18 Sep Fiona Dunlop’s
Recently I found myself in Atarfe, a small industrial town on the western outskirts of Granada. And there, right on the main road, was Los Arrayanes, a human-scaled ceramics shop with an invitingly haphazard window display. So on went the car brakes and out I hopped.
Second confession: this was actually no fluke as I had identified Los Arrayanes a few months earlier after spotting a stunning but large, heavy bowl in an antiques shop in Santillana del Mar, up in Cantabria. Immediately seduced by the subtle palette and fluid strokes, also by rather an attractive price, I was flummoxed – there was no way I could get it home. So I snapped the workshop stamp on the base, vaguely thinking I’d check out the source one day.
And here I was. It turns out that this was a good move, partly for the book I am currently writing on the food of Al-Andalus, and partly for my own pleasure while driving that way out of Granada. It was a Saturday morning, raining (unusually) so very quiet, enabling me to chat at length with the owner, Manolo. “I founded this business in 1988 after working at San Isidro” he tells me. San Isidro, also in Granada, is the bee’s knees in terms of quality Andalucian ceramics with embossed patterns using the cuerda seca (dry string) technique and metallic glazes, not always my favourite but technically admirable. This was developed way back in 10th century Al-Andalus.
Manolo continues, “Business went well at first, and at one point there were eight of us working here – but now there are only three.” He looks dejected. Nine years on (this is 2016) and that merciless recession is still biting hard in Spain, with Andalucia one of the worst-hit regions.
But he cheers up suddenly when he shows me a beautiful set of plates that he was commissioned to make for the Wellington family (descendants of THAT Duke) who have a cortijo nearby, as well as some elegant designs for a shop in Paris. Knowing Paris, I can imagine the mark-up on these plates when they hit a boutique in Le Marais. “I also send ceramics to America” he adds rather proudly.
By this time I have greedily photographed virtually the entire showroom, so he ushers me into the back where the pieces are actually made and fired in a kiln. Surrounding us are shelves stacked with clay bowls, all awaiting the furnace. Typically helpful in that unpressurised Andalucian way, Manolo shows me how a bowl is made on the wheel, then how it is glazed and handpainted.
I like the way Manolo and his son, Victor, are developing more contemporary designs, particularly a very simple one of radiating stripes, even if some of the colours veer towards the garish. Tiles, pitchers, huge platters, beakers and basins are all beautifully formed and painted – and the range is huge for such a small workforce.
It is amazing to think that this artisanal tradition goes back centuries. In fact there are two words in Spanish: alfareria and ceramica. The first derives from Arabic and refers to more basic terracotta pots, the second from Greek keramik, referring to fired, hand painted pieces, a technique that came to Al-Andalus with the Moors who, in turn, had learned it from the Chinese.
In Granada the craft appeared during the Nazrid rule of the 13th – 15th centuries and has flourished and mutated ever since. Of course later in Portugal entire buildings were faced in stunningly detailed azulejos (tiles).
Naturally I left Los Arrayanes with a few pieces (very well-priced for their quality) tucked under my arm, and I shall be back soon.