Two hours outside of Mexico City, the colonial city of Puebla has a reputation among capitalinos for being stodgy, conservative, hidebound. Blame it on the overwhelming presence of the church, perhaps—this is, after all, a place where you can still see nuns strolling through the zócalo in full habit. But tradition is also part of what makes the city so magical, from its well-preserved historical center to its centuries-old culinary legacy as the birthplace of chiles en nogada, mole poblano and various confections made by those ubiquitous nuns.
The city’s famed Talavera pottery is also celebrated for being produced the same way for half a millennium, and thousands of tourists flock to Puebla to buy it at the source. But as a new generation of chefs like Angel Vazquez and Marta Ortiz reinvent classic poblano cuisine in their recently opened restaurants, they’re calling upon those venerated Talavera workshops to create traditional-yet-modern dishware to match.
Though it’s named after a pottery-producing city west of Madrid, Talavera pottery arguably reached its apotheosis in colonial Puebla, Mexico, thanks to the region’s fine black and white clay and a unique combination of Spanish, Italian and indigenous techniques.
In the 16th century, cathedrals, chapels and basilicas sprung up throughout the state, announcing the indomitable power of the Catholic Church and creating acres of surface area that required adornment. The potters of Puebla obliged, coating the facades of churches like Temple of San Francisco Acatepec with thousands of Talavera tiles awash in a kaleidoscope of color.
One of only 14 Mexican products protected by a Denomination of Origin, Talavera poblana can only use six colors—blue, yellow, black, green, orange and mauve—that must be derived from natural pigments. Today, some workshops are innovating by pairing classical technique with contemporary design.
The cars barrelling down the highway towards Cholula would never know it, but tucked down a quiet side street, behind a rustic gate draped with bougainvillea, lies Taller Talavera de la Reyna. Founded more than 20 years ago by Angélica Moreno, the workshop has been producing Talavera the old-fashioned way in a lushly landscaped setting that’s open to the public, allowing visitors to experience the centuries-old process from start to finish (provided they have an appointment).
A rear corner of the compound is where the two types of clay are mixed: sandy, malleable barro negro (black clay) and barro blanco, a white clay capable of withstanding the heat of the 1000°C kiln. The clay mixture is left to air-dry for two to three weeks, then workers stomp on it barefoot, Lucille Ball-style, and knead it by hand to remove any remaining air bubbles.
Depending on the final shape of the piece, the clay then gets molded or thrown on a wheel and left to dry for weeks before its first firing. When they come out of the oven, the terra cotta-colored pieces are sent to a nearby room, about the size of a broom closet, where Alberto Gonzalez uses pincers to dip each piece into a vat of enamel, which forms the base for the colors that will be applied in the next stage. In the mills behind him, dense porcelain orbs are at work grinding natural ingredients (ochre, cobalt, copper oxide) for the pigment.
Upstairs, artisans paint each piece by hand, a process that can take two to three days for a single large plate. Then it’s back to the kiln for a second firing. The on-site boutique has a selection of traditional to contemporary dishware, vases, cups, saucers, planters and more, while the gallery across the street features fine-art pieces and claims to have the largest Talavera collection in the Americas.
Talavera de la Reyna has created custom dishware for restaurants including the in-house bistro at Moreno’s own Casareyna boutique hotel, as well as Barroco, the signature dining room at the splashy new Museo Internacional del Barroco (International Baroque Museum).
With a menu by Chef Marta Ortiz (of Mexico City’s Dulce Patria), Barroco puts a high-toned, contemporary spin on traditional poblano cuisine, from tacos arabes to chalupas. The dishes by Talavera de la Reyna are a fitting match, elevating dishes like chiles en nogada and chicken in mole sauce with an artistic touch. In fact, all summer the restaurant served a menu inspired by a Talavera exhibition that took place in the galleries below. The dessert, called Talavera Barroca, was a showstopper of foams, sponge cake, vibrant strokes of fruit coulis, quenelles of ice cream and gem-like candies—all done in the six traditional Talavera colors.
Founded in 1824, Uriarte is Puebla’s oldest existing Talavera workshop, though at several points in it history it was in danger of being wiped out, taking the city’s ceramics tradition along with it. By the end of the turbulent 19th century, Puebla had only six remaining Talavera workshops, and the Mexican revolution of 1910 brought that number down to just four. It remained in the hands of the Uriarte family until the 1990s, when it was sold to a business group, but the workshop still turns out some 20,000 pieces each month, still made according to 16th century methods.
At its flagship store in the city’s centro historico, intricate tilework adorns the facade of the imposing two-story stone building. Inside, you can find classic Talavera dishware, tiles, vases, garden planters and more. The workshop is still unafraid to flirt with more updated designs: as recently as 2012 Uriarte enlisted 30 contemporary artists to create a series of pieces commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla in 2012 (check them out in this gallery).
Uriarte is also the go-to workshop for restaurants including the Cafe Azul Talavera at the new Rosewood Hotel Puebla and Augurio, where Chef Angel Vázquez uses a simple bone-white plate as a canvas for his signature mole poblano.
“Mole poblano originated in this city, and so did Uriarte Talavera, so it’s the perfect pairing,” he says.
Header image courtesy of Taller Talavera de la Reyna in Puebla.