In ceramics, the raw material is clay, that is the earth of the potter. From the earth itself, the sap draws the olive tree, a sacred plant and an icon of Mediterranean civilization. Earth seals indeed the association between the two, both shaped and cultivated, while the fruit, manufactured or extra virgin, is a creative act. It is no coincidence that pottery workshops are ancient underground oil mills and that extra virgin olive oil still fill these objects, infusing them with new life and gaining a new look.
The origin of the art of pottery in Puglia
We are in Puglia, a crossroads of ancient civilizations, where the art of pottery has a long rich tradition, dating back to the time when Greek settlers spread it throughout Magna Graecia, however, according to some sources, it would have its roots in prehistoric times. Over the centuries, skilled artisans first learned to turn clay into utensils for everyday and domestic life, then refined their skills and started to create ornamental objects for practical and aesthetic purposes.
Today, the creations of Apulian master potters are well-known everywhere, as they are strongly distinctive in the area. Currently, the major manufacture centers are located in the areas of Taranto (Grottaglie, Laterza), Bari (Rutigliano, Terlizzi) and Salento (Cutrofiano).
The most typical objects are pumi, flower buds, symbols of new beginnings, capasoni, large containers for oil or wine, associated with the idea of quantity, and limmi, containers for tomato pulp.
How the union between the tradition of ceramics and extra virgin olive oil production came about
Until a few years ago, however, the history of Apulian ceramics was the typical industry of great tradition but on the verge of extinction.
Then, with their brilliant ideas, some estates decided not only to keep this art alive, but also wished to renew it, an artifact of peasant art turned into a piece of design. The most creative figures of this new era of ceramics have hit the mark, interweaving tradition with another equally precious and centuries-old excellence of the territory: the production of extra virgin olive oil.
There is no Italian region more olive-growing than Puglia after all: home to about one-third of the olive trees, nearly 60 million trees, and more than one-sixth of the mills of the entire Peninsula from which, in the luckiest years, even more than half of the entire national oil production was obtained. That is an endless silvery-green mantle, made up of great specimens that look over the landscape and tell, with their huge twisted trunks, a thousand-year history.
Already at the dawn of the new millennium, Frantoio Muraglia has successfully united these two universes, producing for a century and a half extra virgin olive oil in Andria, which is the oil capital of Puglia. Savino Muraglia, the fifth generation of a “capatosta” family, starting with the true progenitor, a 460-year-old Coratina variety olive tree, has exalted made in Italy production by bringing together oil technique and vascular art, evo oil and design. The result was not only a winning combination, but a real industry, that is now appreciated all over the world.
“We were among the first in Italy to ‘dress’ oil. Our goal was to bring the culture of extra virgin olive oil from Puglia to the world, focusing on the flawless quality of the products and the beauty of the containers, that are hand-colored and decorated ceramic bottles. So, I turned to the ancient vase art, revitalizing it, trusted talented artisans and discovered new artists launching them into our food design project”.
His motto is “good in what’s beautiful” and his path can be summed up in a paradigm shift into two sectors: oil with qualitative excellence and ceramic tradition with innovation and creativity.
“As an aesthete, I wanted to bring freshness to the tradition of ceramic oil jars: at first, we started with form and color. The old convex oil jug then became a more practical and contemporary shape, a bottle, and we used the colors of the rainbow. The next step, which was even more ambitious, was to give the containers a strong artistic connotation, turning them into real design objects. We involved artists such as Pierpaolo Gaballo, who is also from Puglia and has a style strictly linked to his territory, with creation of limited editions with even more peculiar and unique features”.
What makes Muraglia’s style remarkable is the Mediterranean nature of the colors, as they vibrate on the ceramics. The rainbow of his orci represents the thousand shades of sun-kissed Puglia. Gaballo’s limited edition starts a more intimist phase: the colors give way to the black-white pair and the style becomes more austere and stylized, mixing figurative elements and geometric symbols, such as in the archetype of Mother Nature, that is the representation of nature as a woman, where the artist uses three geometric figures: square, circle (which becomes an olive) and octagon, as a symbol for earth, sky and mankind as the link between the two worlds.
