Ask anyone in Granada where the best place to buy ceramics is, and they’ll invariably say Fajalauza, a large factory high up on the main road behind the Albaycin. This is the source of those ubiquitous green and blue bowls, plates and platters that you’ll find all round the region, including dozens of designs featuring that bulbous granada, aka pomegranate, symbol of the city.
I’ll confess I have never actually made it to Fajalauza, despite it being going since 1640 so there has been ample time…As a huge fan of Andalucian ceramics, with a rather hotch-potch “collection” amassed over the years, I hang my head in shame. But every time I’m in Granada I’m always anchored to the centre, nosing round antique and tourist shops, salivating over vivid colours and designs, or checking out tapas bars. Or even admiring tiled (zelij) walls in the stupendous Alhambra, as below.
One thing to be aware of in Granada is that the burgeoning population of Moroccan shopkeepers import masses of lovely ceramics from Fez. I am not criticising them, but it’s just so you know… As techniques were shared between Al-Andalus and Morocco, it is incredibly difficult to tell the difference; these finely patterned bowls below, for example, are actually made by Al-Yarrar, a granadino workshop, although they look typically Moroccan. Check the base if you want to be sure.
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 and heavy bowl in an antiques shop in Santillana del Mar, up in Cantabria in northern Spain. Although seduced by the subtle palette and fluid brushstrokes, 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 (called Andaluz – A Food Journey through Southern Spain, it’s widely available online and in bookshops from the US to the UK and Spain), and partly for my own pleasure.
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 via the Middle East.
In Granada the craft appeared during the Nazrid rule of the 13th – 15th centuries and has flourished and mutated ever since. Of course later on 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. Maybe one day I’ll even get to Fajalauza.