This furniture is an inspiration. I spotted it in the Portuguese interior design magazine Attitude, impressively included in an Orgulho/National Pride editorial, a couple of years ago. I kept it in the back of my mind to go and see them whenever I got to the Alentejo.
When I finally made the trip visiting the Agua de Prata workshop it was the highlight of my visit to Evora. Roman era temple? For what we came. Pre-history Cromeleques? Saw them. But Nossa Senhora Da Graça Do Divor… Conquer me!
The studio is situated on an enviably pretty hill, next to a notable church on a gently undulating Alentejan plain, dotted with the ancient water wells that supplied Roman Evora its silver water, agua de prata.
The wool producing town of Arraiolos is about 15kms away, and supplies the artist, João Videira, with the wool with which he reinvents and revives old furniture frames and other objects. There’s a magic fusion that happens between the old framework and the intensely coloured wool that creates an altogether new and beautiful design piece. The warmth of the recollected meets the tactile wool in a way that makes this furniture irresistible; it’s at once modern and antique, designer and personal, precious and cuddly.
And the recycled and recreated philosophy fits perfectly with the concept for my house. By taking what has heritage and soul and stripping back the parts that have deteriorated. Then restructuring and repairing those bones for a modern use, adapting outdated living concepts for today’s needs and integrating modern desires for comfort and pleasure. The result is honestly beautiful, luxurious and unique furniture of character and simplicity.
My favourite things from Agua de Prata are, naturally, the Pedras de Lã, Wool Rocks. At first glance their organic shape made me curious about the support around which the wool is carefully wrapped. Their weight gives nothing away, except that inside they couldn’t be hollow. Nor are the stones hard; they have a sponginess that adds to the organic characteristic of their shape. The answer is, that the Pedras are solid wool, a ball so carefully and tightly bound that it has taken on its own natural form, and like all the Agua de Prata works, is individual and unique.
And if you’re passing the town through at lunchtime, as we were, wondering where all the folk could be, tuck your head into the first café on the left, which will be packed and dishing out delicious local plates with atmosphere and conviviality. Happiness all round.
I’ve got a thing for bath houses. While in Turkey I did my best to get a sweat, a steam, a scrub and a wet down everyday. I just think it’s the height of decadence, and cultural intimacy, to mix it with the locals in a watery way. And after communal bathing in Turkey, the Mid East, North Africa, Northern Europe, in Sydney and even once at the Paris Ritz I tend to think that the people of the world are much more at ease with nudity than is commonly thought. But I digress, because this post is about Spas, which are related to bathhouses in their water treatment way. And because there is an antique architectural element that attracts me to them both.
Caldas Da Rainha, the Hot Springs of the Queen, is a classic spa town. Spa towns always hint at a 19th century grandeur, where the monied would while away their days “taking the waters” and relaxing. These days the old spa towns are gracefully fading, and the ailing have moved on to detox and rehab. But the grand old hotels, gardens, tea rooms, and what used to be fashionable architecture, remain. Spa towns are quaint and gentle, and often very pretty. Caldas certainly is all of these things.
The Spa is a predominantly European phenomenon, but Katoomba in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney has exactly the personality I’m talking about. Cauterets in the French Pyrenees is a classic place, and I’ve been to a wonderful old pool/spas in Berlin and Stockholm. Luso in Portugal is also a favourite town of mine here, especially as the hospital-spa still offers many kinds of water treatments, like a “Vichy” hose down, steam inductions and a variety of strange massages. I’ve met delightful spa town in the colonies too. Dalat in Vietnam is a charming 19th century gem and I would imagine there might be a few ex-spas in India.
One day I’d love to do a tour of the great spas of Europe. I’d start in Budapest, certainly the bath capital of the world, and move south seeking them out in Switzerland and Austria. You can never be too clean.
