After several months on Tenerife, all I’d learned about the history of the Canary Islands was that they were so named because of the plenitude of large dogs seen there by early explorers. Maybe. Because according to another local expert, the name definitely came from the birds that were used to lead miners out of the many caves on the islands. What exactly was mined remains a mystery, and someone else pointed out that obviously the birds would have to be named for the island, not the other way around. At some point I was also assured that, for a fact, the name Canarii originally belonged to a group of people who lived a few thousand years ago, just a few thousand kilometers away, across the water, in what are now called the Atlas Mountains. In Morocco. It’s said that the Canarii had a thing for dogs. So. There. Of course.
[No wonder most visitors’ discussions of Tenerife’s history focus on whether it’s always been necessary to wear three sweaters and wool socks on your holiday vacation, or if the frigid wind is just some mean cold-weather fluke].
So I was glad when, Fran, a sort of audiobook of Canary Island history, invited some of us over to his house to learn how to make pottery the way the Guanches, the aboriginal inhabitants of Tenerife, used to make it.
Click on a photo to open a slideshow and (abbreviated, beer-enhanced) history lesson:
Fran’s workshop is also his home, which he built room by room over the past couple of decades.
His love of history, especially the history of his island, brought him to a traditional pottery class, where he learned the basics of Guanche methods.
He now combines those techniques with his own designs and inspirations.
His home is built on a hillside, with a view of the Atlantic Ocean, and, on a clear day, the island of Gran Canaria.
According to Fran, the Guanches were a primarily pastoral society; today Tenerife’s economy relies mainly on tourism. Agriculture is in decline, but all over the island, tomatoes and bananas are still grown, often in plastic enclosures.
Much of the Guanche’s pottery was utilitarian – for example, for goat milking, and then milk drinking.
Most of the Guanche language has died out (though it lives on the names of local foods, such as gofio, and towns, such as Adeje and Orotava) and theories about the origins of the Guanche and their language continue to be investigated.
One theory ties the Guanche to the Berber/Amazigh people of northern Africa, with whom they share linguistic and artistic roots.
No one is sure how or why the Guanches came to settle the Canary Islands and they appear to have lived in isolation for thousands of years. They possessed basic tools and their pottery was hand-formed (no wheels were used). Here, Fran demonstrates how sand is used to prevent the clay from sticking during kneading, and also to even out the texture and consistency of the material.
The clay can be found locally. (If you feel like exploring, Fran would love to show you where).
Kneading the clay with sand for just a few minutes makes it soft enough to mold.
The basic vessel used by the Guanches starts with a simple lump of clay.
The base is formed by flattening the ball a bit and removing some of the clay from the inside.
Here Gin demonstrates the incorrect technique of using water to make the clay softer so that you can mold it into a bowl shape. This actually just makes the whole thing weak and prone to cracks and Fran will disapprove.
A solid, proper base should be carved, not molded.
The walls of the bowl are built up by adding coils of clay.
Here, Stefan gets the gold star for bowl building.
Additional coils are added until the bowl has the desired shape and height.
As we shaped our bowls, Fran told us about how the Spanish conquest of Tenerife took almost 100 years, from 1402 to 1496. Tenerife, the largest and most populous of the Canary Islands, fought the hardest and was the last to be conquered.
Then the outside is smoothed a bit, in this case using a non-Guanche piece of scrap metal. Fran says it’s ok to blend techniques, the Guanche roots are still there. Today, a large proportion of the people born in the Canary Islands – including Fran, as documented by his geneology-loving sister – can trace their family trees back to the Guanches; their names and language became Spanish after colonization, but, for many, a strong genetic link to the Guanches remains.
The jagged edges of the rim can shaved off to create a smooth rim for drinking. Or you can leave it rough and use it to store your spare change.
Handles can be tube-shaped…
…or like cute little ears.
After resting in a cool, dark place (to avoid cracks caused by rapid drying) over a couple of days, the bowl will be dry enough for reshaping.
The Guanche likely used shells to shave off excess thickness, and stones to polish the surface.
Not a native breed, but adorable anyway.
After drying completely, the bowls will be fired in a brick oven and ready to hold fresh milk from your favorite goat.
Fran’s oven is also perfect for making pizza. And he often opens his home to friends and travelers for late-night dinners, bonfires, and candle-lit explanations of how the Guanches made stone walls.
Fran’s house is built with local stone, cut into large bricks.
Brick cutting methods…
Fran’s house before the additions.
Fran will happily open his home to you, too. If you’re interested in a Guanche pottery/history/cooking course, you’re welcome to contact him directly at email@example.com. He’d love to organize a session based on your interests and availability. He will try to do it for free, or at least a lot less than his time is worth. Please don’t let him.
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