Clay, like nature's armor, is robust and enduring. At Lolo, we've carefully selected clay pieces handmade by skilled artisans that are perfect for you everyday cafecito. But even the sturdiest things benefit from a little TLC…
Today, we delve into the captivating world of Mexican artisanal utilitarian clay, where craftsmanship meets creativity. We're sharing the advice artisans have given us on caring for barro negro (black clay), barro rojo (red clay), and hand-painted clay, timeless treasures that often leave people wondering how to keep them in tip-top shape.
Now, these tips are versatile and can work wonders on all sorts of clay pieces, whether it's a trusty mug, a salsa bowl, or even a comal. However, please note that care vary depending on the nature of your pieces and conditions. Always ask and listen to the individual artisans who crafted the pieces, as they may have different advice and, of course, know better about their own creation.
With that said, we hope these tips help your clay pieces stay with you for as long as possible.
Variety in Clay Types: Sculptural, Decorative, and Utilitarian
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of caring for your clay, let's consider the role your piece plays in your life. Picture this: a clay mug may need a bit more attention than a magnificent Tree of Life sculpture since it's sipping on your coffee every day. Likewise, that stunning decorative clay piece basking in the sunlight might need a bit of extra love to keep its colors popping.
At Lolo, like in Mexico, you'll find different styles of clay. For the purposes of this article, we'll summarize them as Black Clay, Red Clay, and Hand-Painted Clay. We'll explain a bit about each one, including their uses and care.
Barro Negro (Black Clay):
The famous black clay from San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca, has a fascinating secret. Contrary to popular belief, this clay starts as a humble grayish-beige clay. Its striking black hue? Not a drop of paint in sight! The color is achieved through the firing process. When the heat cranks up, skilled potters seal the oven with mud, and that's when the alchemy begins. With no air sneaking in, the fire paints smoke clouds across the oven, giving its striking black color (learn more about barro negro here).
However, being fired at low temperatures, black clay can become fragile, especially if it features the characteristic cutwork designs.
Limitations of Barro Negro Pieces:
- It's low-temperature clay and lacks a glazed cover, so dishes may absorb odors or leak slightly.
- It can't be used in the microwave.
- It may suddenly break with very abrupt temperature changes (e.g., moving it from a cold place to hot water).
- Never wash the piece while it's hot. Let it cool down before washing to prevent thermal shock.
- Wash by hand with water and mild soap. Avoid using metal sponges or synthetic detergents; neutral soap is ideal.
- Allow it to air dry thoroughly after use, as black clay, due to its porosity, can be susceptible to odors and, in the worst case, bacteria or fungus.
- Because of its porosity, black clay can absorb and emit odors. In this case, Carlos recommends using coffee, milk, or baking soda:
- Coffee: Brew a cup of coffee and let it rest until fully cool, repeat at least three times. Depending on your preferences, you can either enjoy the coffee or discard it. Another option is to place the piece in an airtight container large enough to fit it completely and fill it with coffee (whole or ground, fresh or used) for a few hours, then rinse thoroughly.
- Milk: Heat up some milk and submerge your piece in it, giving it a full day to soak. Afterward, rinse it well and let it dry. (Mixing these two advices, we get rid of smells by making lattes and leaving them to cool down, and trust us, it works wonders!)
- Baking soda: Make a paste with water and baking soda, apply it to the piece with a brush, leave it on for at least half an hour, and rinse it off.
- Proper storage is another key aspect of maintaining your black clay pieces. Ideally, store them in a dry, cool place, and consider using a paper towel near them when storing to absorb any ambient moisture.
- For cleaning decorative pieces, we recommend using a duster and handling them very delicately since these pieces are quite fragile.
Barro Rojo (Red Clay):
Barro Rojo from San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca, stands in contrast to barro negro. This type of clay is fired at high temperatures, making it ideal for withstanding heat, including direct flame. In Tlapazola, women construct ovens using old pots placed upside down as a base. On top of this, they layer firewood, and each woman stacks her pieces before lighting the fire (read more here).
Similar to black clay, red clay doesn't use any paint or varnish. These pieces acquire their color from the local clay and the distinctive burnishing process carried out by the women potters in this community.
Red clay pieces are resistant to high temperatures and can be used in an oven or directly over a flame. Furthermore, they maintain the ideal level of moisture for cooking, making them perfect for traditional culinary techniques.
- Avoid washing while the piece is hot; let it cool down to prevent cracking or breaking.
- Hand wash it gently with mild soap and water.
- Let it air dry completely. Red clay, like black clay, can be prone to odors.
- Use it regularly! This is one of the most important care tips that Emerenciana, the creator of these pieces, recommends.
Red clay pieces need a little "curing" before they're ready to take on the culinary world. What's curing, you ask? It's all about preparing your new clay pot, griddle, cup, or platter before putting it to work. You see, the pores in this material are wide open, and the first encounter with fire could spell disaster – think damage, cracks, breaks, or even explosions.
Now, there are a few ways to work this curing magic, but let's dive into Emerenciana's expert advice:
1. The Water Method:
- Take your brand-new piece and dunk it into a container filled with tap water. Make sure it's fully submerged, including the lid.
- Let it soak for a good 10 to 12 hours.
- During this time, you'll see bubbles forming, a sign that those pores are quenching their thirst and starting to close up.
- After its water retreat, pat it dry with paper towels or a cloth.
- Let it chill upside down, air-drying completely.
2. Atole to the Rescue:
Emerenciana's top tip? Whip up some atole in every cup and pot. No atole in sight? No problem. Boil some milk in your cup over direct heat, but make sure to let it cool down completely before the washdown.
3. The Cal (Lime) Cure para el Comal:Now, if you're wondering how to cure a comal, or griddle, we've got the scoop right from Emerenciana herself:
- Mix 2 tablespoons of Mexican lime (calcium hydroxide) with water to create a paste. Get your kitchen brush or cloth ready and slather that paste on both sides of the griddle. But here's a safety tip: no direct hand contact, as lime can be a bit of a hotshot and cause burns.
- Now, put the griddle in the spotlight – direct sunlight, to be exact – for a full day until that lime dries up entirely. You can also opt for some direct fire action to speed things up.
- Once it's all dried up, brush off any lingering lime residue from the surface.
- If you want to go the extra mile, grab a bit of wood ash or burnt tortilla from your grill and give the cooking side of the griddle a good rub in circular motions. It'll be ready to conquer your kitchen.
- And, just like atole, give it ample time to cool down before cleaning.
- Here's a final pearl of wisdom from Emerenciana: all red clay pieces get better with age and use, so put 'em to work in the kitchen!
Hand-Painted Utilitarian Clay
At Lolo, we also offer a stunning array of other clay wonders. Picture exquisite hand-painted Xalitla art pieces and captivating Capulineado serveware. Unlike their black and red clay counterparts, these pieces express their vibrant personalities through intricate paintwork, sometimes topped with a protective glaze. However, as cherished handcrafted creations, they do require a bit of special attention to ensure they endure.
1: Microwave Caution
2: Gentle Cleaning
3: Thoughtful Drying
4: Prudent Storage
5: Handle with Care
So, there it is: a comprehensive guide to caring for your clay pieces. We hope these guidelines help you keep your clay companions in top-notch condition. Remember, handmade clay deserves a little extra care, but the result is unmatched artistry and charm. Also, we would like to emphasize the importance of asking every artisan for specific care on their pieces, as it varies depending on who made it, and no one knows more than their creators!
So what do you think? Did you find this helpful? Would you like for us to write another care guide with advice from the artisans? Which one? We look forward to reading your comments!
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