French

This 6-Generation French Factory Still Makes Ceramics From Scratch

Emile Henry proves Burgundy turns out more than good wine.

October 12, 2018
Photo by Bobbi Lin

If you’ve ever cleaned a lasagna pan, arms sore from brushing and brushing against the stubbornest of cheeses, you may have found yourself swearing you’d never in a million years make it again, no matter how many guests fawned over it. Perhaps that’s why, upon tasting the most stupendous lasagna I’ve ever eaten in my life—think bay leaf–scented Bolognese swaddled by Gruyère—the detail that captivated me was the casually handsome ceramic dish it was served in. At the end of the meal, the dark gray number from Emile Henry looked virtually unused, save for a streak or two of garlicky, still-warm oil. Very little cheese clung to its sides (more for us!).

When the Food52 team visited the Emile Henry headquarters in Marcigny, a 2000-population hamlet in France, we learned that it was not magic that did right by this lasagna, but Burgundy clay. The region’s mineral-rich limestone terroir—what makes its wines so famous—imparts unique properties to ceramics, too, particularly the astonishingly high heat tolerance of 930°F. Your broiler is a crisp autumn day for this trooper!

While you will never, ever need to cook anything at that temperature, that tolerance is what allows Burgundy clay to diffuse heat in a gentle, even manner that keeps the food warm all dinner party long. Emile Henry dishes are meant to go straight from functioning well in a kitchen to looking lovely on a table. The company’s secret glaze formula, something of a family secret, makes for highly scratch-resistant dishes that keep their original color for years.

Behold the ruffles. Photo by Ty Mecham

Emile Henry abides by a simple rule: Make everything in France—Marcigny, specifically, the exact same Burgundy town the company has been operating out of since 1850. That way, CEO and sixth-generation heir Jean-Baptiste Henry can manage exactly what ingredients go into his family’s products; he can make sure tried-and-true techniques are honored. The production process mimics cooking a meal at home from scratch, rather than dining at a restaurant, where you’re not fully aware of what makes a particular dish sing.

Every Emile Henry tart dish or tagine or crown bread baker is meant to feel as personal and expressive as the foods one may cook in them. “When you cook for yourself or with somebody,” says Jean-Baptiste, “You perpetuate the traditions you live with, recipes you've learned from family. It's the same in all the world.” That may be why the brand has garnered fans across the globe, enough that certain Emile Henry products have been made out of popular demand in certain countries, even if it’s a smidge off-brand—a mug for Korea, a gold-colored tagine for the UAE.

What keeps Emile Henry current is a commitment to how people actually cook today, 30-minute meals and all. The company performs multiple demos and takes note of audience feedback, as well as keeps a close eye on what recipes are trending on food magazines and blogs, tweaking their products to match demands. The design of that lasagna pan, for example, was made eighteen different times before being approved, a feedback process that Jean-Baptiste finds exciting rather than tedious.

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 not common, 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.

Sealed with love. Photo by Rocky Luten

The factory workers make their work seem so natural and easy, but when I volunteered to unmold a would-be crown bread baker, it fell apart the second I held it. (They were very nice about it, considering the tragedy of less bread being made in the world because of my error.) Every artisan I met had a profound understanding of the raw material that went into each product, and it’s one of the reasons Emile Henry has zero interest in moving any step of their manufacturing process abroad.

“Here, we can control our quality because we have the know-how,” says John-Baptiste. “I would not have joined the company if we produced somewhere outside France.”

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.

Presto ring-o. Photo by Julia Gartland

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. “It is a major technical challenge,” says Jean-Baptiste, “one that has no consequence 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 color, would affect the other 500-or-so products in the kiln. (Thankfully, Emile Henry employees are extremely good at their jobs.)

After the kiln, quality is not just measured by good looks. There’s the thermal shock test, for example, in which you pour icy cold water on a very hot ceramic dish. Most ceramic products in the market will crack under this pressure, but no Emile Henry product is shipped off unless it passes this test. We witnessed this test in real time, as well as another test in which an employee tapped a dish gently with a piece of metal—if it chimed brightly, like a bell, it’s good to go; if it makes a low, hollow sound, it may crack in the oven.

The best and brightest. Photo by Ty Mecham

Exacting standards are important to the brand is because, to the Henry’s, these ceramics are more than handsome products—it’s their family’s story, one that’s continually evolving. An Emile Henry dish is made to last many, many years, perhaps even passed down from cook to cook—the way the company has been passed down the Henry family from father to son for 168 years.

But before a dish is passed down, it needs to be used to its full capacity. To Emile Henry, that means inviting friends and family for a home-cooked meal, the French country way. It’s the kind that lasts for hours, words exchanged over elegant dishes that are just as comfortable in a warm oven as they are on a table, surrounded by good company.

Have a fave Emile Henry dish? Tell us all about it in the comments below!

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