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29.06.2015 admin
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It was here in the town of Fresnoy-le-Grand (population 3,000) that the manufacturer of everyone's favourite pots and pans was first established in 1925 – a brand so synonymous with France that one of its flame-orange casserole dishes might as well adorn the national coat of arms. The Le Creuset complex nestles among brown-and-green-striped fields farmed for sugar beet and wheat.
A ?100m redevelopment – allegedly paid for in cash by Paul Van Zuydam, a South African businessman who bought the company in 1987 – has allowed the plant to double its capacity: 20,000 pieces are now turned out every day. Le Creuset itself must have been something of a beacon when it first appeared in French shops and department stores, the brainchild of two Belgian industrialists, Armand Desaegher and Octave Aubecq. The partners' aim was simple, and it still applies today: to position the brand at the forefront of culinary technology and design, combining specialisms in casting, enamelling, and consumer psychology in a range of covetable pots and pans. As food rationing slackened, Le Creuset rode a wave of culinary modernisation, set in motion by Georges August Escoffier, a blacksmith's son who reignited national pride in the kitchen. The brand remains steeped in foodie philosophy, which, says Ingrid Lung – now senior brand manager at Le Creuset's London office, having started her career at the company 16 years ago (“My first job… my mother was thrilled!”) – accounts for its resilience.
The brand prides itself on creating modern heirlooms which, far from sitting in the attic, participate in daily life before being handed down.
But the question arises: how can the company maintain healthy sales if the goods are outlasting their owners?
The brand has always embraced trends, developing grills (in the 1950s, when grilling was first linked to healthy eating), fondue sets, woks and tagines. But it all began with the cocotte, coated by Desaegher and Aubecq in Volcanic-Flame orange, inspired by the molten iron used in production. After the cocotte came a steady stream of models, each blending forward- thinking with heritage. The UK also came on board, an awareness of Le Creuset all part of the culinary awakening brought about by the food writer and champion of French cooking Elizabeth David. The company's logo is a representation of the crucible – the creuset – in which all its cast-iron pots are conceived.
Innovation is what Le Creuset is founded on, since Desaegher and Aubecq first coated cast iron with enamel.
Each piece passes through six inspections, carried out by specialists capable of spotting the most inconspicuous of inconsistencies. Colour remains one of the most effective ways of keeping people interested, says Mme Lung, but each one can take up to six months to perfect.
Attempts to reach beyond the brand loyalists – primarily women aged 35 –55 – and appeal to men as well as young urbanites, have included ranges in Satin Black and Ink, Cassis and Teal. For M Salle, it all comes back to the crucible: if the recipe isn't right, if your equipment lets you down, if your heart isn't in it, all is lost.

