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Le Creuset marks 90 years as top of the pots

A Le Creuset cast-iron enamelled casserole dish is a prized kitchen possession. As the company behind them celebrates its 90th birthday, Jane Hanks finds out what makes them so special

It is the dish that lasts forever; the wedding present that never wears out. 

THEY are more expensive than almost any other casserole dish you can buy.

Prices for Le Creuset saucepans start at €135 and the cheapest 20cm diameter casserole dish costs €65. Yet, despite this, they are coveted by many a keen cook.

Florence Mairesse who is in charge of marketing for Le Creuset says the price is justified because their goods are the Rolls-Royce of cook ware: “We were the first to produce enamelled pots and have continued to concentrate on the same product in the same factory for 90 years.

“This means we have developed an expertise which makes our enamelled cast-iron dishes the best in the world. Our enamel is the most resistant and our cast-iron the lightest possible.

“We have engineers constantly working to improve our techniques, and research and development is very important to us. Each pot is rigorously controlled and we put a huge emphasis on quality and standards.”

Le Creuset ware is guaranteed for life and often bought and used for a lifetime: “Though our dishes are expensive, they aren’t bought just by the rich,” says Mrs Mairesse.

“Customers will save up for a Le Creuset and know it is worth doing because their purchase will last.

“People are going back to the old values of durability when they buy and moving away from throw-away consumerism.”

The Le Creuset story started when two Belgian industrialists met at a fair in Brussels. One, Armand Desaegher, was a specialist in cast iron. The second, Octave Aubecq, was a specialist in enamelling. They decided to create a foundry to enamel cookware items.

They chose Fresnoy-le-Grand, in the Aisne, for their business because of its position at the crossroads of transport routes for their three main raw ingredients – coke, iron and sand. The first cocotte was produced in 1925.

Le Creuset made its name producing colourful enamelled cast-iron pots at a time when pots in the kitchen were drab. Its first colour was flame orange, now the company’s signature tone, that was inspired by the molten iron used to make the pots.

The original design has barely changed, barring improvements in the enamel, handles on the side have been made bigger to get the dish out of the cooker more easily and the handle on the lid is now metal rather than plastic so that it can be transferred from hob to oven without damage.

There are new shapes, including a heart and a wider range of colours.

Like the design, manufacturing methods remain similar to those used 90 years ago. All the cast-iron cookware is still made at the foundry in Fresnoy-le-Grand, which uses a traditional sand-casting method.

More than 30 people are involved in the production of each dish and each pot has its own unique mould so no two pieces of Le Creuset are ever the same.

Two sand moulds are needed for each dish. One produces the interior and the second, the exterior shape. The moulds are put together, leaving a small gap where molten iron at a temperature of 1,400°C is poured into the mould — having been heated to that temperature in a huge cauldron, called a creuset.

Once the iron has cooled, it is removed from the mould, which is destroyed in the process, and the sand is recycled.

Each piece then passes through several hand-finishing stages to make sure imperfections are removed in a process known as “fettling”. Then it is blasted by tiny metal pellets to prepare a surface for enamelling.

There are two coats in the enamelling process. The first is a ground coat which is fired at 840°C and is clear. Then one of more than 40 available colours is applied. Pieces are then air-dried before being vitrified to produce a durable finish.

Each pot is then checked by hand before being packed and sent all over the world.

Le Creuset says one of the advantages of cooking in an enamelled cast-iron dish is a gradual increase in heat resulting in an even spread of temperature, allowing the food to conserve its nutritional qualities.

They can be used for all styles of cooking: electric, including the modern induction rings, gas and on top of the hob as well as in the oven.

The company has expanded to create kitchen implements made of other materials such as ceramic, silicon, and steel to include utensils, kettles, quiche dishes and the subsidiary Screwpull which makes wine accessories. These are made in factories all over the world.

But the ‘Made in France’ cocotte remains the best-selling item, is only made in Fresnoy-le-Grand and is exported to over 70 countries with the United States buying the most. Every foreign market has its different demands.

“In America, customers want the biggest dishes and often in sombre colours,” said Mrs Mairesse. “However, the Japanese want small pots and they love anything that is pink or red.

“The UK is different again. The saucepan line is very popular compared to France and we sell a lot of skillets which aren’t even made for the French market.”

She says that adapting and innovating are crucial to the future of Le Creuset: “No company can survive unless it is willing to change with the times, so every year we bring out new products and new colours.

“This year there will be a matt blue for France called the Riviera. We have 42 colours available every year and ever since we produced the first orange coloured cocotte in 1925, colour has played a very

 important part in our range. We ask our technicians to produce the impossible when we dream up a new tone, but they always manage it.”

For the 90th anniversary, a limited edition replica of the first cocotte dish has been made. Just 90 of the 1,925 production run were made for sale in France. They cost €500 and went on sale in November. Mrs Mairesse says there are very few left. There is also an international blog where proud owners can share Le Creuset memories at lecresuet90.com

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