Romans, Romertopf, and Fat Lava
Posted on January 14, 2016
My love for my Romertopf clay baker is due in equal parts to practical usability, my nostalgia and the design. The iconic lettering and whimsical animals on the unglazed ceramic clay cookers make me reminisce of the aesthetics of the kitchens of the 1970’s—evoking memories of fondue sets, yogurt makers, chia pets, and macramé pot holders. When I was in my twenties and starting to really work on my cooking skills, I had a dreamlike memory from the kitchens of my childhood of this ceramic pot and began to search for one. After a little internet research, I found that the original company was still making them and I ordered one.
In the winter I tend to have an assortment of different game—deer, elk, quail, fish—saved in my freezer and I always try to come up with creative ways to cook it. Game presents different challenges than conventional meat—it can be tough, gamey and dry—but the magic solution for even the toughest meat is to prepare it in the clay pot. The porous pottery absorbs water while it is soaked for 10-30 minutes before using and then it “breathes” a small amount of water on the ingredients during cooking as the pot dries out. I have adapted many recipes—stews, bourguignon, curries, and carnitas are some of my favorites—with amazing results. You don’t need to add extra liquid as almost none is lost during cooking which may be one of the reasons the flavors are so vibrant and unique.
Clay pot cookery is thousands of years old and was used by many early civilizations. You can find still some style of clay pot cooking in many countries throughout the world, but the Romertophf was conceived of by the West German art pottery company Bay Keramik in 1966. It was officially debuted at the Frankfurt Fair and then in 1968 taken to many other shows becoming an instant hit. Inspired by Etruscan and Roman clay pot cooking, the name Romertopf literally translates to “Roman pot”. The somewhat kitschy seventies treatment of the type and animals on the pot itself give a nod to it’s Roman inspiration.
Founded in 1933 by Eduard Bay, Bay Keramik was one of many postwar West German art pottery companies that were popularized in the sixties and seventies. This genre of pottery is generally referred to as Fat Lava— referencing the extra thick glazes that can resemble lava flows in saturated primary hues. Although they didn’t stop producing art pottery altogether until the 1980’s—their work always being a blend of some really quality pieces as well as a large amount of kitsch and tourist ware—they slowed production due to declining demand for art pottery and they focused on their kitchen items.
Although it seemed to me that clay pot cooking had slipped from popularity, it appears as though these pots are making a comeback with home enthusiasts and foodies. It is understandable given that it is an indescribable treat to pull your clay baker out of the oven—after waiting, smelling, and wondering for hours—to carefully open the lid and be hit by a swirl of steam revealing what your creation has become. Something about the interaction of the pottery, the water, and the ingredients brings something distinctive to the results that I have never found with other pots—and in many ways it can always take me home again.
Roman style Beef or Game Stew (Stufatino Alla Romana) in a clay pot
In honor of the Romertopf, this is my modified version of this traditional Roman dish.
If you can find them, add roasted cardoons—a popular vegetable in Rome since ancient times—or globe artichokes at the end of cooking.
4 – 6 servings
3 lb Elk, Venison, or beef top rump (bottom round) cut into 1.5” cubes
1/3 cup flour with salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbs Olive oil
4 Tbs Butter
6 oz Pancetta or not too smoky bacon, chopped
2 Medium onions, cubed
4 Garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
2 Celery stalks, diced
1 Carrot, diced
1 Tbs marjoram and thyme, chopped
12 fl oz or 1.5 cups Red wine
3/4 cup Tomato purée or finely diced tomatoes
3” piece of parmesan rind* optional
2 bay leaves Fresh parsley for serving
Soak the clay pot, both bottom and lid, fully submersed in cold water.
Coat the meat cubes in the seasoned flour, shake off any excess. Heat the oil in a large flameproof casserole. Add the pancetta or bacon pieces and fry until they are crisp and have rendered all of their fat. Transfer them to kitchen towels to drain. Add the beef/game cubes in batches being careful not to crowd the pan and fry until they are evenly browned. Add butter as needed if the pan becomes too dry. Transfer meat to a bowl.
Add the remaining butter and then the onion, garlic, carrots and celery to the casserole and fry until the onion is soft. Stir in the marjoram, thyme and reserved bacon, and pour in the wine using it to deglaze the pan of any browned bits. Remove the clay pot from the soaking water. Add the meat and contents of pan to the clay pot bottom. Add the tomato purée, bay leaves, and parmesan rind.
Put the lid on and place clay pot in a cold oven and turn the heat to 400F. Cook for 1-3 hours depending on meat, checking it after 1 hour to make sure it is not too dry. Remove the rind and bay leaves and finish with chopped parsley.