In the sleepy commune of Argent-Sur-Sauldre in the Loire Valley of France, population just a shade over 2,000, there’s a centuries-old factory located on the grounds of a French chateau. Straight out of a Tim Burton film, the factory has been sitting motionless for years and contains rooms brimming with the handcrafted wares it once produced: timeless culinary pottery pieces. They were untouched, some unfinished, and mostly gathering dust. All bore the name of Poterie Renault.
It was on a research trip to France in 2018 that Food52’s buyers first stumbled upon Poterie Renault cookware while sifting through antique stores. They managed to secure a limited-edition lot to share with the Food52 community—it sold out in less than 48 hours. Given the popularity, they decided to return to France to see for themselves what was hidden inside the fabled factory. That plan eventually manifested three years later, in the fall of 2021.
Perhaps best known for its rich history of wine production, the Loire Valley is also home to some of the finest clay in France, which is why Poterie Renault’s founder Stanislas Renault chose to build his company there in 1847. “The [Loire] region was the place to manufacture culinary pottery,” explained Guy Orban, Food52’s Trusted Treasure Hunter, who originally tipped off Food52 buyers to the shuttered factory.
The combination of that special clay and Renault’s legendary salt-glazing technique—throwing salt into the kiln at peak temperature to achieve a glassy, textured finish (like an orange peel)—made for high-quality, durable, and beautiful pieces that didn’t absorb flavors or odors. Soon, the salt-glazing technique became the standard in ceramics and Poterie Renault became the go-to supplier for cafes, restaurants, and hotels across France.
Five generations later, the company has ceased production but its pieces remain iconic, owing to their durability and their unchanged design—classic French silhouettes dating back to the 1600s. Rendered in earthy hues, they’re sturdy ceramics with delicate, handmade details, bringing to mind a homey French countryside kitchen; the kind of cookware that can double as serveware because they’re that charming. Stylish and limited in supply, they’ve attained somewhat of a cult status among vintage kitchenware collectors, in France and beyond.
The blend of quality and thoughtful design is what first drew the Food52 Buyers’ to Poterie Renault’s cookware—and, eventually, to Argent-Sur-Sauldre. In September, Food52’s Senior Merchandiser, Aja Aktay and Buyer, Casey Simring, accompanied by Guy, traveled to central France on a mission to explore Poterie Renault’s place of origin and hand-select new pieces to bring back to the Food52 community. Their quest did not disappoint.
They arrived in the quaint town, which, said, Aja, felt like out of a storybook, replete with Tudor houses, streets lined with flower boxes, and, of course, the friendly local farmer’s market. “Everyone seemed so happy just gathering their fresh vegetables and meats. Even the cheesemongers were singing,” said Aja.
When they arrived at the factory grounds, they were greeted by a treasure trove just waiting to be unearthed—ceramics like baking dishes, pitchers, jugs and stoneware breakfast bowls. “I’ve never experienced such a discovery,” said Guy. Like some kind of home cook’s fantasy, it was a garden of beautiful French cookware, ripe and ready for the picking.
“The pottery literally felt like it was growing on trees,” said Aja. “Outside there were stacks of it everywhere, perched on window sills, nestled in the grass, bathing in the sun. Inside, it felt as if time completely stopped. The potter's room was filled with dozens of unglazed pottery just waiting to be fired.”
Guided by Jean and Gilles of the Renault family, the fifth generation of owners, the buyers were near speechless as they floated from room to room. In the potter’s room, Jean Renault explained, potters would sit at the wheel and craft 80 to 120 pieces per day. Said Casey, “As a ceramics enthusiast, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. Despite such a large output, you could tell that each piece was carefully handled throughout its journey through the factory—these were truly hand-formed pieces.”
Casey and Aja learned about the entire process, coming to understand what made Poterie Renault’s pieces so special. Gilles Renault, the former factory chief, explained that it began at the source. “It’s a lot of little steps to produce but first you have to choose good clay.” That clay is mixed with water and then the mixture is filtered to eliminate impurities. The pieces are plunged into a basin with a glaze and dried again. Then, into the fire.
The buyers visited the 170-year-old kiln, where the figurative magic once happened. Fired up to 1200 degrees celsius, the potters would throw salt from the ceiling into the kiln’s buckets, imparting the characteristic salt glaze finish. “Each piece could take on a different coloration based on where it was located inside the kiln,” added Aja.
The mission, to bring back Poterie Renault’s artisanal cookware, took on a new sheen as well, not just to offer the finest French craftsmanship to the Food52 community, but also to preserve history. Guy explained, “Nobody manufactures with the salt glaze technique anymore. It is a thing of the past.” To own a piece of Poterie Renault cookware is to preserve a relic of that past.
As it turned out, the Food52 team was also helping to preserve the town’s cultural heritage. The Poterie Renault factory had long been a point of pride for Argent-Sur-Sauldre. More recently, local residents, even the mayor, had been pitching in to clean up the unused pottery. But over the years, severe roof damage had threatened the integrity of the factory’s main building, not to mention, all of its treasures. Since partnering with Food52, the Renault family has managed to replace the roof in its entirety. “The Food52 community made this possible,” said Guy.
Today, Food52 continues the legacy of Poterie Renault by offering a selection of limited edition vintage pottery: ramekins, bowls, creamers, jugs, baking dishes, and more. Proving that household items can possess seemingly opposite attributes at once—both simple and extraordinary—they’re made to be used every day and cherished for generations.
On their last morning in France, the Buyers had the chance to visit Jean Renault’s home, where family heirlooms adorned the cupboards and shelves. Handling two of the pieces with care, Jean explained, “These bowls are ordinary looking, but we’re very much attached to them.” Maybe it’s the heritage, or maybe it’s the craftsmanship. It’s hard to pin down and impossible to replicate.
Do you have a Poterie Renault discovery story of your own? Share it with us in the comments!