A fascinating look at one of the oldest traditions in the Algarve

Finally I have written part three of my tile making post; we had such an excellent tour earlier this year. I had hoped to have prepared it before now, but have been somewhat distracted by walks and festivals! Bricks and BrickmakingHowever the advantage of the delay in writing this, is that I have been able to draw upon a rather lovely pamphlet MrB found back home – Bricks and Brickmaking by Martin Hammond. It maybe about English bricks rather than Portuguese tiles, but as I discovered the techniques that are used are surprisingly similar. The methodology used in both countries dates back to at least the 12th century if not the Romans or earlier. Some of the tiles made in Portugal today are very similar to those created by the Moors when they were in Portugal in the 8th century. With the exception of a couple of stages, watching the tiles being made a few months ago was like watching history come alive. We found it fascinating.

The fabulous team at Terracota do Algarve have very helpfully produced a six minute video taking you through the whole process, which you can watch below. Alternatively just keep reading as I am going to take you through the whole process as well!

The first step, as you saw from the video if you watched it, is sourcing the clay, and at Terracota do Algarve they source both the red and white from the Algarve. It is ‘cleaned’ at the point of source of stones, dirt etc before being transported to the factory ready for mixing. The mixing is always done at the factory as the ratios will vary depending on the tiles they are making. Once mixed, the clay then goes through a very complex machine which, despite seeing myself and on the video, I still don’t quite understand how it works! However I did grasp it crushes, grinds and crumples the clay to improve the consistency and that this is the only time a machine is used by Terracota do Algarve to make the tiles, every other stage of manufacture is done by hand.

Once thoroughly grounded the clay is ready for being moulded into tiles. It takes two men to mould the tiles. The first – the tile moulder – dusts his mould with ash before setting it in front of him on a raised block. The sufficient lump of clay is then grabbed, rolled in ash before being ‘thrown’ into the mould. The surface is smoothed, first by hand and then with a wooden bar, known in England as a strike. At which point the second man – the bearer-off – comes and first removes the mould before then taking it to the drying platform. You may recall from my very first post that this is also the point when the Santa Catarina finish is added, if that is the finish you are after.

It can take days or weeks for the tiles to fully dry on their platforms, the exact amount of time depends on the time of year and the weather. In England they introduced hot-floor dryers to dry the bricks as dry warm weather is far less dependable than here in the Algarve! Once dried the tiles are fired in the kiln.

The kiln at Terracota do Algarve is big, and as you will seen from the video it takes quite a while to place all the tiles inside. The firing process itself takes around 30 to 36hrs, and as the tiles are fired in the traditional manner a member of the team has to be present throughout to ensure the furnace is continually fed with madeira (wood), serradura (sawdust), bagaço de azeitona (waste from the olive presses) and restos de cortiça (leftover from cork manufacturing process). Once baked the tiles are left in the klin for a further 4 to 5 days until they are cool enough to be removed for delivery to the client.

The finished tiles have a gorgeous pink hue, and so if you are looking for a warm and traditional look for your floors and walls this is the place to get your tiles from! They are able to make the tiles in a variety of shapes and sizes, and every tile will be unique as they are handmade. Not only will you be acquiring something rather special, you will also be supporting a tradition which is disappearing fast. There were once around 20 tile factories in this area, there are now only 4 or 5.

By the way if you would like to learn more about tile making yourself then the best thing to do here in the Algarve is visit the excellent Museu do Traje in São Brás de Alportel. They have a small but excellent exhibition, and best of all it is curated by Terracota do Algarve.

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When in Portugal you will find me walking, cooking, photographing, reading and of course blogging. In England it is pretty much the same with the addition of catching up with family, friends and organising a festival.

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