Bram of Sonoma the only US shop specializing in clay cookware
When Ashrf Aimasri was growing up in Alexandria, Egypt, his mom would chop vegetables for a stew and put it in a bram - a rustic, clay pot used nationwide - so he could drop it off at the community oven on his way to school, then bring it back on his way home.
“When there was meat with a bone in it, I would take it,” said Ashrf, sitting in his clay cookware store in Sonoma. “If you make all that effort, it has to have meat in it.”
His unique shop, also known as Bram, has attracted a who’s who of high-profile chefs as well as local cooking enthusiasts since he and his wife, Shelly, hung up their shingle a decade ago. Mediterranean maven Paula Wolfert of Sonoma was the first customer to walk through the door.
“When I first walked into Bram, I recalled a famous line from ‘Casablanca’: ‘Of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine,’?” Wolfert said, when asked about that encounter. “I had just finished my book on Mediterranean clay pot cooking. And of all the towns in California, these folks opened a clay cooking pot store in my town.”
Wolfert immediately called her editors to make sure Bram was added to the book’s list of sources. Since then, the hand-?crafted pots from Bram have been featured in high-end cookbooks by David Tanis and Heidi Swanson as well as cooking magazines such as Saveur and Bon Appétit.
Chef Charles Phan of the Slanted Door in San Francisco recommended Bram’s clay pots in 2011 as part of the magazine’s feature on the Top 100 tools for home cooking. Besides their sheer beauty, the clay pots enable you to cook food in a gentle and even manner ideal for comforting soups, stews, chilis and sauces.
“With clay, the heat transfer is just completely different from what you get with steel or any other meta ,” Phan wrote in Saveur. “Slow, even, delicate.”
While other stores sell a selection of clay cookware, Bram is the only shop in the U.S. that specializes in clay cookware.
At home, Ashrf and Shelly cook almost exclusively in clay pots. The only other cookware they own is a few copper pans they bought in Paris, where they first met on the street back in 2001.
“He picked me up,” Shelly recalled. “He asked me to go have tea. He’s very friendly and fun, and he’s passionate about what we’re doing.”
“You can cook everything in clay, and it tastes 100 percent better,” Ashrf said, exhibiting his enthusiasm. “The pots can be used in the oven or on top of the stove (with a heat diffuser) or on the grill or in a wood-fired oven … those pots are fired in 2,000-degree ovens.”
The shop also carries black, micaceous clay pots from La Chamba of Colombia, Italian bean pots from Vulcania of Siena and cazuelas from Spain. They also sell a curated selection of cookbooks, French market baskets, alabaster platters and wooden bowls, all made exclusively for them.
After Bram was asked to open a satellite store in the San Francisco Ferry Building - since closed - Ashrf drew a following among many of the top chefs in the Bay Area, including Joshua Skenes of Saison, David Kinch of Manresa and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse.
“Daniel Patterson came in last week and bought stuff for Dyafa, his Middle Eastern restaurant in Oakland,” he said. “Dyafa means ‘hospitality’ in Arabic.”
When asked about his childhood in Alexandria, Ashrf recalls that the port city of Egypt occupies a very special corner of the world.
“We are Egyptian by history, Arab because of the language and African as part of North Africa,” he said. “And we share the Mediterranean Sea with Turkey, Italy and Spain. You have the beautiful seafood.”
When the Moors left North Africa for Spain in 711 during the Dark Ages, each of the Moorish cultures brought their own foods with them along with enlightened cooking techniques for frying eggs and fish.
“Iran brought saffron and pomegranate, and the Moroccans brought spices,” he said. “The Egyptians brought eggplant and fava beans and music and architectures … so they taught them how to eat, drink, party and be happy.”
Although every country in the Middle East claims falafel and fava beans as their own, the dish known as ful medames in Egypt - dried, mature fava beans, cooked overnight - is considered Egypt’s national dish. Ful is eaten mostly for breakfast, with a wide range of condiments.
“It’s very similar to Mexican refried beans,” Shelly said.
“You soak them and cook and purée them, then sauté them with olive oil and garlic and a little cumin.”
Although Egypt is not exactly known for its fine cuisine, the people enjoy eating fresh and seasonal food that they’ve purchased mostly at farmers markets piled high with vegetables and fruit, eggs and spices.