KITCHENALIA

ENAMELWARE
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The Independent Culture
NO MORE peering into junk-shop windows or riffling through jumble sales. And my mother's dog can have its big pie dish back, because I've just found a supply of pristine, pearly white enamelware in my local kitchenware shop. It's the same blue-rimmed design that hasn't changed for generations: mugs, colanders with two handles and three sturdy feet, plates with a flat, wide rim that are perfect for treacle tart, and the best-shaped pie dishes ever devised.

Still widely used in kitchens all over the world, light-weight vitreous enamelware has staged a comeback. Even non-cooking fashion gurus have pronounced speckled enamelware a la mode. Here, in the heat of a proper kitchen, enamelware gets a thumbs-up from me for sheer practicality.

Both heavy and light-weight vitreous enamel are manufactured by fusing a thin layer of glass-like material on to a base of steel, iron or aluminium. The process - which takes its name from the Latin for glass, vitrum- is akin to the ancient method of making enamelled jewellery. But its widespread use for kitchen utensils dates from the 1840s following the introduction of a lead-free enamel with a china clay base as an alternative to tin for lining saucepans.

Compared with the heavy, coal-black iron pots and pans in use at the time, enamelware offered many advantages. It was smooth, light, and easy to clean. Soon, almost every item in the kitchen from flour bins and bread bins to fish slices, funnels, bowls and measuring jugs was manufactured in enamelled steel, mainly in white, and exported all over the world. "The lately introduced grey enamel ware is likewise serviceable, and at the same time light," wrote Colonel A R Kenney-Herbert in Culinary Jottings for Madras, in 1870. Even today, on the island of St Helena, fresh fish is always stored until cooked on a white enamelled plate, so that all enamelled plates there are referred to as fish plates. "And the poor still eat off them," adds my St Helena friend.

Looking around my kitchen I can see a painter's palette of enamelware: a pillar-box red coffee pot from Poland, a speckled blue colander and soup ladle from Mexico, an orange teapot from Yugoslavia, a yellow saucepan from Portugal and a pink dish from China with a stencilled flower in the centre.

In the cupboard, heavier-gauge steel-based enamelware from British manufacturers includes an excellent 25-year-old cream and green oval pot-roaster and an indigo blue stockpot. The latest addition is a speckled black roasting pan, made in the US and labelled "Ceramic on Steel Graniteware", which certainly sounds tough. All this enamelware works perfectly, though after years of heavy use the surface gloss can disappear. My only reservation is for enamelled saucepans, which I find work best over gas, and even then catch too readily. In the 19th century porcelain milk boilers, resembling miniature lighthouses, were placed in the pan to deal with this problem.

Heavy-grade enamelled cast iron is a speciality of France, whose handsome cooking pots have led the way since their introduction in the 1930s. Although these are some of the most expensive cooking pots you can buy they are always a good investment since, with care, they will last for decades. The vitrified bond between enamel and cast iron is immensely strong; the surface is as hard as glass but, like glass, can be scratched and chipped if treated roughly. Even worse, as a dismal incident that involved a high shelf, my husband's DIY and lots of Le Creuset pots demonstrated, enamelled cast iron can actually break - if it falls from a height on to a quarry tiled floor. For some years now, my enamelled cast iron has been stored on low shelves in the kitchen.

I use these pots every day; they are a pleasure to cook with. And not only does food cook beautifully in enamelled cast iron, the same pot can be moved from hob to oven and then straight to the table: frying pans and gratin dishes, oval and round casseroles, terrine dishes and saucepans in blue, green, orange, red, black and white. I prefer those with enamel both inside and out, even though manufacturers introduce various non-stick surfaces from time to time, none of which seems as long-lasting as high gloss enamel.

In a small book written in 1969 to accompany Le Creuset cookware, Elizabeth David gives a selection of 40 recipes that are ideally suited to enamelled cast-iron cookware. As one would expect, all the recipes are simple and delicious: a salad of roasted red peppers, pork chops with white wine and mustard, braised endives, pot-roasted chicken, and pears baked in their skins.

Elizabeth David advises that enamelled cast-iron pots should be allowed to cool before you wash them "like any other kitchen utensils, with liquid detergent and a cleaning brush. If by mischance any food has stuck to a pan, it is necessary only to fill it with cold water, once the pan has cooled. Within half an hour it will be perfectly easy to clean." It's also worth noting that discoloured enamelware can be treated with a weak solution of household bleach.

PLUM AND ALMOND RATAFIA CRUMBLE

Serves 6

570g/1lb 4 oz ripe plums

115g-170g/4oz-6 oz caster sugar - quantity depends on the sweetness of the fruit

2 teaspoons cornflour

100g/312oz small almond ratafia biscuits

225g/8oz plain white flour

115g/4oz demerara sugar

140g/5oz butter

good pinch of ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.

Halve the plums and discard the stones. Measure the caster sugar and cornflour into a plastic bag and shake until mixed. Add the plum halves and shake gently until the fruit is coated with sugar.

Turn the contents of the bag into a deep, enamel or ceramic pie dish that holds 2 litres/312 pints. Cover the fruit with buttered paper and bake in the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the fruit is half- cooked, then discard the buttered paper.

Meanwhile, tip the almond ratafia biscuits into the plastic bag and crush lightly with a rolling pin until reduced to coarse crumbs. Measure the flour and demerara sugar into a mixing bowl and rub in the butter. Stir in the ground cinnamon and all but two tablespoons of the ratafia crumbs. Spoon the mixture over the fruit in an even layer and sprinkle the reserved ratafia crumbs on top.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the crumble is cooked and the top is golden brown. Serve hot or warm with cream.

Variation: in place of plums, use 450g/1lb chopped pink rhubarb mixed with 225g/8oz fresh or frozen raspberries.

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