Mamy’s Marble Mortar

Mamy's Marble Mortar

I love it when unexpected things — be they gifts, ideas or opportunities — fall onto my lap. Luckily, in this instance, the thing didn’t literally fall onto my lap or I’d be limping as we speak, but you get my drift.

Last Saturday, my sister Céline and I went to visit our dear grandmother, whom we call Mamy (although my sister insists on spelling it Mamie), who lives not far from us, in the 17th arrondissement. My grandmother would hate for me to tell her age, but let’s just say that she was a little girl during World War I, so you know, she’s seen a thing or two. She loves to talk and tell stories, fascinating memories of times past — some of my favorites being the ones about the sweet and clever boy my father was, and how talented he was at scarfing down camemberts and apple cakes.

She loves to cook too, although now her health doesn’t allow much of that anymore, and I know that she is particularly glad to see me so passionate about it. We talk about things we like to make, and I’ve often asked her for recipes. They are endearingly fuzzy, and it takes a little while to get her to tell me exactly what she means, but that’s all part of the pleasure of course.

Just the other day, she was telling us about her Soupe au Pistou, the typical soup from Provence made with vegetables and pistou, the French equivalent of pesto. And then she mentioned her marble mortar, the prerequisite tool to make pistou. Surely, I had seen it before? she asked. My eyes lit up — a marble mortar was high up on my famous List Of Things — and I shook my head : no, I had never seen it. But I would certainly love to!

As per her instructions, I went to dig it out from where it was hiding, all the way to the back of the bottom shelf in her huge kitchen cabinet, almost dislocating a shoulder in the process. I brought it triumphantly back into the living-room and took it out of its protective wrapping, uncovering this beauty : about ten inches across and 8 pounds, made of polished, off-white marble with purplish veins, it has a good, stable base, and four ears to hold it, one of which is carved down with a little pouring channel.

Obviously pleased that it had found a new home (Céline kindly said : “you have it!”), my grandmother went on to explain that it was very very old, well over a century, and that she herself had dug it out from the bottom of the garden in a house they rented in Marseille in 1937.

So, now that I am happily equipped with what is undoubtedly my cooking tool with the most history (not to mention the heaviest, try riding the metro on a Saturday afternoon dragging 8 pounds of marble, it’s fun), I must go on a mission to find the perfect wooden pestle to complement it!

  • Hande

    How lovely… My marmor mortar just hid herself with shame, she is only about 1 pound…. But shouldn’t the pestle also be marmor? And: Wouldn’t it be more fun dragging 8 pounds of cheese on a hot saturday afternoon?

  • 10 inches! Wow, that’s a big mortar. And the pouring channel is a great addition, as are the ears.

    I’m with Hande on this one; my little mortar seems so minuscule now!

  • it’s lovely! i wonder what it was doing in the garden. i suspect it was too big for the lady of the house to handle–perhaps it was turned into a baby birdbath?

  • Maman

    Je me souviens avoir vu ce mortier chez Mamy. Je n’avais pas voulu le prendre parce que je le trouvais trop encombrant ! Il me semble que le pilon avait une extrêmité en marbre et le manche en bois… Il était peut-être encore plus loin dans le fond du placard ! Bon pistou !

  • That mortar is surely a relic! Ur pisto will surely come out as divine.

  • I’m wondering, why a wooden pestle? Is there a particular reason you’d choose wooden, over say marble?

  • christoph

    Salut Clotilde,
    congratulations to this mortar! When I read about the preparation of gazpacho, it was mentioned the best way to prepare it, is to use a mortar. I was always wondering how this could be possible regarding my two small mortars. I think through your post I found the solution and I have to convince Susanne that its abolutely necessary to have one in this size also . I wish you happy times with the preparation of Aioli and Gazpacho

  • It’s gorgeous! How fortunate you are to have a mortar with such history. I always enjoy your blog and am so happy you write about food and your life as you do. Thank you!

