Torchons, or kitchen cloths from France
Whenever I see the handwoven French kitchen towels called torchons at the flea market for a good price, I snatch them up. Most have a red stripe running down the sides. Some are plain weave. Others are woven in old patterns such as herringbone or bird’s eye. Some have initials embroidered in a corner. Most have loops for hanging.
I treasure the ones I have. And almost lost it the other day when I found my husband had gotten beet juice and tomato on one of my favorites. I tried to explain: These are handwoven. They're not meant to wipe your hands on or mop up spilt sauce.
Use them to cover dough while it's rising, or to dry plates that don't go in the dishwasher. Line a basket with one and wrap warm bread in its folds.
I love the hand of these vintage textiles and I know they won’t be made again. But I didn’t know much more than that until I came across a wonderful post from British textile collector and dealer Elizabeth Baer.
She explains that torchons are "used in French kitchens to dry, clean and wrap china, cutlery, glass, iron pots and pans, as well as preserve bread, meat and fish, and keep flies off. Most kitchens in old France had open fires for cooking, with hobs and chains to fix the saucepans at different heights as well as spits for roasting and any ovens were mostly used for bread baking.... Washing up was done in big flat stone sinks and of course the soft, creamy pottery soon became cracked and chipped. The drying cloths came in many weights and patterns -- coarse and dark hemp for black pots, lighter linen for china and very fine for glasses -- with special ones for cutlery as well. They were hung to dry from rows of hooks and sometimes you find enamel racks with the different labels printed on them. Hemp, linen and cotton were used in varying mixes and amounts, depending on local crops and weavers, and you can still find masses of them at any good linen stand at antique fairs and brocantes."
Also, now when you see foie gras au torchon on a menu, you know that it means foie gras wrapped in a cloth and poached.
-- S. Irene Virbila
Photos: Torchons from Elizabeth Baer's collection. Credit: Elizabeth Baer