Anyway back to Caldas… the first stop should be the hospital itself, located in two lovely old buildings just down from the main square. At the back of the main building is the gorgeous Nossa Senhora do Pópulo, which has a fabulous bell tower, and where patients can go to bolster their faith in modern medicine. Opposite the church and beside one of the many lovely Manueline palacetes in the back streets of Caldas, is the Hospital Museum. I can never resist a hospital museum, and although there’s nothing much macabre about this one it certainly reinforces the image of an olde worlde cleanliness and some hysterical hypochondriasis… fainting spells and smelling salts and that sort of thing. Quaint, rather.
Of course it made me feel like a lie down in a cool room followed by a good professional pummelling by Irmã Perpétua (or whoever the Portuguese equivalent of Swedish Helga might be). But alas! Unlike at Luso, the hospital isn’t open to people just-chucking-a-sickie – and seriously Caldas CM - this should change. Honestly they must have no idea how arduous being a tourist is and just how willingly we will shell out €15 to have someone in a white coat give us a rub down.
Actually it’s probably a good thing because there is really no time to waste if you want to see everything else that Caldas has got going on. The first thing you should start noticing is Caldas´ very special street signs. There aren’t many left these days so keep your eyes peeled, especially around the hospital area and along the park. The parque Dom Carlos I is gorgeous, with ponds and row boats and an excellent café/restaurant with loads of shaded outdoor seating. A wander around the José Malhoa Museum (naturalist / impressionist painter 1855-1933) inside the former park boat house is relaxing and mildly interesting. There’s also this enormous dilapidated building which they call the pavilões do parque, which appears to have been a former school. Stunning building, superb location and if this was Sydney it would have been turned into some seriously nice and expensive apartments by now. Looks like the pigeons will have it to themselves for a while longer.
Don’t let it get past midday or you’ll have missed the Caldas market. It’s on every day in Praça de Republica, right in the middle of things. It’s one of the nicest markets around, with the perfect balance of fresh veg, charcuterie, bread, sweets and stacks of different local handicrafts. But especially it has a spread of the famous ceramics of Caldas de Rainha. What you see at the market is not strictly Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro but it’s still fun and highly photogenic.
Just beside the market square is my favourite café in Caldas, Café Central. Here is a café as we knew them in the old country, a place that does proper lunch, as in, light meals with salad. The food is inventive and wholesome and there is serious gelato and cakes too. But it’s the interior design that does me. Like the Brasileira in Braga, it’s like the owner (I don’t know her name but she’s always there and I want to be her when I grow up) has done the most restrained renovation possible, simply restoring the original design and adding a fresh coat of paint and some new chairs. It’s a rejuvenation of art deco/ mid century elegance. It looks modern and vintage at the same time. Thoroughly divine.
And right outside the café is one of those unique street signs. Cute. On the same side of the square is Residencial Central which is where I like to stay. It’s a big homey oldie of course, run by the super welcoming Diogo and Fatima who have three great girls. Watch Diogo or that welcome drink will end up with you under the table. It’s the kind of hotel I’d like to live in, and it felt like I did. Still a bargain at €20 single, €35 double.
But the real reason I visit Caldas so often is to catch up with my mate Rafael. Caldas is a good place to get to know him, first in the Museu de Ceramica where you can see his work in context with the other wacky ceramicists of the era. Then at the Bordalo factory there’s another little museum which explains more specifically about Rafael’s life in Caldas. After that you can lose a couple of hours in the shop where there are new editions of bizarre giant fish and crab artworks, fresh copies of large scale commissions, figurines and of course cabbage things in all colours. But what else the factory produces is some of the most lovely table china I’ve ever seen. Opulent, classic, whimsical. Oranges, rabbits and palm trees. Funny and just pure elegance… and the most adorable little coffee cup sets in the world.
You’re bored? But there’s still the new cycling museum, Atelier-Museu António Duarte (1912-1998), some groovy Henry-Moore-like sculpture at Atelier-Museu João Fragoso (1913- 2000), the Museu Barato Feyo and yet more 20th century art at O Espaço da Concas. And a bunch of small interesting shops. And Mango. But never mind, you can always pop off to the beach at Foz de Arelho (20 minutes), a pleasant strip of golden sand and no swell to speak of, and if Caldas hasn’t tickled your cute inner pony enough you can clip clop up to Obidos (15 minutes) which will twee your tail off.
