Baked Algarvian earth

Just like snowflakes, no two terracotta tiles made in Vale de Mealhas are exactly the same. You could compare thousands, millions even, but you’ll always find slight variations, mostly in colour nuance. “And that’s precisely the charm of it,” claims Angelo Martins, who, together with his brother Arthur Cavaco, continues the family business of making these terracotta tiles by hand. 

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2017


A worker at Terracota do Algarve grabs a wooden mould with two shapes of 13 by 15cm, the most common tile dimensions. Wetting both the frame and his hands, he covers the wood in black ash so the clay won’t stick. He then puts it on top of a concrete base and fills the shapes with about 4kg clay (2kg per tile). Pressing it down with his hands, he scrapes off the excess clay and smooths it down with a wooden plank. His partner takes over, lifting off the mould from the base and fixing the edges of the tiles with another piece of wood. He then finishes the process by putting a blob of liquid white clay on top of each tile, stroking it out horizontally with two fingers. Et voilà, two so-called Santa Catarina tiles are ready to be dried.

Working together well-coordinated, the men can produce 150 tiles (so 75 pairs) an hour. It’s hard manual labour; exactly this way these Algarvian tiles have been produced for centuries. And will be in the future, at least if it’s up to Angelo Martins (41, pictured below), who doesn’t even think about changing the ancient process. “People appreciate the fact that our tiles are made the same way it was done hundreds of years ago. And I’m very proud of this too. Up to 20 years ago, everyone in Portugal wanted new products that were imported from other countries, but nowadays, they pay more attention to national products that are manufactured by hand. I especially like seeing how and where our tiles end up, as people use them in their floors and terraces in all sorts of ways. I also enjoy dealing with special orders which often include going to a carpenter and having new moulds with different measurements made.”

Every month, about 3000m² of tiles are manufactured, ranging from small ones measuring 10 by 10cm to the bigger 50 by 50cm, and all possible sizes in between. Everything in the factory is covered in red-brown dust. Outside, pallets of wrapped up tiles are ready to be sold. Inside, hundreds of wooden racks filled with tiles that still have to dry – drying time depends on humidity and varies from a week in the middle of summer, up to a month in winter. The clay has to be completely dry before it’s put in the oven or else the tile will break. In a corner of the factory, the only machines used in the process can be found. They crack the clay into pieces, transform these pieces into a powder that’s softer than the softest sand, and eventually mix this powder with water so it’s ready to use. Up to 30 years ago this preparing of the clay was still done by hand, but in the end it turned out to be too labour-intensive.

The tiles’ red-brown colour comes from mixing the local red clay, which contains a lot of iron, with 10% white clay, is purchased from Castro Marim. The red clay is found in the direct neighbourhood of the factory. “There’s a narrow line of this clay in the ground all over the Algarve, from Vila Real de Santo António to Sagres, at exactly this latitude,” explains Angelo. The clay is extracted from the pit once a year in summer, about 1,000 tonnes of it at one go. Isn’t Angelo afraid to use it all up at these large quantities? His answer: “If we keep extracting clay at this rate, I’d say it’ll take us about 10 to 20 million years before we run out.” That’s a no then.

After extracting all the clay from one area, the hole gets filled up again with soil, and trees are planted so the landscape remains unchanged – instead of full of craters as happens in larger scale clay mining in other parts of the world. Angelo: “We take the clay, so it’s only fair to also take care of the environment.” Logical, as apart from the white clay, everything used in the production process of the terracotta tiles is local: the clay pit is literally down the road, at less than 1km distance from the factory, the water comes from their own on-site well, and even the 12 workers all live in the São Brás area. The oven is heated by burning leftover wood from nearby carpenters and unwanted cork parts from São Brás’ cork factories.

Filling the oven, which can hold 1000m² of tiles, is done by hand and takes four workers almost two days. After filling, the oven’s door is sealed off with, of course, local clay, and the tiles are baked for 36 hours at about 1100˚C. This happens three times a month.

To make the recycling complete, the ashes from the oven are used again in the factory – the workers cover the moulds in ash to prevent the clay from sticking to the wooden framework. The entire process, from extracting the clay to baking the terracotta tiles, is ecological and labour-intensive. The result is beautiful in a rustic way; in the factory examples can be seen of how the terracotta is used as decoration, laid in patterns or combined with stones. The flat tiles are often used in a floor or on walls, whereas the curved roof tiles are indeed for putting on your roof.

“Some people even want roof tiles that have already been used for a couple of decades and are stained by the weather. The older looking, the better, so we select them from ruins,” says Angelo, whose house also features plenty of terracotta. Apart from rustic and pretty, the tiles are durable as well; like stone, they last about forever. In Portugal, they can be found in castles and churches which are thousands of years old. Perhaps most remarkable, though, is their originality. Angelo concludes: “Every single tile is handmade by craftsmen. Because of the manufacturing and baking process, no two tiles are exactly the same. That makes them, well, quite unique.”


See the original article, with even more pictures, in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2017

Posted in Features, People.