A “Waidla pan” exemplifies the noble art of pan-making
The iron rod glowing in the forge is no larger than a chocolate bar. “Robust industrial iron” is what Stefan Kindermann calls it. Before it can be made into a hand-forged frying pan, the young blacksmith needs to heat it to the right operating temperature: His work starts at no less than 1,000 degrees Celsius.
Waldkirchen in the Bavarian Forest. The inhabitants of this region call themselves “Waidla”, a nod to its ancient highlands and endless forests. Waldkirchen is a small, sleepy town with a long-standing tradition of manual craftsmanship. It is a mere stone’s throw away from the Czech Republic and the Austrian border town of Mühlviertel. Over the centuries, it was an important stop for mule caravans carrying salt along one of the main trade routes connecting Bavaria with Bohemia. To this day, the people of Waldkirchen celebrate their famous “Salzsäumer” festival every year, following the ancient routes through the town on donkeys and mules. The town is also known for the Garhammer fashion store, a high-end outlet that is popular with well-off customers from Munich – not least for its roof terrace restaurant serving sweeping views and Michelin-starred dishes. Only few of these visitors are aware of the forge down in the valley, which has practiced the ancient art of pan-making masterfully for generations.
As the heavy door of the forge opens, it feels as though another world lies beyond. Sparks fly through the air like waves crashing into rock. The heavy hammer rhythmically strikes the glowing metal, flattening the bar. Cotton plugs protect the blacksmith’s ears; his hands are hidden in thick leather gloves. Heavy boots shield his feet from spraying sparks and falling iron.
Forging iron since 1686
“It all begins with the handle,” explains senior blacksmith Josef Kindermann as he strikes the narrow slab of crude iron into shape. Forging a Waidla pan requires a great deal of experience – and there’s no lack of that here. Many generations of blacksmiths have been stoking the fire of the highland town’s forge for centuries, forming the metal with their hammer and anvil. The forge is first mentioned in documents from 1686. From a layperson‘s perspective, little seems to have changed since then.
Rather than water, compressed-air engines now power the hammers. Is anything else different? Mechanical production methods – punching, welding, let alone screwing – have no place here. “No chance,” comments son Stefan, the first blacksmith of the family line with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Every item that leaves this workshop is unique. Forged from a single piece of metal, they all bear the family’s initials.
After graduating, Stefan Kindermann did not think twice about returning to his family’s traditional business in the Bavarian Forest. “I’m my own boss here,” he points out. As he processes a flood of incoming orders for the hand-forged pans his father began to produce 25 years ago, his computer runs nearly as hot as the iron.
Stefan heats the iron red-hot once more before hammering the broad end of the bar into the round shape of a frying pan base with astonishing precision. A massive press creates the final, high-rimmed form. After a final polish and check, the item is finished – “Well, almost,” the senior blacksmith points out, still hammering away.
A pan is only truly complete once it has been cured. That is what makes it a hand-forged masterpiece from which meat, fish and vegetables “just taste different.” More honest, more authentic, firmer to the bite. The even distribution of heat gives the food its finishing touch.
Cookware for generations
“These pans need a little more oil to develop their natural patina, but they’ll need a lot less heat later on,” explains the senior blacksmith while he pours high-quality olive oil over his masterpiece until the base is fully covered. He slices a raw potato, slowly heats the oil, then spreads the salted potato slices across the base of his pan to fry them at medium heat until they’re golden brown. “This is how it’s done,” he says. He carefully examines the smoothly shaped piece of iron against the light before he sets the Waidla pan down. He knows: “If you look after this pan well, your grandchildren will still be able to enjoy it long after you stop using it.”