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The Independent Culture
IN A GLASS case in the V & A, two pig-shaped terracotta pots sit at eye level, poised as if ready for take-off. These rust-red chicken bricks - clearly unused, since there's not a trace of grease in sight - are on display in the Habitat gallery, representing the Sixties. Kitchen shops are selling chicken bricks again, along with the thick country pots and dishes first popularised in Britain by Elizabeth David. From her celestial kitchen, she must look down with a wry smile. What goes around comes around.

Earthenware pots are the oldest kind of cooking vessel. Those made with red clay that fires to a warm ruddy-brown are known collectively as terracotta. Pottery made with buff-white clay, like the green-glazed ware from Berry in France, is also earthenware. When fired at a relatively low temperature, earthenware remains porous unless covered with glaze.

You can easily test a pot's porosity by dropping some water on the unglazed clay. If it soaks in quickly then the clay is highly porous. When you apply the same test to stoneware and porcelain - both fired at higher temperatures - the water runs off because the clay has vitrified and is no longer porous.

Terracotta cooking pots can still be found in Mediterranean markets. Quickly - almost roughly - made on a potter's wheel, their shapes are remarkably unchanged from their ancient forebears on display in the local museums. I find these practical, beautiful artefacts immensely appealing. From Cyprus I've hauled back narrow-necked kleftiko pots. In Morocco it's difficult to choose between the plain or decorated conical-lidded tagines. While Spain and Portugal offer an embarassment of riches with their magnificent array of unglazed and part-glazed cooking pots from small casuelita to huge caldera. The inexpensive cazuela - a shallow flameproof dish used all over Spain - is a big seller here, boosted enormously by its appearance in the Floyd on Spain TV series and in a Delia Smith recipe a couple of years ago.

All earthenware cooking pots should be heated slowly. Cazuelas, and other earthenware pots with the underside unglazed - and sometimes labelled flameproof - can be exposed to direct heat, though to prevent any damage from heat spots, it is sensible to place a heat- diffusing mat between the heat source and the pot. To protect the glaze from crazing and the clay from cracking, avoid sudden changes of temperature such as adding very cold ingredients to a hot earthenware pot. After use, allow it to cool, then soak in cold water before washing by hand.

Completely unglazed terracotta pots include the ubiquitious chicken brick, a small cup-sized pot for roasting garlic, and even the flowerpot moulds made in north Devon for baking bread. Romertopf casseroles intended for cooking chicken or fish are sometimes known as Roman pots. Before using each time, all these pots should be steeped in cold water for 15-45 minutes.

Lidded, unglazed pots can be used with no extra cooking liquid or fat, since the food bakes in its own juices. Joints of bacon, poultry and game cooked in these pots with just a handful of fresh herbs and a little chopped onion or garlic are tender and full of flavour. If you have access to sweet-smelling fresh hay (no problem in the country; in towns a pet shop might supply some), try baking a chicken in a hay-lined chicken brick in a medium oven for 112-2 hours. During cooking, the chicken absorbs the delicate flavour of the hay, which makes the bird taste superb.

In countries where terracotta pots are in daily use, the oils and cooking juices gradually seep into the clay itself until the aroma acquired by the pot enhances the flavour of food cooked in it. However, should a pot develop an unappetising or musty odour - which can happen quite easily if it is not completely dried after washing - then try the trick I learnt in Cyprus: fill the pot with cold water, add a handful of bay leaves and a couple of sliced, raw potatoes, and place in a low oven for two to four hours. If this fails, toss it out or relegate it to the windowsill for growing a geranium.

Earthenware pots are best suited to gentle, careful cooking: salt cod, for instance, rinsed under trickling cold water for a day, then cooked so slowly that it melts into the garlic and olive oil to make bacalao ligado; new- laid eggs, cooked in a shallow dish over a small stove - just as portrayed by Velasquez in Old Woman Cooking Eggs; or a couple of wood pigeons, stuffed with herbs and covered with strips of bacon, and baked in a covered pot with a splash of wine until the meat falls from the bone. These are classic country dishes whose names often derive from the cooking pot itself: the Spanish tuna fish and red pepper stew known as marmitako; or the Provencal tian, an aromatic dish of baked, layered vegetables.

In the south of France you can still find glorious old terracotta cooking pots, their glazes a little crazed or chipped. I spare these noble pots the fierce heat of an oven but use them instead for salads, fruit or bread - served outdoors, ideally under a Provencal sky.


Serves 4

This fine dish comes from Pepita Aris's excellent book, Recipes from a Spanish Village (Conran Octopus pounds 15.99). When fresh peas are unavailable, I replace them with tiny broad beans, or otherwise double the quantity of French beans.

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

lOOg/4oz cooking chorizo sausage, ham or smoked bacon, cubed

350g/12oz red or green sweet peppers, chopped

350g/12oz ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped

1-2 tablespoons fino or amontillado sherry

l00g/4oz fresh peas

100g/4oz slim French beans, snapped in short lengths

8 large fresh free-range eggs

salt and pinch of cayenne pepper

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and warm a shallow oven dish or medium cazuela. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and soften the onion slowly. Add the garlic and push it to the sides of the pan, then fry the chorizo, ham or bacon until coloured; transfer to the oven dish and keep warm.

Add the peppers and tomatoes to the frying pan and cook for eight to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until almost all the liquid has evaporated, then stir in the sherry and spoon the mixture into the oven dish.

Meanwhile, cook the peas and beans in boiling salted water, drain and add to the oven dish. Break the eggs into a bowl and swirl with a fork, but avoid over-mixing. Season well with salt and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Pour into the oven dish and bake in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes until the eggs are just set. Serve with warm bread.