Ceramics from the land of Pisco Sours

Our technical manager Mike Rose recently returned from the lands of Pisco Sours and empanadas.

Mike’s dedicated his life to the art & science of pottery, so inevitably he bought back some points of interest from his trip to Peru.

His trip started in Monasterio de Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru, a convent founded in 1575. Unusually, he discovered a fine of Victorian bone china…

“The nuns seem to have been exceptionally fond of boiled eggs (judging by the number of egg cups), but such lavish items don’t seem compatible with vows of poverty.  However this was a private convent and some of the nuns were extremely wealthy.  In its heyday, in addition to the 200 nuns it also housed 300 servants.  Our guide showed us the image of a nineteenth century painting featuring a nun in her cell, apparently deep in contemplation, with her collection of china prominently displayed in the background.  I was keen to find out who the manufacturer of the china was, and so had a look at the back stamp on some of the pieces.  It proclaimed “Thomas Whiteley of Bayswater” – unfortunately not the manufacturer but a huge London department store which presumably commissioned the set.”


The team at Morris & James are perfecting our terracotta wine vats… so we were fascinated to see these large terracotta jars (cut in half and used as laundry-driers as pictured above, at the convent).

 “These jars are found in large numbers throughout Peru.  They are known as “raki” in the Quechua language, and in pre-colonial times were used for brewing “chicha” or maize beer.  The Spanish introduced grape vines, and used the jars for storing wine. When the King Carlos III of Spain banned the production of wine in the colonies (to protect his tax revenues) the vineyards turned to the manufacture of “pisco” - a type of white brandy.  Smaller terracotta jars of distinctive shape known as “piscos” are still used in the production of pisco, but the technology of making them has been lost, so concrete vats are now being substituted.”

The pictures below show pisco jars in use, and a pisco still.



 “Then, looking out of our hotel window in Cusco, we were confronted with a sea of orange - pink terracotta roofs.

Nearly every building is roofed with terracotta tiles of the traditional type known as “Spanish Mission” or “barrel” tiles.

Outside the city, buildings are still frequently constructed from unfired clay blocks or “adobe”, but the ubiquitous Spanish Mission tiles are still the first choice for roofing.

The tiles are hand-made by simply folding a flat sheet of clay around a cylindrical form.  They are laid alternately with the concave side upwards, then downwards to make a watertight combination.  In fact they are not truly cylindrical in cross section since they have a slight taper which serves to lock them together.  Traditionally, the rafters of the roof are covered with bamboo, then with a layer of grass, then a layer of mud and the tiles are embedded in the mud.  However in city buildings they are fixed with cement.




While we were travelling by train through the village of Urcos, a very helpful attendant pointed out one of the workshops where the tiles are made. I noticed a few smoking kilns, which seemed to be a simple rectangular updraft design. I had seen several similar kilns while we were travelling through the industrial city of Juliaca a few days previously.  The kilns are fuelled with Eucalyptus leaves, which are presumably full of inflammable resin. Eucalyptus trees are not of course native to Peru, but were introduced from Australia about a century ago.  They were seen as a faster growing alternative timber tree to the native Queunya. Today, however, they are thought to be depleting the soil fertility.

Outside the tourist areas, buildings are often left with no roof at all.  They are usually simple cubic structures with a frame of ferro concrete, infilled with terracotta hollow blocks.  Bare reinforcing rods stick out at bizarre angles through the concrete slab that forms the top of the cube.  The reason,( according to my helpful train attendant) is that once the building is roofed, a tax must be paid.  So they are left permanently unfinished.



"Handmade terracotta cooking pots are everywhere. Decorative pottery in Peru is usually terracotta which is painted rather than glazed.  It often features very intricate traditional designs." 

Now Mike is back, you can catch him at the next Morris & James factory tour!