  • mare

    hi clotilde. :)

    wow! this story is so cool! mortars and pestles are beautiful. they are probably my most favorite kitchen tools. this one your grandmother gave you is wonderful! i have a very small marble mortar and pestle. marble seems to grind the best. i also have a small hardwood mortar and pestle set that my grandmother gave me. i think the sets given as gifts are best. enjoy!

    take care.


    ps– have you seen the giant thai mortars and pestles? they rank very high on my “must acquire” list. they’re made of granite, i believe. good and heavy.

  • joan

    Oh Clotilde ~ this mortar will, I’m sure, be telling you exquisite stories…that you will, I hope, share with us all! We in Australia see more granite mortars the past marble would have been more in use..An Australian by the name of David Thompson cooks Thai cuisine ~ one review of his book “The best cook book on a single cuisine I have ever read. The Larousse of Thai Food. If all cook books were written like this the world would be a better place.” ~ Clotilde, your writing is a tonic for my spirit ~ it helps my spirit dance!!!!

  • Ike

    Hi Clotilde!

    I recommend you look for a marble pestle as well, the wooden one I have is OK for pesto and crushing herbs for more aroma, but when trying for a smooth paste e.g. for a green curry, it fails miserably! great website!! can’t wait to try some of the recipes :)

    Joan, I’ve had the good fortune to attend one of David’s workshops and have been addicted to Thai food ever since.

  • Santos – I wondered about that too, but my grandmother didn’t know. Love the bird bath suggestion, I think that’s what I’ll use it for between two pesto-grinding sessions!

    Maman – I looked for the pestle, but didn’t find it. But it’s a huge kitchen cabinet, so maybe I should just dig deeper! :)

    Mathew and Ike – Regarding the wooden vs. marble pestle, I said wooden because I had my grandmother explain to me what pestle she used to use, and she said hers was wooden (she even drew a sketch for me). But my mother (comment above) says she thinks it was wooden with a marble end, so now I’m lost! Should I get marble? should I get wood? …better yet, should I get one of each? :)

  • ah! wood or marble, like the age old dilemma – chocolate or vanilla – the only answer is one of each. i believe there is a famous culinary haiku by a zen monk that says:

    the softness of wood
    the powerful strength of marble
    clotilde should choose both.

  • Dear monkey – I must must must edit a tiny ribbon-bound collection of all the haikus you’ve left here for me, like smooth colorful pebbles in your wake, I love them all. Thank you!

    And if you’re lucky, you may even get a pic of lapin [note : my own terrycloth rabbit], playing pestle in the marble mortar.

  • Various people have told me that wooden mortar and pestles are the only way to go, while others yet say marble. Apparantly the wooden add a suddle flavor and make you appreciate the flavor more due to the effort you have to use to grind things.

    Me? I’m lazy. I’d choose marble.

  • Bonjour Clothilde! Congratulations on that beautiful mortar. It looks like Italian Carrara Marble which means it’s basically indestructible. What a lovely heirloom and fabulous new vessel with which to take, into posterity, your grandmother’s pistou recipe and more. RE: Pestle: I’m with monkey. You need one of each. My family has been using wooden mortars and pestles since time immemorial, but I happen to love my marble (and Japanese) mortars for different purposes. So, why not get both? I’m sure you’ll be able to find at E. Dehillerin a nice beech pestle (beech is the wood of choice for marble mortars) or perhaps a marble pestle with a wooden handle (Apilco makes them) . Do let us know what you choose.

