Clay and Continuity

May 2010

Many times when I am traveling the byways of Spain, I feel an almost magical bond connecting me with the hundreds of generations who have populated this ancient land. Sometimes it is prompted by a seemingly insignificant object such as the humble cazuela, the simple terra cotta dish that has been used by Spanish families for thousands of years. 

We can trace this type of cookware back to 1000 BC, during the times of the first Phoenicians who settled in the Atlantic port of Cádiz. As the centuries have passed, the long succession of people who have inhabited the narrow Cádiz peninsula have continued to use this type of terra cotta bowl for daily living. Today when I visit a tapas bar in Cádiz, I am likely to be served fresh olives or a portion of sizzling hot garlic shrimp in an earthenware terra cotta cazuela, not unlike those of centuries past. 

The most interesting cazuelas I have encountered in my travels are from the age-old town of Breda, which is just as far from Cádiz as you can travel while remaining in Spain. Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees north of Barcelona, Breda is close to the fascinating town of Girona, where at various times Jews, Christians and Moors made their homes. The Romans were there before all of those settlers and in the course of living in Breda, they discovered a rich deposit of a unique type of clay that their potters fashioned into superb cazuelas, bowls and plates. 

What distinguished this clay from many other types is its ability to be formed into dense and cohesive products when baked in a traditional kiln. The Romans reinforced the intrinsic strength of the terra cotta by adding tiny pebbles to the clay before it was fired. This refractory process enabled the cazuela to have remarkable structural integrity, while having the added virtue of retaining the heat of newly cooked foods for extended periods. Today the potters of Breda make terra cotta cazuelas from the identical source of clay, following essentially the same traditional method that the Romans initiated during the days of their Legions. 

When I first picked up a random cazuela in Breda, I recognized straight away that this ordinary terra cotta vessel was in the shape of a Roman bowl such as you and I would see in an archeological museum. Here I was, in the dawn of the twenty first century, holding an echo of antiquity in my hand. Once again, I felt that magical bond with the generations of Spaniards who had stood on this ground before me.

The cazuelas of Breda are not the only objects that reflect the continuity of Spain. Whenever I stroll the streets of Toledo, I experience the same connection with the generations who have walked on these same cobblestones before me. As with my time in Breda and Cádiz, once again I experience this magical convergence of cultures as I browse the shops of Toledo with their Damascene style metalwork, mazapán sweets fashioned into fruit and animal shapes and the brightly colored plates fashioned by modern day potters who echo the symmetrical designs of Islam.

For within holy Toledo is an amazing confluence of cultures of the Arian Visigoths who migrated from Northern lands: the Moors who initially were Berbers invading from Africa, the indigenous Iberians and the Jews who contributed to a remarkable center of learning which translated from Arabic the ancient texts of classical Greek learning. 

Then there is enchanting Sevilla. Toward the end of her prosperous centuries under Moorish rule, the amazing Giralda minaret was built in 1284 to complement the Great Mosque. It was not too many years later that the victorious Christians transformed the Giralda into a magnificent towering bell tower for their vast Christian cathedral. Within the church’s spacious interior lie the remains of Christopher Columbus. The stunning golden screen behind the High Altar proclaims Sevilla as the crown jewel of the Christian Reconquista. 

Two hundred and eight years later, Ferdinand and Isabella designated Sevilla as the hub for the voyages to the New World, and the spirit of Spain haunts every corner. I love passing by her stately buildings as I walk her cobble stoned streets, which are so evocative of Spain’s Golden Age.

Across the Guadalquivir River which flows through Sevilla is the neighborhood of Triana where gypsy, Moorish and Christian cultures meld in the creations of the makers of colorful traditional wall tiles, as well as in the haunting melodies of flamenco. Throughout the city ceramics abound in the hundreds of tiled entryways and patios that adorn the homes of Sevilla and their civic buildings. 

Most amazing are the dazzling enamel and gold ceramic objects, replicas of those made in the Moorish Golden Age eight hundred years ago. A few artisans employ the now vanishing technique of corda seca - a ceramic cloisonné glaze and gold process to make gorgeous decorative plates. In all of these experiences, this ancient land and its people have left their mark on my soul.

I experience America in quite a different way. We Americans live in a very young country, and our strength as a nation lies in our flexibility, rather than in our lineage. A steady stream of immigrants comes to join us in our country, and I feel enriched by their contributions as new Americans. All this change is invigorating, but it also can be unsettling because, unlike Spain, we do not have a long enough history in which to integrate all these threads into a coherent culture. 

Perhaps that is why Ruth and I, after spending 26 years in the Navy where we experienced many of the corners of America and the world, have chosen to settle near Jamestown, Virginia the site of the oldest permanent English settlement in America. Maybe it is because we resonate with this example of American continuity, that we so much enjoy experiencing the continuity of Spain. It is a fascinating amalgam of many cultures, yet its soul transcends them all.