Dear Sir/ Madam
We would like to explain Emma’s protracted absence this month, and hope for your understanding on this matter.
To start with, Emma had a cold. We cannot provide a doctor’s certificate but as we are recovering from the worst winter on record I’m sure you appreciate that a few sick days are to be expected.
We believe the cold was brought on by stress, first initiated when Emma’s old but faithful ibook refused to start up. Thus began a search for the nearest apple repairer which led to the fateful trip to Coimbra.
On the way home was when the accident occurred. In a setting of rain, congested traffic and roadworks, the driver in front braked suddenly and in reacting, Emma’s vehicle slid into oncoming traffic and collided with the another vehicle. Yes, yes, all her fault, technically. Fortunately, no excess of speed was involved, and Wookie simply slipped from the passenger’s seat onto the floor.
In service of expediency, Emma admitted fault and she and the other driver got all amicable together. It was then that Emma had the dumb idea of calling the cops. In the meantime, Emma was experiencing shock and some confusion regarding the circumstances of the accident. She stood staring at the large amount of debris on the road, particularly at a broken number plate that did not belong either to her vehicle nor to the other driver. The quantity of broken plastic and glass was most bewildering, especially the Fiat badge on a busted front grill and a discarded bumper bar. A road worker approached Emma and taking her by the shoulders, guided her back off the road. “This is the seventh accident here today. They only just finished sweeping the road after the last one,” he said.
Then Emma realized how the accident had happened. The road was as slippery as an ex-prime minister at a tribunal hearing, covered in a fine and compromising layer of dirt and oiliness. She had unwittingly ventured into an accident black spot. Bummer.
The coppers arrived. They didn´t help. They were mean, in a bad mood, and I´ve met some surly pigs in my life. Egyptian police for example; you have to carry cigarettes for them to calm them down. I encountered Turkish police after being sprung kissing in a public place, and even though I had apparently broken the law and they took us down to the station, there were quite ok, possibly a bit embarrassed as I kept asking them what they were doing at a remote lookout at midnight… was there a murderer?
But here goes the porty policia; after I so rudely interrupted their card game or something… They asked me to explain the circumstances, then banana 1 walked away, just as I started to speak. Banana 2 was not interested in looking at the scale of the debris left by other vehicles or speaking to the roadworkers on the scene. They wouldn’t even look me in the eye. B2 shouted. I replied, I´m foreign, not deaf. They made derisive remarks like “we. don’t. speak. engrish”. They accused me of excessive speed (based on what?). If they were so keen to do their job, the opportunity was there eating a doggie chew on my front seat – Wookie should have been in a box. But I surmise that these gents were as adequate at policing as they were at being decent.
But it´s just bad police PR: this behaviour I think is so very unportuguese. The other driver was embarrassed for them and within a few minutes of the police’s arrival apologised to me on their behalf. After several attempts, and despite me not holding the right bit of insurance paper, the other driver convinced me not to involve them.
Driving past the location a week later, the traffic was diverted and the same stretch of road is closed, like it was all some b-grade conspiracy movie about an hysterical blonde journalist.
Now car-less and computer-less I decide the time is right to chop off the dog’s nuts. Wookie becomes tomato-less. On a previous visit home (during houseminding) I met another 6 or 7 little wookie-poodles who may, any day, be abruptly given a new home in the wild. There are other male dogs in the village to father future furry tragedies, but at least I and mine will not be a part of it. So then, a couple of days leave-of-absence were spent passing the bag of frozen peas to the dog. I am secretly hoping that the desire to chase sheep and chickens was sexual, and has also therefore been neutered.
Speaking of home, houseminding bliss in the Ribatejo came to an end and I had to move back to the village. Nastiness awaited; my entire house went mouldy while I was away. The walls had mould, the toaster had mould, the picture frames had mould. Not just a few days were spent cleaning, scrubbing, washing, drying, painting and moving stuff in and out.
