A friend told us about this almost ninety-year-old gentleman who made beautiful copper pots in his old-fashioned workshop near Pistoia, then life, by chance, put us in contact with his grandson, and here begins our story. First we met Francesco on line, then in his family shop, Bottega Donnini, in Pescia, where he recently joined his grandfather.
As soon as you enter their workshop, you find yourself inside a cave of wonders. On one side, in what was once an old church, all their products perfectly aligned, shiny, inviting, glistening in the dim light with a warm copper glare. On the other side, the room that Francesco calls the pots’ library, where there are all the moulds that, once applied to the lathe, give birth to artisan skillets, pans, pots, dishes, cups and jugs. Everything comes from a copper disc, and from the now expert hands of Francesco and his grandfather, from the accurate and precise movements of the whole body.
And then shelves, stairs, closets, historical artefacts, objects left by forgetful customers decades ago, the shrill noise of the lathe. Over all, the dust of time.
One of our 2018 projects is to bring here on the blog artisans, local producers and friends, to give them a face and a voice, to share an inspiring story, or simply to make you travel to a true, authentic Tuscany.
Today we want to tell you about Francesco and Giovanni, also known as Nino, about their story that intersects with that of a provincial town, about an artisan work that finds new life when a grandson changes completely his life, leaving Milan to join his ninety-year-old grandfather.
Francesco, when you step into this workshop you can literally breath history, not only that of a family, but the story of an entire country. Tell us about Bottega Donnini and its origins.
It is a house where a penniless family used to live. A church built in the seventeenth century during the Manzoni plague. A crypt. A boy who kicks his master, another one who pursued a dream and then got disappointed. And it is a small copper mine in the heart of Tuscany. It is the union of all these things, which in half a century of history have created an activity that still resists the passing of time.
My grandmother taught me how to cook, but when we’re together in the kitchen we are continuously bickering about the way things should be done. What is it like to work with a 90-year-old grandfather?
Once my grandfather told me something that left a mark on me. “Francesco, I’ve seen the nineteenth century“. He was referring to the fact that, in the 1930s, when he was a child, the city in which we live had remained stationary to a century before. In front of his house he would see horse-drawn carriages, the roads were not paved, electricity was scarcely spread. It is weird to think that the man who has seen these things is now the protagonist of some posts on Facebook. Yet, despite having experienced a similar change, he has always been immersed in an almost timeless space, that of our shop. This is the hard side of working with a ninety-year-old grandfather: it is difficult to make him understand that out there, there is a world much more complex than he thinks.
You joined your grandfather in the workshop just recently, but we could say that copper has always run through your veins. What is copper for you?
It is my childhood. Copper has an acrid dry smell that many people do not appreciate, but it is my Proust’s madeleine. It calls to mind mixed up images, all set in a past summer: a crowd of people, playing cards on a table, a watermelon in a bucket. My grandfather, then, was so famous in my town that I would always introduce myself as the copper maker’s grandson. Willy-nilly, it has always been part of my life. For this reason, I have a copper atom tattooed on my forearm.
So we can say that you grew up in this shop. Do you remember your first experience with the lathe?
I was scared, maybe I did it just to please my grandfather. I remember that we did it secretly, when my grandmother was not there, as she didn’t want me to learn. At the time, I speak of twenty-five years ago, there was still the idea that your job helped define your self-worth: I was born in a good family, I had to study and go to work wearing a suit and tie. I remember only a great noise and the terror of being in front of a spinning disk. Obviously, I did not accomplish anything that day, as in the next two or three years.
I just can’t imagine how many people and stories passed through this shop in all these years. Your grandfather told us about famous customers, chefs of important families who requested custom pots… Who are your customers?
I do not know why, but all our customers are a bit special. They are curious, they love the details, they take their time, refusing to get caught up in the frenetic pace of modernity. Appreciating the raw material, touching an object, desiring something physical is an almost revolutionary attitude in a world that seems to be heading towards the virtual and the intangible. Even a trivial gesture like buying a pot can be a strong statement of identity.
Coming back to these days, and to your role in the shop. How can technology help you in your work?
Until a few years ago, everything would rely on the word of mouth, today it is no longer enough. Having a connection at hand allows me to tell what happens in the shop at all times, and I think that, for a craftsman, this is an added value. It is as if I had a window on the world, through which every passing person can see not only the products on display, but the way they are made. If we do not show the work behind every product, we cannot expect that people could recognize its value. Although technology is important, manual skills remain central. It is the very essence of craftsmanship. Otherwise it’s called industry, and it’s another thing. Not worse, simply diverse.
