Orizaba, the city at the base of Mexico’s highest mountain, the Peak of Orizaba, had a count during the Viceroyalty years. When the count died, his oldest son would become the new Count of Orizaba.
One such eldest son was known as a good-for- nothing. His father did not relish leaving his affairs to him. “He’ll never even be able to make a house of tiles when he grows up,” he reportedly said.
The boy never forgot this insult. When he became the Count of Orizaba he covered the whole outside of the family’s Mexico City palace with tiles — Puebla’s famous Talavera tiles.
Talavera is a form of majolica — painted pottery using a white tin-glaze decorative technique. The process was originally developed by Islamic potters during the Middle Ages, though it was likely inspired by Chinese porcelain. It was the dominant form of tile in Europe until the mid-18th century. It spread to Spain where it is known as Hispano- Moresque ware.
Soon after the conquest of Mexico, examples of fine majolica pottery were brought over from Spain. With them came the know-how. Skilled indigenous potters were soon trained to make it themselves. They imitated Spanish, Italian and Chinese designs and called it Talavera pottery after the Spanish city of Talavera de la Reina, which was already famous for its pottery.
The city of Puebla became the epicenter for Talavera pottery. Potters found fine white clay nearby in the valleys around Mexico’s second highest peak, Popocateptl.
One of the oldest and finest producers of Talavera is the factory, founded in 1824. They still make it the same way it was made in the 16th century, except they use a modern gas-fired kiln.
I like to take visitors to this amazing factory where we can watch the production of tiles, fine pots, dishes and works of art. Each piece is tapped after the first firing and must ring with the required “Uriarte sound.” The finest pieces are unique and signed; many others are designs copied through generations.
During the workweek Uriarte is generous in allowing visitors to tour and watch the process. On request they will open their second floor museum exhibiting the whole array of their production.
Its function is two-fold. It is of interest to those admiring Talavera ware and, perhaps more importantly, a place for Uriarte’s artisans to visit in order to maintain the style and quality of pottery for which the company is famous.
Over the centuries, ceramic artists have refined their work all the while passing down the designs of master artisans.
If you are looking for a set of dishes where plates, bowls and cups are uniform, Talavera is not for you. Each piece is unique and should be hand-signed.
Originally Talavera was just blue and white — traditional Chinese porcelain colors. The Mexican color palette follows the examples of Italy and Spain where other natural pigmented colors were used. Running your fingers over a tile or dish, you’ll feel the raised color.
Not every potter can claim to make Talavera. In present-day Mexico, the use of the word “Talavera” is subject to Mexico’s Denominación de Origen Law which requires it be made in Puebla using 16th-century techniques. A government agency certifies and periodically inspects shops authorized to use “Talavera” to describe their production.
If Puebla is not on your itinerary, an exceptional collection of Talavera ware is on display in Mexico City’s Franz Meyer Museum. That’s just a four- block walk from where the good-for-nothing covered the family’s mansion with tiles.
Today the Count of Orizaba’s Palace is designated a historical monument. It is also open to the public as Sanborn’s flagship restaurant. You’ll find it two blocks east of the Palace of Fine Arts at the corner of Avenida Cinco de Mayo and Condesa street.
Known as the House of Tiles, it is one of Mexico’s premier destinations and has featured in countless novels, movies and political intrigue.
Perhaps the most recognized photo taken there was snapped in 1914. In the heat of the Revolution General Emiliano Zapata’s army and Pancho Villa’s División del Norte converged in Mexico City. A photographer caught some Zapatistas taking a coffee break. Space was tight. They had to artfully wrap up the wide brims of their tall hats in order to squeeze in at the counter.
A modern group of Zapatistas arrived in Mexico City in 1999. Eight members of the caravan accompanied by members of the city’s legislative assembly went to have coffee at the same counter. They were also photographed.
This time they had to sip their coffee through straws. It’s difficult to drink from a coffee cup while wearing a ski mask. Another difference is that they paid for the coffee. The Zapatistas of 101 years ago left without paying.