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Pot History and Information (updated 2/17/2011)
The pots are typically made of porcelain and hold approximately 3 ounces of custard although this will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.   Most cups we have seen have a single tiny handle.  The lids are normally adorned with a finial on top such as an acorn, a bird, a berry, or a piece of fruit. The designs vary from smooth, simple, white, devoid of any additional decoration to ornate gilded or floral patterns. A popular 20th century design for the cups was white porcelain with gold trim reminiscent of the simple gold and white Haviland Limoges pieces.


Pot Lineage

The earliest examples of these little lidded cups date back to France, St. Cloud porcelain factory, 1730.  According to Clare Le Corbeiller, decorative arts curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art "in the eighteenth century this shape cup was called pots ŕ jus".  It's original purpose was to serve a hot bouillon made from roasted meat juices. The lid insured the broth was served "hot"  and the little handle enabled the guest to sip directly from the cup.  The cup was not used or referred to as a pot a creme until the 19th century nor was it used as a dessert cup until that time.  We have seen further mention of this use in Paris's Louvre where a table service produced in 1756 included these little pots with lids and matching saucers and it was documented that they were used to keep meat juices warm. 

The cups were later called by various names depending on the country of origin including Custard Cups, Jelly Cups, and Ice Cups to name a few.  Cynthia Magriel Wetzer wrote that in an exhibit of "re-created royal tables" in the mid 1990's "Sevres pots de creme were shown in settings for France's Louis XV, Christian VII of Denmark, and Catherine II of Russia".  She went on to explain that the Sevres pieces were always shown as part of the dessert service, not part of the main dinner pieces.

Although the lineage of the cup seems to be a bit confusing we do know that the cups have were manufactured from the 1700's to the early 1900's by such companies of Sevres, Worcester, Wedgwood, Meissen, Dresden, and Limoges.  Most of the major European porcelain manufactures have produced pot de creme cups sometime in the past.

Yet another avid collector has theorized that the French used the cups as pots ŕ jus and later the English adapted the cup for serving syllabub, (a frothy drink made of milk, wine or ale, sugar, spices and egg) as well as various custards including chocolate.

Relation to the Chocolate Cup
It appears (but is not confirmed) that the pot de creme cup is in fact a relative of the Spanish (and later Mexican) chocolate cup.  Early cups were small without any handle. The first "chocolate cup and saucer" was invented around 1640 by Marques de Mancera, Viceroy of Peru (from 1639 - 1648).  According to Alan Davidson, Oxford Food Companion, Mancera witnessed " a guest at a reception accidentally spill her clumsy traditional chocolate pot."  The object of his invention was called a "mancerina".  This handy saucer had a built-in "clip" that secured the cup to the saucer making it nice and stable for the drinker.  Some of the earliest versions were made of silver but there appear to have been pottery and porcelain versions as well. Examples of the mancerina are shown below.

Mancerina
Silver mancerina. Photo: Collection Isaac Backal, Mexico City

Mancerina and Jicara
Photo by: Museuceramica Mancerina and jícara (chocolate cup and fitted plate)

The Jicara
The cup that fit inside the mancerina was called a jicara. These can be seen with straight sides such as those that fit into the mancerina or the traditional gourd shape. The name actually refers to vessels made from gourds used by the Aztecs to drink chocolate. Later porcelain versions still retained the "gourd-like" shape.   One reason for this was tradition, to be reminiscent of the original gourds and the other was for stability from the wide base. 


Jicara cup
Jicaras - Photo by: Amigosdelchocolate.com

Later Adaptations

European countries adapted the use of the cups with some modifications.  England is credited with adding the "lid" to the chocolate cup in order to keep the chocolate warm.  The French are said to have added a tray to hold the cups.

Use as a Pots de Creme or Custard Cup
This is where we think the pot de creme cup came into the picture. The French refer to custards as "creme".  Custards such as creme caramel were thick enough to be turned out onto a plate. The thinner custard (pots de creme) was served in the small pot.  The lid was a natural to keep a skin from forming on the top of the dessert.  The fact of the matter is once the porcelain industry got going in the 1700's there was no stopping the manufacturers from finding pieces to create for every course of the menu. 

One Handle, Two Handles, No Handles
The cups that can be most closely identified as pots de creme cups normally sport a single delicate handle.  The two-handled versions are more closely related to the original chocolate drinking cup.  These are frequently wider and shorter as shown below.


Blue and white chocolate cup
Chocolate cup and saucer. Cup is 4" high, saucer 5 3/4" diameter

In addition to the single and double handled cups we occasionally find pots with no handle at all.  These cups do seem more likely to have been produced for a dessert given the early function of the handle(s) was to keep the users fingers cool while handling a cup with warm ingredients. The cup below is part of a set of 6 with a matching tray.

Pot de creme cup, no handle


The Rise and Fall and Rise Again
The dessert and the pots became popular again in our "modern" era during   the 1960's and 1970's.  U.S. Manufacturers such as Fitz and Floyd produced many patterns (most manufactured in Japan) including the cup we use as our logo.  Popularity declined once again in the 1980's.   We suspect the reason for this was the trend towards "lower fat" dinning.   In fact, in one cookbook that offered pots de creme recipes the writer made a point to say that he did not have the conscience to serve such a fat laden dessert to his dinner guests.

A few manufacturers still make the pots today and most of these are produced in Italy, Portugal, Hungary and France. Most of the cups are partially or fully hand painted and edged with real gold which is why many of the prices are so high.  The new pieces are certainly the "heirlooms" our of future.  These are products which can be used and enjoyed and handed down to the next generations.

Pots de Creme cups were frequently sold in sets.  We have seen sets for "two" that include a small serving tray as well as sets for eight.  Sets with six cups appear to be the most common version.  Sometimes a set includes a serving tray while others include individual tiny saucers slightly smaller than a coffee cup saucer.  Many "Old Paris" porcelain sets came with an elaborate multi-tiered tray that looked a bit like a cake server.

Most of the sets range from $200 - $300 dollars or more (U.S.) for a set of 6.  Trays and saucers are sometimes available and frequently sold separately.  Antique or "vintage" sets are still found.  Depending on age and condition they can be as little as $75.00 for a set of 6 to upwards of $100.00 per cup.  We just saw two beautiful cups with saucers (see the museum) by Royal Copenhagen "Flora Danica" that sold for $1300.00 for the pair.

If you are a collector, or you just like to cook, pots de creme cups are fun to use and make great gifts.  Please visit our Pots de Creme Shop. We offer many styles of cups, sets, saucers and trays.

Other Cups with Lids
A ten minute browse through a couple of books on porcelain will show you that there are many style cups with lids that are frequently confused with pot de creme cups. We've devoted a separate page to this topic. Click here to read more.

The Right Spoon
One of the many interesting serving pieces that came out of the "chocolate" revolution was the chocolate spoon.  Early hot chocolate drinks tended to separate and settle and benefited from frequent stirring.  The chocolate spoon was created to aid in this task.   Chocolate spoons normally came in two sizes, the shorter version (under 4") and and longer version for tall chocolate cups (over 4").  As it happens the small chocolate spoon works quite well inside the small pot de creme cup.  Another good choice is a demitasse spoon which are normally 3" - 4" long.

Chocolate Spoon
Chocolate spoon 3 7/8"

 

 
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