Italian handcrafts: The terracotta dishes of Montetiffi
- WTI Magazine #131 Sep 19, 2020
Romagna has a type of bread called “piada” that is soft, thin, warm and fragrant, and is always cooked on a terracotta dish called a teglia. Clay dishes have been manufactured in Montetiffi for centuries, using a technique that dates back to the distant past, perhaps even prehistoric times. Two terracotta dishes are preserved in the archaeological museum of Sarsina that bear a striking resemblance to those of Montetiffi.
The Romans were already familiar with piada, which, according to Virgil, was introduced to them by the Trojan exiles that landed with Aeneas on the banks of the Tiber. Piada was brought to Romagna by Roman legionaries, who used to knead flour, roll it into thin sheets and then bake it on tiles placed on three bricks heated in a fire of parched stubble and the leaves and branches of well-dried shrubs. These tiles were the origin of the name “Tegghia” or “teglia”, also known as “testo” from the Latin “testum”, meaning earthenware or pottery fragment.
One of the earliest documents concerning the activities of the Montetiffi dish makers is a decree issued in 1527 by Sigismondo Malatesta, who, to protect the potters in the Rimini area, prohibited the import of terracotta vessels manufactured in other places, with the exception of the “quality earthenware of every kind made in and imported from Montetiffi...”
Up to the mid-twentieth century and beyond, several dish-making families were still in business, but at the beginning of the 1990s the last two dish makers closed their businesses. They were the last members of two dynasties of dish makers, whose last three or four generations are still remembered. Everything seemed irretrievably lost; a trade and an art form vanished in the mists of time. Then chance, or perhaps fate, intervened: a husband and wife, Maurizio Camilletti and Rosella Reali (both descendants of historic dish-making families), decided to resume making dishes for baking piadina.
The raw materials used to make the Montetiffi dishes are red-grey clays and calcite, known as “pyrophilous minerals” (from the Latin: fire-loving). These clays are all found locally, sourced manually and used in their natural state, with no added chemicals or synthetic substances. The surface of the clay dishes is rough and porous and, in terms of its fragrance, flavour and texture, the piada baked on them surpasses that made on other dishes or pans of various metals.
“Prema u s’fa e’ pianèl, pu dop u s’fa l’arvel pu dop u s’fa l’avrecia...ech fat la tègia”. This local motto sums up all the work required to make a dish, which, in reality, is a long and laborious process.To begin with, two types of clay need to be found: one reddish and the other greyish-green. These clays can be obtained in situ during the summer, without too much digging. They are spread out in the sun to dry, raked, sieved to remove impurities, crushed and finally stored for the entire coming year.
Another essential ingredient is a marble caclite stone, mostly sourced locally or in nearby locations. The calcite is first heated in the same oven in which the trays will be fired, then ground with a mechanical mill and sieved. A paste is then made by mixing the clay and calcite with water (preferably spring water). A square wooden board is placed on a pedal-operated pottery wheel and dusted with ashes to prevent the paste from sticking.
A certain amount of clay is taken and formed into a ball, and, while turning the wheel with the foot pedal, it is beaten and pressed by hand until a thin disk (“e pianél”) is formed. With the wheel still turning, a small circular groove is then made with the tip of the index finger. A roll is formed with some more clay and then inserted and welded into the groove (“l’arvel”). Rough marks are removed with a piece of cloth and the piece is then smoothed. The excess around the edge is cut with the sharp end of a stick and removed.
The dish is finished, but “avrecie” (four handles on the opposite sides of the dish) can be added purely for decoration, in memory of the days when they were used to tie the dishes in baskets, which were placed on the saddle of a beast of burden for transport until roads accessible to motorised traffic were built in 1953.
The board with the fresh dish is placed in the sun or the open air for an hour or so, and then it is gently slid onto boards in the workshop for an aging period that lasts about two months. Each day the boards are turned over to their dry sides and the trays are transferred from one board to another. After the drying period, the dishes are ready for firing: a scraper is used to refine the edges, then they are arranged vertically in three parallel rows suspended on a sturdy metal grille, with an earthenware fragment (a piece of a dish) placed between them for better distribution of weight and heat.
A layer of calcite is spread beneath them in the same oven. After firing, this will be used for future pastes. The kiln is fired by burning wood: thin brushwood twigs are used for an initial period (3-4 hours), followed by thicker wood of better woodland varieties (acacia, oak and hornbeam), until a nice orange glow has spread through the whole oven. The temperature and the necessary distribution of heat is properly checked by moving the embers: these should give off sparks that glitter between the incandescent trays. If this occurs, the trays are fired. The oven is then closed and left to consume all the remaining wood and embers. After two days, when it has completely cooled, the dishes can be removed and are then “sounded” to assess the firing, check for possible fractures and ensure that the job has been done well.
The local area
Montetiffi is a small suburb of Sogliano al Rubicone, a town located in the Uso valley, between the hills of Cesena and the Marecchia valley, in the isolated clay badlands on the border between the provinces of Forlì-Cesena and Rimini.
By Camera di Commercio di Forlì-Cesena with Unioncamere