And just when I almost had the house habitable again, a film crew wanted to move me out again! They came to shoot an episode of House Hunters International, a cable show about foreigners and real estate. Naturally, with drama/disaster in my aura I took the whole filming thing like a visit from demons-past. Not only that they wanted me to re-live the whole house buying catastrophe but the ghost takes the form of the film industry and this time I am to be the instrument and not the musician, or even the composer. Warm props. Actors. Talent. Yuck.
Of course it wasn’t so bad. In fact, the crew were so adorable (hi to chris, davide & jeff, we are still missing you) that it made me want to be back in the business. They reminded me of some of the great people I worked with, and particularly of the world-wise, liberal, sharp and simpatico men the film industry has in its employ. As for the action, Mao stole the show by hiding in the stone oven just as I was trying to act out ´getting a feel for living here´ and poked him with a bread paddle. He flew out, towards camera, quite literally like a bat out of hell. Soory for the heart attack davide, but god I hope you got the shot.
Meanwhile the car is fixed and my 4 week shitfight to get a new mac is finally over (just cut to the chase and buy it from fnac, portuguese mac-people, and don’t be seduced by the price of the mac mini, as it’s a hassle and a half. The piece work then becomes cable wrangling and more whatnot. And how much is this non-mac keyboard shitting me? Just buy the macbook next time. Just buy the macbook. Just… Grr) Another few days spent unpacking boxes and searching for items lost (if filming is tolerable then try moving house and filming on the same day). But now there’s the internet connection problem. Apparently the phone line also went mouldy and PT hasn’t fixed it yet and nor do they seem interested in doing so. Usual game. It’s been said before, but when it comes to modern life, Portugal is a pain in the arse. They have the technology, they just don’t know how to work it.
Now if all that isn’t enough of an excuse, I also slipped off to Stockholm for the easter weekend to do another day’s shoot (again, super nice crew, Izzy Paul and Ray), and to hang out with some sorely missed Swedish friends. If I really could relive the house purchase, I would take a tin shed there rather than a stone chateau here anyday. Sorry tugas, but Sweden is truly utopian.
The only bad thing about going away is what I come back to. Not only did Mao abscond for 4 days of the 5, he also to broke a toe. But Wookie and I are back on track after a few months where there was no love left to lose. There’s a whole lotta brown furry love going on at my place.
So while I am not exactly online, I am at least trying to be. Standby for more, if you please.
Coffee drinking is a serious business in Portugal. There’s no way you can come here and not have to order a coffee at some point, so here is some essential information.
These are general guidelines. No two cups of coffee will ever be identical no matter what words you use. Relax, it’s just a drink.
I’m sorry, tugas. I apologise, it’s just a sacred drink. Please go easy on me, I’m just a beginner, a humble student if you please. And please if you have some corrections, additions or some anecdotal contribution to make, be my guest.
The most popular coffee is an espresso. In Lisbon you would order um bica (oong beekuh) and in Porto um cimbalinho (oong simbalEENyo). Elsewhere um café (oong kaFEY).
There are infinite variations on how it comes, so don’t be shy about being specific about your needs. Cheia (shayuh) is a full espresso cup, tres- quartas (tresh kwartas) 3/4 full, a ristretto is called um italiano (small, strong, the first few seconds of the machine’s coffee). You could ask for it não quente (nowng kent; not hot;) and they’ll put a dash of cold water in it for you.
In this pic (below) there is um italiano (top), um bica (right) and um cortado (left). In Portugal a cortado is a standard measure from the ‘small cup’ button on the machine, not to be confused with a spanish cortado (cut with milk, see below).
Staying with the small cup theme, your poison may be um pingo (oong pingoo) also called um pingado (oong pingardoo); an espresso with a drop of milk (sometimes hot milk, sometimes not). Um garoto (below, left) has more milk; about 50/50 coffee-to-milk ratio but still in a small cup. In Spain this is known as a corto or a cortado. In Australia it’s a piccolo caffe latte. Uma carioca (below, right) is the opposite of a ristretto – a full small cup minus the strongest first two seconds of an espresso.
