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Cooking Good with La Chamba Clay Cookware


Google “best cookware,” and you’ll find stainless steel All-Clad at the top of most lists. It has good heat conduction, it’s sleek, and it’s fairly easy to clean. It also costs a bundle — a starter set runs about $700. I once splurged on a Calphalon non-stick sauté pan, figuring $140 would buy something that wouldn’t morph from non-stick to high-stick within months, like a cheaper model. Not so. I love my indestructible Le Creuset pots and vintage cast-iron frying pans, but they’re heavy and the cast iron has to be reseasoned from time to time.

But I’ve found some cookware that seems to have no drawbacks. It’s rustic, black clay pottery, handmade in La Chamba, a village on the Magdalena River in Central Columbia. Villagers there have been making these pots and pans for the past 700 years or so — archaeologists have dug them up in pre-Columbian sites — and, unlike us, always looking for the new and improved, they found something good and stuck with it.

The pieces are lightweight, and made with black clay that contains a lot of mica, so it conducts heat. There’s no lead in the clay, and the pots are unglazed, so no potential toxins there, either. You can use the cookware in the oven, for sautéing on the stovetop, in the microwave — even over an open fire. The pieces are good looking enough to go to the table, and they’re easy to clean. I just wipe my casserole with a sponge; food doesn’t really stick. Best of all, soups, stews and braises cooked in them taste really good because they retain moisture.

The pieces are sturdy, but you shouldn’t expose them to sudden changes in temperature — it’s best not to preheat the oven, and don’t take a pot from the stove and put it on a cold surface. They shouldn’t go in the dishwasher, either.

The black clay belongs by law to the residents of La Chamba, and almost all the villagers make the pots in their houses, shaping them by hand. They’re burnished with river stones and fired in small, wood-burning kilns. Every time I use mine, I think of people a world away.

The pots come in all sizes and shapes. A medium casserole or saute pan costs around $55 or so. I know of two places to buy them in the Hudson Valley — Bop to Tottom in Uptown Kingston, and Winter Sun/Summer Moon in Rhinebeck — but I’m sure there are more. If you know of any, please share the info.

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