Tucked into a small quarry under a clump of trees where a host of black kites nest each year, lies one of the Charente Maritime’s oldest industries. Quietly known throughout France by the cognoscenti, and with a rich history stained by the very earth on which it stands, the furnaces of TERRE CUITES still shimmer with heat as they have likely done for over a thousand years. Yesterday we had the pleasure of meeting the owners and our family spent a fascinating afternoon learning about this important local industry. I was so happy to meet Monsieur Pauzat and his Father and to make this number 3 in our “Local Artisans” series.
Underneath a set of wooden trusses that date back to the 14th century, Terres Cuites is a business of clay, water, fire and oxygen. It produces tiles for both roofs and floors, for walls and decorations, and it was the tiled floor in our own house that started me off in search of their origin. I had wondered where the tiles had come from, with their rich ranges of colours and their obvious individuality. They looked old, and completely in character with our building, and when I saw the same tiles in Monsieur David’s boulangerie, my question was answered with a shoulder that pointed over the hill and a knowing smile. “Les Terres Cuites,” he said, I knew instantly where he meant, I had passed the sign many times and so I set off to investigate further.
“Il y’a beaucoup de vipères,” Monsieur Pauzat warned us, as we set off to climb a clay mound for a photo of his family’s enterprise. “Faites-attention !…..” and he pointed at the kites circling overhead. “….that’s what they feed on!” and we did indeed pay attention for snakes as the clay quivered beneath our feet. I was standing in a lie of land perhaps a thousand yards long, and 300 yards wide, a lie shaped by the hand of man over many centuries as clay was manhandled from its bed and slid on sledges into the gaping maw of the mixer, there to be molded with water, cut and dried for a month, and then baked in the heart of a furnace at 1200˚C; in ancient times fuelled by the faggots of local forests and the charcoal of the seasonal charcoal burner. We had learnt all this over the course of an hour’s conversation, offered by Monsieur Pauzat without question and with a smile, and completed with an invitation to take photos. It was breathtaking to think of the antiquity of such an incongruous business, settled into the landscape without preamble or fanfare, but with a story stretching back to the 10th century, to a time when our village had no church and the tiles from the furnace went to the fortified chateau and the hostelry on the main road. The three current furnaces of the business are still old, and each consume 200 square metres of tiles at a sitting, tickling at a constant 1170˚C thanks to modern thermostats, and consuming €900 worth of gas at a time. Monsieur Pauzat had filled my head with facts, even though he and his family had only been running the business for three generations.
We learnt winter is cold, a time to stockpile, tidy, repair, and fire some tiles in warm weather. The spring is a time to fire many more, as the temperature rises and humidity stays low – this is the busiest time of the year, sliding slowly into summer as the stockpile dwindles during the house-building season and supplies are replenished when the weather is not too warm nor humid. Autumn the furnaces burn again, tiles churned forth to be stacked against the winter cold.
We were amazed at the amount of tiles in stock, but were quickly told that there were actually very few compared to normal. We learnt the simplicity of the process of making tiles, and then became confused by the hundreds of complexities that are also needed to be taken care of. Two colours of clay in the quarry, white and a red, and a combination of burnt oxygen and heat combined meant a great range of colours could be produced, from white to purple with all the shades of sunset and sunrise in-between. It bemused me that so much clay could be consumed over so many years and yet so much could still remain. We were told that hidden among the trees along the escarpment overlooking the marais were other chimneys of long forgotten furnaces, and that the tiles from the hills had been used far and wide across France, known particularly for their durability, thanks to the ferruginous qualities of the clay – it contains iron oxide which hardens when fired. The oldest tiles that are known from the quarry date to the 11th century and exist in the old Priory in the village. Tiles used in the fortified chateau go back to the 12th century. Most of the Napoleonic forts in the region and many of the important civil buildings, all have our local tiles on their floors and walls.
We were led deep into the premises, and gazed awestruck at the number of drying racks, the mounds of completed tiles, and the size of the furnaces. A carriage stood ready to be fired the next day, the furnace open to receive its cargo, its door and interior blistered and burnt by years of fiery hell. At the heart of the building, under a more modern sheet-steel roof, stood the wooden frame of an original building, quietly standing with dignity some 700 years after being erected; it was tantamount proof to the passage of worms and beetles, its scarred surface a testament to the enduring adaptability of man and his work.
With a fond adieu to Monsieur Pauzat and his 85-year old father, down for an afternoon check on his son’s work, we headed back to our own tiles, wondering at the tenacity of a skill and its determination to survive in the face of modern processes and cheap foreign imports. I had earlier asked, innocently, why people would care to buy something of lesser quality from a shop for the same price as a hand-made, valley-fired tile, and Monsieur Pauzat had shrugged. “Why ?” he had queried with a gallic shrug. “Perhaps it is because we are too busy to sell when we are so busy making,” he said, “and after all, people come here as they have done for hundreds of years, and most likely will do for hundreds more.” We looked at the kites, circling overhead with their beady eyes open for prey, and saw a continuance that could not be shrugged off by mere modern smart businessmen. We could find no argument with his reasoning. The talk of tiles, the quarry and how they are made continued through supper, they had made a lasting impression.