sixth generation. The company now called Emile Henry started in Burgundy in 1850 and is known worldwide for its high quality ceramic cookware. The pieces are made of Burgundy clay, which comes from the same mineral-rich soil used to grow the region’s famous wines.
How it started
The company’s history debuts with a young potter called Jaques Henry who discovered and developed a real passion for the world of ceramics in a small workshop in Marcigny, a village in his native Burgundy.
When he was 20, he took off for a year and travelled the roads of France to meet other, more experienced, potters. He wanted to learn and develop his savoir-faire as a ceramist. He returned and set up his own workshop producing jugs, terrines and soup tureens. By 1870 he had a workforce of around 20 people which Jacques passed on to his son Paul.
Paul shared his father’s passion and quickly exported his creations to Paris. Customers were enthusiastic, and pottery from La Maison Henry was soon found on all the best Parisian tables.
The Ruffled Pie Dish pictured above designed in 1911 by Paul enjoyed much success and soon became the symbol of the Company.
Unsurprisingly, the workshop suffered during both world wars due to lack of labour. Paul’s son Emile luckily returned from the war and soon had the workshop and workforce back on its feet.
But it was Emile’s son Maurice, along with his son Jacques, who drove expansion post-WWII. An artisan engineer, he set about modernising the production techniques, while retaining the authenticity of the handcrafting skills.
In 1982 as a tribute to his grandfather, Jacques changed the name of the company to Emile Henry. Using his skills as an amateur cook, and his training as an engineer, Jacques designed dishes which made cooking easier by paying attention to details such as the size and weight, adding handles or ridges to the bottom of the dish.
Everything was studied in the smallest detail and as a consequence he set up an in-house Research and Development laboratory. In 1986, after much research the company expanded its range of colours to a further six beyond its famous blue.
In 2005, responding to changes in cooking methods, Jacques designed the Tagine. This was the first ceramic dish which could which could be used directly on all modern heat sources.
In 2012, the company passed into the hands of Jean-Baptiste, Jacques’ son, who was intent on ensuring that all the company’s production remained 100% French. The popularity of home bread-making prompted him to design the Bread Cloche which has joined the ruffled pie-dish and tagine as another of the company’s iconic products.
What sets the products apart
These are hard working and long lasting products thanks to being made from Burgundy clay. The region’s mineral-rich limestone terroir – that whichmakes its wines so famous – also imparts unique properties to ceramics, particularly its astonishingly high heat tolerance. It’s that tolerance that allows Burgundy clay to diffuse heat in a gentle, even manner and keep the food warm while it’s on the table.
Emile Henry dishes are meant to go straight from functioning well in a kitchen to looking stylish on a table. The company’s glaze formula, something of a family secret, makes for highly scratch-resistant dishes that keep their original colour for years.
Emile Henry products do not chip or crack easily. You can use knives to cut directly onto the dish’s surface without scratching or damaging it. Importantly the surfaces do not trap and hold onto baked on or burnt food. Consequently, cleaning is remarkably easy and all the company’s products can go in the dishwasher. All Emile Henry products carry a limited household 10 year warranty against breakage due to defective workmanship.
What keeps Emile Henry current is its commitment to how people actually cook today. The company performs multiple demos and takes note of audience feedback, as well as keeping a close eye on what recipes are trending in food magazines and on blogs, tweaking their products to match demands. For example, the lasagna dish was re-made eighteen different times before gaining approval.
Emile Henry is meticulous about quality control. For example, every factory employee wears a bracelet with a stamp of his or her initials on it, and at the end of their task, whether it’s filling the mold or glazing the dish, they press their initials on a designated area for accountability. (If you ever wondered what the initials on the bottom of an Emile Henry dish indicate, now you know – it’s a literal human touch.) Mess ups are uncommon, since the average tenure of an Emile Henry factory worker is 15 years; some have even worked there for 42 years, passing down knowledge to new employees.
Environmental impact is another reason Emile Henry does not want to manufacture products outside France; even the resin and plaster needed for the molds—which shape every product—are manufactured in a town about six miles from Marcigny. Each mold becomes obsolete after 100 uses, but that’s when a government-approved agency sweeps in to collect them, so they can be re-used in the construction of bridges and other structures. By staying in Burgundy, Emile Henry actually helps build the country, not just its local economy.
To further reduce carbon footprint, no plastic is used in the packaging of Emile Henry products, just recycled cardboard. Most notably, though, the kiln—which contains upwards of 500 products at once—is only fired once a day, for less time and at a lower temperature than the industry standard. Reports Jean-Baptiste:
It is a major technical challenge, one that has no effect on the resistance of the product, but really decreases the energy, almost by a half.”
This puts extra pressure on artisans to be perfect, because a mistake on one single product, say a slightly off colour, would affect the other 500-or-so products in the kiln. (Thankfully, Emile Henry employees are extremely good at their jobs.)
All images courtesy of Émile Henry