Stir to dissolve sugar.Beat egg yolks in a bowl and slowly whisk hot milk mixture into eggs.
A slight man in his mid-forties, wearing mustard trousers and workman's boots, M Salle is enjoying a meal in the airy annex of a factory in windswept north-east France.
And as Le Creuset – literally, “the crucible” – turns 90, M Salle, the factory manager, is one of those charged with helping to ensure that the company's future is as successful as its past. Above all, Le Creuset provides a stable backdrop to the shifting patterns of culinary life as expressed in everything from a rushed late-night pasta sauce to an eight-hour braised shoulder of lamb with apricots and ginger. It also sits at a historic crossroads for the transportation of coke, iron and sand – the raw materials that go into every cast-iron pot and pan still forged on the site. Little is known about the men except that they met at the Brussels Fair only a year before opening the factory and offering employment in an area devastated, economically and emotionally, by war. At > a time of empty seats around the kitchen table – an estimated 700,000 Frenchwomen were widowed by the First World War – the arrival of Le Creuset must have been particularly cheering, as though the stoicism of the nation had been captured and coated in 1920s verve.
Like the best French fashion houses, the company doesn't release sales figures, though Van Zuydam regularly reports double-digit growth.
There are recipes for okonomiyaki, Durban fish curry, and dark chocolate and almond souffle.
As well as being dishwasher-proof, unlike many cast-iron products, Le Creusets require no seasoning; enamel is already the most even and hygienic sealant around. The internet is woven through with stories of “the pan my grandmother gave me”, “the pot I was given when I got married in 1973, and didn't know how to cook…” And Le Creusets are the focus of these stories like no other brand, cited with pride and a sense of communion. As with most foodies, branching into wine has long been part of the equation, says Mme Lung – ever since Van Zuydam bought Hallen International Inc from its founder, Herbert Allen, who had invented the first “screw-pull” corkscrew in 1979. The name translates as “small oven”, and this year, in honour of Le Creuset's foundation, 1,925 replicas went on sale for ?299 each, complete with a certificate of authenticity.
By the mid-1950s, Le Creuset was exporting across Europe, but the most significant change was that 50 per cent of production was being shipped straight to the US. While rationing dragged on into the mid-1950s, David fired people's imaginations with books such as French Country Cooking. Here, M Salle explains, unfazed by the spitting lava behind him, 15 per cent pure pig iron is blended with 35 per cent recycled steel and 50 per cent iron, at a temperature of 1,500C for 40 minutes.
Though the factory's work is increasingly automated, this stage requires a “human touch”, M Salle says. This too contributes to the high cost of the finished product, explains Mme Lung, the smallest round casserole costing ?75. At the end of it all, you need to have the confidence to be able to use and abuse your cookware.
Return everything to a saucepan and cook gently, stirring, until mixture just comes to a boil.

Not much has changed over the years in the area surrounding the factory, but a great deal is changing within its walls.
A YouTube channel dedicated to Le Creuset offers “Harvest to Heat”, a series riffing on the farm-to-table ethos, as well as a popular strand in which chefs take on the “five-ingredient challenge”. There have been collaborations with chefs, including, in the UK, Ollie Dabbous and the Chiappa sisters – “We don't pay them,” Mme Lung is quick to point out. Allen, so the story goes, was having dinner at home in Texas when his wife challenged him to come up with an uncorking device that required no tugging whatsoever.
And Julia Child – the rollicking Cordon Bleu-trained Californian who, in books and TV series, encouraged Americans to embrace a French approach to food (“Get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken”) – was largely to thank. Selfridges took the first orders of Le Creuset in 1961 and, a few years later, David herself opened a shop in Pimlico specialising in imported kitchen equipment; her pamphlet “Cooking with Le Creuset” became a domestic fixture. The liquid is transferred to a casting machine, and poured into sand moulds, formed by “male” and “female” parts that fit together as you would imagine, leaving a 3mm space. This year, he announced a five-year plan to open 100 new stores a year, right across the world. Then there are the thousands of fan videos, from the pedestrian (“How to fry an egg using a Le Creuset skillet”), to the topical (“The perfect holiday goose”).
That he was nearly 80 and still at the cutting edge of design must have struck a chord with Le Creuset.
The moulds are filled at a rate of 500 an hour, with each being used only once – “so each piece is unique”, Mme Lung adds. This kind of presence, as well as the continued development of stoneware and stainless steel ranges, is sustained by a similarly global network of factories – in China (accessories), Thailand (kettles and ceramics), Portugal (stainless steel), and the US (enamel cleaner).
He has overseen 40 tours of the facility in almost as many weeks, but it's clear that he's raring to go round again. The new lid handle is heat-resistant and more ergonomic – though it still provides a steady plinth, when you upturn the lid, on which to rest a heavy roasted bird while you deglaze the pot for gravy. Van Zuydam bought the patented technology a couple of years before Allen's death, in 1990, ensuring its legacy.
This requires an endless supply of sand (98 per cent of which is recycled), which is stored in towering blue vats intersected by yellow pipes and steel funnels. For cast iron, though, “it's very important to stay in France”, says M Salle – for the emotion and psychology of the brand, if not for the accountants' peace of mind. The original now resides at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while its offspring – including the updated lever model, now made by Le Creuset – are Christmas-list staples.

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