There are a number of pieces in French pottery that lead one to ask "but what's it for?" Often the explanation is logical ("oh, why didn't I think of that!") and relates to the utility of the piece and French culture ... here are some of my favorites:
The famous "beurrier conservateur" :
This two-part piece is a butter keeper, used to preserve churned butter, going back to a day when there was no refrigeration. (And even when there was ... until we had cats, we only put our butter in the fridge in the month of August – it's not that hot here in Brittany.)
This is the lid, turned upside down; the butter gets packed into the cup with the holes.
Then the lid is turned right side up again and placed into the pot, which has been filled with cold water, which serves to seal the butter and keep it fresh. To serve the butter, the lid is simply taken out, turned upside down again, and placed on the table!
The real butter keeper is made of stoneware, which is more suitable for keeping the water cool and therefore the butter fresh. However, the form has been copied in pottery by the Quimper manufactures (and others) – it's a piece that's fun to talk about and therefore fun to sell. (I used to run a shop in the center of Quimper, and one day a Japanese tourist came in. She spoke no French nor English, but she had a clipping from a Japanese newspaper with drawings of the butter keeper - a splendid example of cross-cultural communication!)
Here's a piece from 100 years ago that looks like a candlestick:
But why does it have those pinched spouts on either side? Ah, because it's an oil lamp for floating wicks, and the spouts make it easy to empty out the oil!
I don't know the answer to this one:
It's a Boulogne piece made as a souvenir, shaped sort of like an upside-down umbrella, with six holes. I believe that I have been told in times gone by that this type of piece is a cigar holder (for the little ones). However, nobody agrees with me about this, and pencils seem to be the next best candidate for these holes. I'm open to suggestions ...
This one is obviously a snail!
This snail is unusual in that it is part of a series of animals designed to be knife rests. The French are big on knife rests, even today – it's one way to use fewer pieces of flatware and still keep your tablecloth clean. When I moved here, I thought the concept was so cool, and I went right out and bought very plain crystal ones. The Quimper ones are more utilitarian than decorative – square, triangular, or round with square ends – but the Desvres and Boulogne ones are much more whimsical, with shapes of all sorts of animals. However, the animals usually have long backs so that it is easy to place the knife, even if you come to the table without your glasses. With this snail, you need to pay attention to where exactly that knife is placed.
Here's a contemporary piece whose style has been very popular for the last ten or so years:
It's a round platter, mostly intended for desserts (although pizza would work), and the "what's it for" question relates to the numbers around the border. It's called a "plat diviseur", and it is intended to help you cut even portions of whatever is being presented on the platter. Depending on how many are at your table, you make the first cut at zero and subsequent cuts at the number corresponding to the how many pieces you want: so if there are seven for birthday cake, you cut at zero and all the sevens. Of course, if there are more than nine people, then you will have to use your eye to do some extra cutting. For ten, for instance, you would cut at zero and all the fives, and then each piece would have to be cut in half again. If there are more than 18 of you, then you need another cake! (By the way, this particular platter from Pornic features a version of the cornucopia pattern that just about every manufacture in France did at some time in its history!)
And this is my absolute favorite:
This is a page from the book Le Livre des 5000, a catalogue of designs from around 1930 from the HB Quimper manufacture. I puzzled over these patterns for a long time, and finally one day, I got it! These are designs for umbrella handles, with each side of the handle being depicted. Somebody put a lot of thought into these, but I do not believe that they were ever produced; they are a most interesting example of being artistic about the utilitarian!
So that's what it is for ...