Timeless terracotta

Algarve masters produce one-of-a-kind artisanal building materials.

In Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, ancient building materials are still being produced. These are floor tiles, bricks, and roof tiles, made from terracotta, which have been used for decades in homes across the Algarve.

According to businessman Alberto Rocha, a renowned manufacturer, genuine Santa Catarina tiles measure 15 by 30 centimetres and have a feature that makes them unique and easily recognisable: a smooth, wide stripe which is almost white, always lengthways over its reddish base. To create this pattern, the artisan, who helps with the moulding and puts the final touches to the pieces, wets his fingers in a fine light-coloured argil chalk diluted in water and runs them along the tiles.

“For a long time, people only spoke of regional products. Regional or Moorish roof tiles or regional floor tiles. In 1985, when I established the current facilities for my pottery factory, I thought: regional doesn’t mean anything because it doesn’t specify the region. So I began using the terms ‘Santa Catarina roof tile’ and ‘Santa Catarina floor tile’ in the receipts,” explains Alberto Rocha. “The name stuck, and all the other manufacturers began using it. It was almost natural, since this material has, in all fairness, great aesthetic quality associated with good thermic and acoustic properties, as well as a lot of tradition.”

The 2008 recession led to the stagnation of the construction industry and several small factories were forced to close down. Those who used rented facilities or relied on sites not being directly utilised by the owners suffered the most.

Today, four facilities still stand: the ones from Alberto Rocha and Lúcio Brás Viegas, near Santa Catarina da Fonte do Bispo, and those owned by Fernando Silvério Faustino and Vidal Brito, in Julião, Fonte do Bispo. Lately there has been a great rise in orders, although there are no plans to open new production facilities.

“We need young people to work in this field. To cut, lay out and beat the tiles you need to know what you’re doing, and even more so to bake it!”, Alberto Rocha states. “But this is a well-established product, recognised and recommended by many renowned architects, like Eduardo Souto de Moura or Manuel Aires Mateus, who value vernacular and traditional elements in their projects,” says Elisabete Rocha, Alberto Rocha’s daughter, who has a more upbeat perspective.

“We are talking about a product manufactured with massive intrinsic knowledge, resulting from experience gained over the years. These men are not random workers, they are craftsmen and even artists. If we could promote the image of a professional artisan in the telheiros (production sheds) of Santa Catarina, if we could create benefits and make this an attractive profession, then I believe there’s a great future here.”

‘Production sheds’ as we know them today didn’t exist until the early 1960s. Small manufacturing units, producing terracotta pieces, concentrated over the narrow seam of red argil that makes up the Volcanic-Sedimentary Complex, the connecting strip between the Palaeozoic and the Mesozoic Algarve, from Vila do Bispo to Castro Marim.

The production process is complex, with each cycle usually lasting two weeks. It all begins with grinding the argil and kneading the clay, which is now done with modern machinery. However, shaping the tiles (and bricks) is a manual process, unit by unit, using simple moulds.

Afterwards, they are patiently left to dry on a levelled floor until they are ready to be manhandled into the oven. This task can take up to two or three days and requires a lot of experience and mastery, to ensure the even circulation of the oven’s 900°C heat. The baking of the pieces is conducted by the shed master, a title earned after long and successful years of dedication.

One feature worth mentioning is that the ovens are fed with local raw materials, such as almond shells, olive pomace, sawdust and wood wastes. The baking takes around 36 hours and, after cooling down, all the tiles and bricks are turned out and handpicked.