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The Ashtrays of Limoges

David L. Ross
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

Europe's top chefs, such as Fredy Girardet of Girardet in Crissier, Switzerland, certainly know what it takes to end a terrific meal: great desserts, perhaps a fine Cognac or Port, and, of course, the best in cigars. They also understand that, as part of the traditional postprandial experience, a good cigar demands a proper ashtray.

This uncompromising attitude about smoking accoutrements, after all, is linked to their absolute belief that fine crystal, silver and china immeasurably enhance the enjoyment of a good dinner. It's all part of what the French call art de vivre, the art of living. This outlook, they would explain, is inextricably linked to l'art de la table, the art of properly setting a table. For these arbiters of taste, a table isn't properly "dressed" if it doesn't include a cendrier Havane from Limoges: that is, a porcelain ashtray made specially to handle an amply proportioned cigar.

So instead of offering just any sort of glass or crystal ashtray, Girardet, whose Michelin three-star restaurant offers a first-class selection of Cuba's finest cigars, goes a step further. To indulge those guests who top off an evening with a great smoke, the restaurant furnishes appropriately oversized Limoges porcelain ashtrays to cradle the cigar and collect its ashes. At Girardet, as at many other two- and three-star establishments, the ashtrays are decorated in the same exclusive motif that graces the restaurant's entire Limoges porcelain dinner service.

To these chefs and other aficionados, there are ashtrays and, then, there are ashtrays. Just where you tap that ghostly white cigar ash, after many moments of smoking pleasure, is as much a statement about appreciating the finer things in life as the selection of a good cigar.

Where can you find the world's ultimate ashtrays? The answer, fortunately, is as easy as a first-year French lesson: Limoges (pronounced lee-MOZH).

Located in central France, this slow-paced but agreeable town is known as the cradle of the French porcelain industry; and the ashtrays that artisans produce there, usually part of larger sets of elaborate dinner service, are recognized around the world as the classiest way to cradle a great cigar during a leisurely after-dinner smoke.

That Girardet and other top restaurateurs select Limoges porcelain shouldn't come as a surprise, however. Leading porcelain firms from the city of Limoges, including Bernardaud, de Haviland and Deshouliéres, among others, have been manufacturing fine tableware for Europe's royal houses--not to mention top hotels, restaurants and private clients--for more than 150 years. Indeed, porcelain production in Limoges dates back to the late eighteenth century, according to Michel Bernardaud, director general of Porcelaines Bernardaud, who is himself an avid cigar smoker and someone, of course, who knows a thing or two about t'art de la table and ashtrays.

Bernardaud says that France's oldest, continuously operating porcelain producer, Ancienne Manufacture Royale, was founded by the Comte d'Artois in the early 1770s. The Comte d'Artois was the grandson of Louis XV, king of France, hence the "Royale." (In exile, the Comte survived the French Revolution and the turbulent Napoleonic era; later, in 1824, he was crowned Charles X, reigning as king of France from 1825-1830.) Today, Bernardaud, which was founded by Michel's great grandfather, Leonard, and traces its origins to 1863, owns 50 percent of the Ancienne Manufacture Royale, which is operated separately from the family-owned company.

In fact, porcelain making is far older than the Ancienne Manufacture Royale; it's actually an ancient art with roots that can be traced halfway around the world to China. There, according to historical accounts, the production of elaborately designed, clay-fired vases, plates, teapots and the like is a centuries-old tradition. According to art experts, there are some Chinese porcelain vases and bowls that date back to the tenth and eleventh centuries.

One of the world's most celebrated travelers, Marco Polo, is generally credited with being the first to bring Chinese porcelain to Europe following his thirteenth-century voyage across Persia and the Indian subcontinent and through what is present-day China. According to legend, Marco Polo's description of porcelain still evokes something of the excitement of his travels, his shared treasures: "It is fine, brilliant and transparent, like seashells; like real porcelain!"

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