For a long black, or a large black coffee, you would order um abatanado. This could be also called um café americano, but ordering an americano may get you an instant coffee in some places. If that’s what you want then order um nescafe. If you’d like a double espresso, order um café duplo (oong kafEY DOOploo)
Going the milky way, um galão (oong galowng) is served in a tall glass and is about 3/4 milk. Traditionally a galão is made with a second passing of coffee from the machine and is very weak. If you want something more like a caffe latte than coffee flavoured milk, order a um galão directo (deeretoo). You can also ask for a dark one escuro (eshkooroo) or a light one claro (klaroo). Ordering a galão after midday will provoke funny looks, unless you’re over 80. It’s either for breakfast or it’s a nanna’s drink. You might save face by ordering uma meia de leite (maya de late) which is half milk in a regular cup, like a flat white in Australia. But like my half-Australian buddy, you could try ordering a layer de mate, mate
Special thanks to frogdropping for her impeccable production assistance in the rain and everything.
Many of you will have forgotten that I am building a house. I understand how you feel. I tried to forget it myself, but as anyone who has built a house knows, you are reminded of how much there is to do EVERY TIME YOU STEP OUT THE DOOR.
This is probably just the right moment to remind the doubters out there (not you, dear reader, I’m sure you’re all with me… oh.. I see…ok, maybe some of you are with me) that this is not a RACE and I have had a MIGRAINE for the last six months, not to mention there’s been a GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS, which has forced some of us to take it SLOWLY OR DIE FROM STARVATION. OH-KAY-EY?
I’m going to say this once, just so we are all clear. YOU CANNOT BUILD A HOUSE BY YOURSELF. That’s right, YES, I know that. And YES, I will be getting the crew in sometime soon. As soon as this headache goes away and the winter is over and I find that last 50 grand I left somewhere. So BACK OFF, or I’ll get the chainsaw out again.
Along with the billions of common frustrations that come with building a house there is the less famous annoyance called not building a house. I had my hands on some stones the other day (was covering the ruin walls to stop them from ruining some more) and felt that dotted line of joy just to be near them again. The craving just to get on with it is driving me loco.
But – there is some news – I did have the angle grinder out. Eons ago I went on a hunt for gates (actually I can look up the blog to when the great search for gates began… it was August. As I said – Eons ago). One gate was needed for the last garden stone wall to be finished and the other for the bathroom stone wall. Couldn’t build the walls without knowing the width of the gates, you see. And unlike new stuff, you can’t rely on a standard size with an antique, or an old-piece-of-crap velharia anyway.
Long story short, found gates in next village, great colour excellent price. Going to be gorgeous. Trust me.
Needed to remove the old hinges and bits before handing them over to the serralheiro to fix new ones, so out came the angle grinder. Just as I was thinking that I really don’t like metalwork much, nor do I like the blunt and rather vicious instrument that is the angle grinder, I became hypnotized. Rather than just saw off the hinges, I cleaned them up like you’d never know the hinges had existed, then I moved onto the rust and old paint. It must have been the extreme noise that ushered me into the 8th state of consciousness you can only get with power tools. It’s not entirely unlike an MRI scan at 3am in a foreign hospital with a migraine. You can really lose yourself in there.
YES earplugs, YES I WAS thankyou, doubter. Now piss off or I’ll GRIND you.
Now that the gates are sitting somewhere waiting for new hinges, I might actually be planning some wall building. Now that it’s sub-15 degrees. And raining. Oh hang on, there’s snow forecast for tonight. Brilliant. Er, I doubt it.
My sister’s friend Pete died last Friday. About two years ago, in the earlier days of his illness, Pete converted to Buddhism and became a monk, which I now realise was ingenius forward planning on his part. As a Buddhist he believed in reincarnation. In the face of death, or even life, reincarnation is a superb concept. It’s comforting, for you and your people to see dying as a metamorphosis… an evolution… or even just a change of outfit!
You have to hand it to the Buddhists. Not only for reincarnation, but they also believe in peace (as opposed to violence), a concept that Christians, Muslims and Jews seem to have dispensed with altogether these days.
