Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Fired Up

The department stores have suddenly become enamoured of the handmade look in ceramics. Sainsbury’s (advert, left) has a range of Sung-type bottles in pale celadon green, a candle-holder in the shape of a pebble and an oval shaped dish that might possibly pass for studio pottery. Meanwhile the Conran shop have a cup and saucer in speckled creamy-white and black (below) that definitely takes on the ‘craft’ mantle, on offer at £19. Quite what all this means I am not sure, but where there is a market there is a supplier. Large companies are adept at appropriating ideas and goods, but need to produce it at department store prices. Studio potters cannot hope to compete quality with quantity – nor should they. What we have to do is to forcefully argue our case for products that are superior in every way.

Staffordshire Oatcakes

With the ‘credit crunch’ continuing to bite, newspapers and magazines are full of advice of ways to save money and reduce expenditure. One topic that arose was the Staffordshire oatcake, not to be confused with the pikelet, a stauch, filling and healthy standby, traditionally eaten by workers in the ceramic industry. Unlike its Scottish equivalent, a Staffordshire oatcake is a type of pancake made from oatmeal, flour and yeast. It is cooked on a griddle or ‘baxton’. The oatcake is a local food, normally referred to as Staffordshire oatcakes or possibly Potteries oatcakes by non-locals, because they were made in this area. In and around Staffordshire they are simply known as oatcakes. Each baker or even each household has their own recipe and these are jealously guarded secrets. It was once common throughout the Potteries for oatcakes to be sold directly from the window of a house to customers on the street. Few such producers of this style remain, their role being taken over by more commercial producers; they are, apparently, now available in supermarkets. Recipes are notoriously hard to find but one on the web gives the following mixture for serving two people.

50g wholemeal flour

50g fine oatmeal

½ tsp dried yeast

15g melted butter

Rapeseed oil for shallow frying

Mix together the flour, oatmeal, yeast and season well. Whisk in the butter and 125ml of tepid water. Cover and set aside in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and add 4 large spoonfuls of the batter into the pan to make 4 oatcakes. Fry for 2 minutes on each side until golden.

Maybe others have better alternatives.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Eating Clay

There is an amusing photograph of David Leach looking up from making one of his rounded ‘egg’ pots immediately after he has blown into it. Around his mouth is a ring of clay, in this case porcelain, forming an extra pair of lips. Whether he licked his lips to remove the clay, and hence swallowed it, or wiped his mouth clean is not known, but in the course of their lives potters must, accidentally, ‘eat’ quite a bit of clay. This is quite different from breathing in clay dust, which is not good. The question of whether consuming clay is beneficial has been around for many years. The medicinal qualities of kaolin – as hot poultices for easing boils or as a stomach calmer for jippy tummy – are well known, but there are serious clay eaters who advocate consuming clay for the wider health benefits. This is the topic of a fascinating article in the South African magazine National Ceramics by H Klump, emeritus professor of biochemistry. Quoting pacifist and vegetarian Mahatma Gandhi, who ‘advocated eating dirt to clean your body and relieve constipation’ the article discusses the value/relevance of eating clay.

In a recent gardening programme, the experts were asked whether they would garden with gloves to protect their hands. All were adamant in expressing their belief that no gloves were required except for rough work, and all expressed their belief in the cleanliness of soil. After growing tomatoes in his greenhouse my grandfather used to sterilize the soil to kill off any possible infection, a process that may also have killed off anything useful to human consumption. There is a difference, of course, between clay and soil, the latter containing vast amounts of organic material. I doubt whether eating any old clay can be safely recommended, but despite the crankiness of the concept, maybe the answer does lie in the soil.