Muraglia interprets a trend that includes the creation of personalized objects for events: first of all, wedding favors, which, from an often useless or boring object, became a refined and gourmet product, 100% made in Puglia.
Another regional reality also stands out: Olio Lamantea, in nearby Bisceglie. Heir to a family tradition dating back to 1950, Mario Lamantea is a young entrepreneur who founded the brand in 2003. In healthy competition with his father, who was tied to a more conservative business vision, he immediately embarked on the commercial adventure and entered both the national and international market with the enthusiasm and energy of his twenties, starting from a deep connection with the territory, Apulia, and aiming at the production of his own extra virgin olive oil through a qualitative, but also aesthetic, path.
The influence of tourism
The idea initially came from tourism: “I realized that tourists who tasted oil wanted to take it home as a typical product and souvenir of their vacation in Apulia. A sort of quality souvenir from the homeland of oil. So, I started working on the packaging, both thinking about a suitable shape for travelers and exploring the area of ancient ceramic art. Weekend kits include small bottles that can be carried by plane, while evo oil-based condiments in different flavors are enclosed in mignon packs inside an elegant display case and even the cans are declined in a thousand variations. Our flagship are the ceramic pitchers, as they are handmade by local artisans and made in different formats”.
The style is marked again by the use of colors, with all the shades of the palette in order to evoke the lively and lush colors of the land. Some collections take on pastel nuances that remind of children’s drawings in order to represent olive subjects such as trees and ladders. While monochromes triumph in warm or cool tones, the “sketch lines” evoke a traditional technique that consisted of decorating jars with an olive twig. The result is an irregularly colored surface, as if the color had been splattered.
Tradition and innovation
The key words for Mario are tradition and innovation: turning the ancient vase into art, reinterpreting it in a contemporary item, means for him to turn objects with attractive packaging into refined furnishing accessories (not only in the kitchen), and personalized objects for different celebrations.
“Oil is health, beauty, furniture, travel, fashion. It can also become art. Just like the painter has canvas and colors at his disposal, who makes oil can give way, from the field to the bottle, to his creativity, also thanks to the contribution of real artists. For the wedding line, for example, we turn to a painter who, just as she would for a painting, hand paints a bottle every day, creating original and exclusive works”.
The queen olive variety in this central part of Apulia is the coratina cultivar. The oil obtained from it has an intense fruity aroma. The nose releases vegetal hints of artichoke, thistle and chicory, accompanied by balsamic notes of mint and rosemary. When tasting it, it is enveloping and strong, with the tones of field vegetables and nuances of unripe almond. The final bitter and spicy feeling is definitely clear and well harmonized.
What is it paired with? First of all, we have one recipe: the legendary orecchiette pasta with turnip tops. Then, treat yourself with other traditional dishes, as long as they are not too delicate, so as not to be covered by an extra virgin with strong taste: friselle with savory vegetables, fava bean and chicory soups, tuna or swordfish tagliata, grilled meats, lamb with potatoes, aged caciocavallo cheese.
In Greek mythology, Ceramus, worshiped by the potters, was a hero and the son of Dionysus who, it should not be forgotten, is the god of wine and the lifeblood flowing into plants. Such detail underscores the deep connection between the art of pottery and the fruits of the earth, which have always been present in our local tradition.
The key word is simplicity. Mario Lamantea enjoy his oil strictly on a slice of bread. When his eight-year-old son won’t eat, he makes him a snack with bread, oil and tomato: it’s a success! Savino Muraglia has a favorite dish: short pasta with oil and parmesan cheese. That is the best for aromas and flavors.
Opening image: Frantoio Muraglia, Fumo extra virgin olive oil from Peranzana naturally cold-smoked with natural woods
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