How do you see the future of craftsmanship from this century-old shop?
Artisanal work sometimes is idealised, we often lose contact with what is the true reality of craftsmanship: a very hard and tiring job, which involves many sacrifices and a lot of commitment. The truth is that nowadays craftsmanship benefits from a sort of “moral superiority” that is very often unjustified compared to industry. Often the craft product has nothing more than an excellent industrial product and we cannot expect people to be willing to spend more just because “inside” the artisan object there’s the hand of man.
Only by making visible what we do and our daily life will we be able to give them the value they deserve. The work of the craftsman is as one with his story: people buy not just a simple object, but all the story that it carries within.
Now let’s get back into the kitchen. In recent years, copper pots have always been hung on the wall or used as furnishing accessories. What about cooking with copper pots?
It has always been the great dilemma of our business: should we make kitchen objects or furnishing accessories? Until a decade ago, copper pots and pans were just a decoration. The houses still had a retro style, and many objects were hung on the wall. It was a pity, as about half of our work is dedicated to making usable pots: this is the reason why our products are all stagnated.
Lately, however, things have changed: there has been a sort of natural selection of customers, and today our clients are passionate cooks who buy copper cookware to use it in the kitchen. Copper needs a lot of care, but cooking with it is rewarding like with no other pot.
Copper cookware in the kitchen
Today copper pots are displayed in the classiest kitchens and in chefs’ ateliers: they have a timeless elegance that turns them into objects of desire. Copper pots are not just beautiful, though. Copper is an excellent conductor, and this is why it has always been one of the favourite choices of chefs and pastry chefs: it guarantees uniform heat distribution and precise cooking.
Think about the old copper cauldron for polenta, resting on a smoky fireplace, but also about the precision of a maître pâtissier’s polsonetto to make caramel. Copper cookware is also a legacy of tradition, used for cooking game, braised meat, fish and risotto.
If you approach for the first time a copper pot, it is important to remember to keep the flame moderate, otherwise you would risk to burn everything!
After the visit to Bottega Donnini I finally baked the chickpea cake in the original copper pan, as they do in Livorno in the torterie. Now I have a ciambellone mould that I can also use to cook latte alla portoghese, I have a pan for crespelle that has just the right size and, above all, a saucepan to make risotto.
Barley risotto with fava beans, pecorino and lemon zest
So, let it be a risotto, or, better, an orzotto. An orzotto is just a risotto made with orzo, barley. Have you ever tried it? You’ll be surprised and you might change your routine to introduce this cereal.
Seasonal, fresh and spring-like, a barley risotto with fava beans, pecorino cheese and lemon.
Just like when you clean the agretti, one by one, or when you shell the fresh peas, just like when you remove leaf after leaf to reach the pale artichoke heart, shelling the beans for this risotto is a form of meditation. Spring vegetables require your patience: first to find them on the market stalls after the winter frost, then to bring them to the table.
This risotto with beans and lemon is an act of love, keep it in mind when you’ll make it for those who really deserve it!
- 1 kg of fresh fava beans or broad beans
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 2 shallots
- 140 g of pearled barley
- ½ glass of dry white wine
- 400 ml of lightly salted vegetable stock
- 100 g of fresh Tuscan pecorino diced
- A few grids of black pepper
- Zest of ½ organic lemon cut into thin strips or grated
Shell the fava beans and blanch them for a minute in a pot of boiling water.
Pass them under cold water, then remove the outer skin: make a small slit with a knife along the edge and pop the bean out from its skin. Collect the beans in a bowl and set aside.
Now make the orzotto. Pour two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in the bottom of a saucepan, then add the finely minced shallots. Add a pinch of salt, too, so the shallots will stew without burning, as the salt will extract their moisture.
When the shallots are wilted and golden, add the barley and toast it over medium heat for a few minutes, then pour in the white wine.
When the wine has been absorbed, gradually add the hot stock, stirring often and cooking the barley over medium-low heat. The cooking time will vary depending on the type of barley you have chosen. For the pearled barley, it is about 20 minutes.
When the barley is al dente, remove it from the heat and stir in the shelled fava beans and the diced fresh pecorino.
Whisk the cheese into the barley to melt it, then add the finely sliced lemon peel. Serve the orzotto still piping hot and creamy.
Come si puliscono le pentole di rame? Come ci si cucina? Qui di seguito qualche link interessante per scoprire qualcosa in più su questo materiale tradizionale così affascinante.
- A guide to cooking in and caring for copper
- The complete guide to using and caring for copper pots
- This is the Etsy Shop of Bottega Donnini, where you can find the copper saucepan I used today for the barley risotto and much more.