My sister urged Pete to come back as a Burmese cat. What a life! Of course in Buddhist philosophy you don’t get a choice, but seeing as it’s not a request to come back rich, powerful or beautiful, or even as a person, then I don’t see there’s any harm in an appeal to the people at front desk to come back as a cat.
The Burmese cat’s lifestyle is far better than an human one. Basically it’s a bit like being a rich and spoilt retired supermodel. You sloth about, with slaves at your beck and call, and everyone thinks you’re gorgeous.
If you’re thinking this might be a bit dull, think again. If you’re the adventurous type you can make the rounds of your territory outside, with all the security of a premium guided tour but no compromise of jungle safari danger and daring. For a cat, the world is extremely big, so there’s no pressure to climb Everest or go wingsuit flying to get your adrenaline fix. A trip out to the car park is thrilling enough. You might even meet a dog out there.
But to the Burmese, the outdoors is a bit common, really. There are superior pleasures to be found inside the home. If you’re bored by deep sleep in front of fireplaces, you can find any number of cosy hiding spots that change daily like a blackboard menu. There also might be warm bodied people to sit on, or even a light or a computer left on, ready to be exploited.
Sports? Burmese are famous for fetching; you throw, they bring back. They also have a pronounced imagination and revel in private fantasy games: sometimes humans might be invited to join in a game of chasings, invisible mouse hunts, or a battle against unseen monsters.
Burmese also have a rich intellectual life. They like reading and they especially enjoy surfing the net, especially on a Mac. You think I’m being silly now. It’s a fact.
I don’t want you to think it’s a life without some responsibilities. But they’ll only take on a task if there’s something in it for them. My Mao has a taste for bugs, so when we lived in the city I put him in charge of pest control. He would willingly eat 5 large cockroaches before I left for work each morning. Now we’re in the country, he keeps the mouse population subjugated, but he’s excelling himself as heating policeman. If the ambient temperature in the lounge room drops below acceptable comfort levels, he’ll come to the kitchen and say “Mao!” thus alerting me it’s time for another log. It’s a system. It works.
Speaking of communication skills, the Burmese can be very persuasive indeed. Like Siamese, they have a tendency to be verbal, whether it be just enjoying a chat or expressing their concerns with your relationship. The good thing is, if there’s a problem, they won’t bottle it up. Take for instance a friend of ours called Moet, who is not at all a whinger or a noisy pest, but in fact an excellent communicator. When, at 1am she had an issue that needed addressing, she let her mother know by saying “Ma”. Ma opened the window, and Moet went out. But the issue wasn’t resolved, so she came back inside, and said “Maa”. Her mother got up, went downstairs and gave her some food. “Maaa”. Her mother gave her some of the other food. “Maaaa”. But her mother hadn’t been listening properly so Moet said “Maaaa!” and then, finally, at 1:30am, her mother had the idea of changing the kitty litter. Before the final pellet had left the bag, Moet’s needs were met.
It’s being sociable that the Burmese likes most. They love company. If you’re around they will be with you. They like to share the love. And that’s not a bad principle for life.
So if you happen to be adopting a Burmese today, I already have the right name for you. Lozang Dhondrup.
For Pete, safe travels, brave monk.
‘For the love of wild blackberries’ does not have the same ring to it, does it? I’m not even sure that they are blackberries, as the dictionary calls them mulberries but they are nothing like the mulberry tree that I used used to climb and pick the fruit of when I was a kid in Sydney.
So please advise, horticulturists, what are these called in English?
This is the time of year in my village when this plant, all year round a painful and invasive nuisance, finally pays back. It’s luscious and intense fruit makes fantastic jam, and I love jam. The amoras season also marks the start of several months of picking, being followed by the grapes, then the olives, oranges and then finally in November it will rain figs. When the figs stop, the rain will start, and it wont stop raining until may.
I really like making jam, but I only recently discovered that other people like my jam too. It makes me especially happy when my jars of stuff are enjoyed by portuguese friends. Normally my giveaways are just too weird for them, but jam seems to fit in with a normal portuguese jam-freshcheese-biscuits afternoon snack or dessert. And I’m only too happy to find a new way to eat jam.