  • Patrick

    I think I can bring some light on my mom’s pestle issue. After all, I’ve seen her hundreds of times using it in the big mortar (which fascinated me by its size…), while I as sitting in the kitchen, sweetly and cleverly guzzling down camembert and apple tarts (not cakes, Clo, tarts), or eating my regular 12 tartines beurrées with a big bowl of “real” chocolate that was waiting for me when I came home from school (l’heure du goûter, yummy).
    So, I distinctly remember it is a wooden pestle, with a hard white handle which may, or may not, be actually marble, but it’s nuncupatory,this is not the operational end anyway.
    My understanding is that it’s best to have a wooden pestle (with fine-grained wood), because it has the necessary elasticity for smooth grinding revolutions. It’s the mobile part, so this is logical. The mortar being the fixed part, it must be fully unyielding, and marble does the job.
    I’ll be seeing my mother this coming Sunday, I’ll try to find it ! The big mortar is crying out to be reunited with its little companion…

  • Patrick

    Just for the record, I’m reporting back from my investigations pertaining to Mamy’s Mysterious Pestle. The good news is that I have something to report, the bad news is that the Pestle is gone wherever old Pestles go… (Old Pestles never die, I know, but it’s sad, nevertheless).
    It was a pestle made of one single piece of boxwood. A part of it was a long cylindrical handle, long enough to be held with two hands one above the other, ensuring a sure, firm grip, and allowing even a weak woman to exert considerable pressure… The other end was a flattened sphere, an ellipsoid in fact, so that its bottom surface had a radius long enough that it could espouse the shape of the mortar’s bottom in a most efficient way.
    One day, a crack appeared at this end, where food would accumulate, and the crushing efficiency was sorely affected. My mom had to get rid of the pestle, but knowing her kindness of heart, I’m sure she did it in the most humane manner.
    As for Clo, my mom took paper and pen to draw it for me. Unfortunately, the handle part was a bit too long, and a bit crooked… When she looked at the result, she had to burst out laughing, and so did my wife and I ! This drawing just couldn’t be shown as such in polite society… And my attempts to adjust it made it worse! All this shows that my dear mom has not only retained her faculties and fantastic sense of humour, she also still remembers a thing or two about her past life…

  • Elaine Shannon

    In my search for the perfect mortar I came upon your site and was so entertained that I have read it from top to bottom. It is utterly charming!
    now I know that the mortar I seek is one like yours but having no sweet old French grandmother (I live in Boston and am of Italian heritage)where can I find one?
    Good luck with your writing.

  • Anne Bourget

    Clotilde, I too had been lusting after a large, old, marble mortar. Finally I located one in Rouen…huge (75 lbs) with four ears (one with a pouring channel–as if anyone could lift it to pour). It is beautiful and getting much use. Since it is so large (14 inches across) it was very difficult for me to find a pestle. I wanted a wood one and finally turned to a remarkable wood turner who custom-made an incredible pestle out of this beautiful South American wood (I cannot remember its name, but it is purple and impervious to bugs, etc.) Gary, the master turner, molded and shaped the pestle to just fit my hands and have the correct curvature of the bowl. Everyone remarks on my mortar and pestle when they enter my kitchen…they are difficult to miss.

  • I can’t imagine a better thing to be passed on to you–by your grandmother and with so much love and history, no less!

  • mac

    I believe I have a virtually exact match to the large marble mortar described. In 1958, I watched my dad climb through the debris of a demolilshed pharmacy in Nassau, Bahamas, to retrieve the one I have. Don’t know it’s prior history, but that was an old building — over half a century ago! I regret to say we used it as a catch all for years, and eventually as a dog’s watering bowl outside, catching the drips from a hose bibb; it was the only bowl too heavy for the animals to tip over. I’ve since carried it around all my adult life and would now like to polish the pitted interior surface to resurrect its original porpose for food prep use, but it’s quite weather-pitted, so I will investigate methods of polishing an interior, concave surface. Suspect I will look for a large wooden pestle appropriately sized (large). Advice re marble pestles, notwithstanding, I believe one that size in marble would be simply too heavy.
    Any suggestions for US sources for large wooden pestles, much appreciated.

    • Thanks for sharing the story of your mortar! I don’t have suggestions on where to find a pestle in the US, but if I hear of anything I’ll make a note of it here.

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