For 1 jar of jam, I use approximately;
1 jar fruit
1/2 jar white sugar
juice of half lemon
1/3 jar rosé wine
I like my jams a bit runny, full of chunky fruit and not too sweet. The wine gives the jam a bit more complexity and depth.
I boil it up ferociously until a mass of bubbles have collected high above the surface of the fruit – it looks like boiling toffee. It usually takes about half an hour and I could let it go for an hour, but no more. I don’t bother to skim or even test for setting, but I do wash and boil the jars, dry them, fill them warm and then boil them again.
Apart from having jam on toast (especially good on portuguese breads), I also eat it with plain yoghurt for dessert, pile it on ice cream and serve it with fresh cheese, portuguese style. It would also be unforgettable with pannacotta (similar to leite creme in portugal) or on a cheesecake. Or a pavlova! Oh meu amor!
When I was 19 I shared a house with three crazy girls. The house was filled with eclectic stuff collected from op-shops, a wild collage of housewares that had accumulated from years of rental since paleolithic times.
The only things I’ve kept from those days are some dear friendships. I know of only one object that endures from the same period: a large porcelain crab, The Crab, as it’s known to us. Its purpose is mostly decorative but when called upon could used to serve dip from its shell-lidded body while its legs make spaces for crackers, celery sticks and the like.
Some people might mistake The Crab for a piece of 50′s-60′s-70′s kitsch, but it’s my belief, that The Crab has Provenance. I don’t mean it’ s an antique, but it has a story and heritage that elevates it from being just a quirky piece of china.
It all began in Portugal.
Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro was born in Lisbon in 1846 into an artistic middle class family. He rapidly became an accomplished caricaturist and made his name first in Brazil then in Portugal as a satirist, writing and drawing for the major publications of the time.
Rafael became quite famous for being a pain-in-the-arse. He was against conservatism, conformity and corruption. He had a wicked sense of humour in creating a little man called Zé Povinho, a peasant and everyman whose most famous pose means “Up Yours!”. Through him, Rafael took sides with the powerless and the poor, in all their apathy, ignorance and discontent.
After about 20 years of stirring up trouble, Rafael abruptly pulled up stumps in Lisbon and relocated to Caldas da Rainha.
Rafael and his much less famous brother opened a ceramics factory dedicated to both utilitarian homewares and artistic endeavour. Rafael continued to apply his sarcastic and political wit in his work as a ceramic artist and sculptor. The high quality of their products became world renowned and as well as directing an arts school Rafael produced large scale commissions, imitating all kinds of fashionable art styles from Art Nouveau, to revivalist Manueline and Palissy (a 16th century French ceramicist who made plates piled with dead things). With clay, he lampooned well known society figures and expanded his family of characters, including Ze Povinho, into 3D. His work was prolific and extremely varied.
Somewhere along the line came the cabbages. As a part of the kitchenware range he designed a range of tureens, bowls and plates styled on cabbages. In Portugal, the cabbage is a symbol of rural life, of peasant life. You don’t normally see it on restaurant menus but cabbage is grown in every kitchen garden north to south. Caldo Verde, a cabbage soup, is a national dish. So you might say Rafael’s cabbages were yet another ambiguous smirk at society. Perhaps he fancied the irony of a bourgeois Parisian housewife with a plebeian cabbage as her table centrepiece. From the cabbages came all kinds of other horticulture, plates of fish for fish, and hence, crabs, I suspect, for crab dip.
It took only 10 years after Rafael’s death (in 1905) for a museum to be created to celebrate his work. Today there are two museums under his name and various others housing private collections. The factory, Faianças Bordallo Pinheiro, was recently saved from bankruptcy and continues to make beautiful ceramics both very stylish and very funny.
If there is further proof of his talent, endurance and timeless fashionability, Rafael imitations can still be found for sale on the other side of the world. Here’s what my sister found in a Sydney furniture shop on the weekend…