The Terracotta Life

The Terracotta Life

travelers-talesBy Lola Åkerström

The winding road to Ville Montetiffi snakes along rolling hills with lush views of green vineyards, fields with grazing sheep, and farmland with old sheds and villas. Past the occasional cyclist training and struggling uphill. Past a car or two, far and few between. In the distance, you can just make out San Marino dramatically jutting out of the earth over the hills. For several kilometers, we were the only car on the road as we pressed further up into Emilia Romagna’s Sogliano al Rubicone province. There was no wireless coverage here. Montetiffi required that I fully immerse once I reached her.

I was on my way to the Camilletti-Reali’s rustic farm where they’ve been reviving the 500+ year old tradition of terracotta pan making by hand for decades. Rambo, the family’s dog, barked our arrival and Rosella came out to meet us with a smile, her eyes twinkling. Maurizio was spinning his lathe in the workshop, finishing up a pan, fingers dyed brown with clay.

Rosella and Maurizio Camilletti-Reali are the only artisans keeping the tradition of terracotta piadina clay pans called “Teglie” alive within this region. Piadina is an Italian flat bread made with wheat flour, lard or olive oil, salt, water, and a pinch of bicarbonate or yeast. It can be eaten with cheese and cold cuts like prosciutto or Parma ham as a sandwich or with sweeter fare like Nutella and jam or ricotta cheese topped with caramelized figs. Piadina is “PAT” certified which stands for Prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale, and is an official approval that the food item is a protected Italian regional food product.

Disillusioned with the daily grind years ago, the married couple bought their current farm in Ville Montetiffi and learned how to make traditional clay pans from an old potter in an effort to preserve the dying the tradition. Today, they’re the only ones making the terracotta pans in the region which they sell to small stores for resale as well as at regional artisan fairs.

Maurizio showed me some raw materials–red and blue clay as well as marbled calcites–which he uses to make the pans from scratch. After drying the clay, they are crushed into fine powder using a mallet and are ready to be used to form the pans. I watched the artist take his place at his wooden potter’s wheel. Watched his hands gently shape and craft the teglie mold. His eyes, the color of honey, scan the surface like lasers for any imperfections and his fingers swiftly correct the single one he finds.  Because he’s been doing this for roughly two decades, the rotating wooden lathe feels like an extension of his body.

Within minutes, a perfectly smooth flat pan was molded and ready to dry under the shade in the evening sun. The semi-dry clay pans are then transferred into a storage room where they sit to set for 7-8 weeks with regular rotations before baking them in a wood-burning kiln at 600-700 degrees. A long process that reaps its full benefit after close to two months.

But that was expected. Because here in the hills away from beach crowds in Rimini or bustling students in Bologna, slow living was essential to one’s craftsmanship as an artist. Working with your hands in a way that required full concentration without unnecessary distractions. This was a life I envied on some level. One which meant substituting what I constantly pursued with what I truly needed in addition to a near stress-less lifestyle. The life of an artist who drew inspiration from his surroundings and who relied on his surroundings to recharge his creativity.

Beyond living off their craft of making terracotta pans for sale, Maurizio and Rosella also live off the land in a sustainable and rustic way. Which meant at their invitation to join them for dinner, Maurizio went out to pick black cherries and fresh strawberries as well as green leafy vegetables for a salad from his farm. They get cheese and dried meats from neighbors several kilometers down the road who run their own small rustic farms as well.

Tonight, Rosella invited me into her warm kitchen to teach me how to make this regional specialty–piadina–from scratch. Their fourteen year old son, Fransesco, was in the background playing a video game on their computer.  She measured out flour as a kettle of cooking water whistled out smoke in the background. She mixed flour with salt, lard, and bicarbonate before kneading the dough into its familiar consistency with such skill that easily told me she’d been making piadina from scratch for close to twenty years.

Dinner was simple but hearty. Newly baked piadine we made together eaten with fresh salad tossed with salt and olive oil, caramelized figs which Maurizio had made himself, alongside ricotta and  parmesan cheese with a variety of cold cuts they pull from their fridge. I listen mostly. Upset that I couldn’t converse in Italian. After all, when I was a teenager, I’d spent at least two years teaching myself the language. But it didn’t matter now as we chatted over dinner with Nicholas, my guide and friend, acting as my impromptu translator. Upon finding out I was Nigerian, they told me about a Nigerian friend of theirs called “Friday” who lived down the hill.  I wondered if Montetiffi, the antithesis of the maddening rush of life in Lagos, Nigeria, had also seduced “Friday” as well. The ultimate calm.

I listened. Because if I talked, I couldn’t trust myself not to cry. Mostly because of their warmth, genuine hospitality, and love that surrounded that table. I saw a tiny piece of my own decision to leave the cutthroat corporate world reflected and validated in their artisan lifestyle. Life was truly meant for living in a way that didn’t necessarily mean amassing wealth one can never spend in a lifetime.

As Maurizio walks us to our car with the sun setting over Montetiffi up on a distant hill, he pauses. Takes in its golden rays as it washes over the landscape that spreads out all around us.

“I never get tired of seeing this after all these years,” he says in Italian, the sun’s warm light catching his honey colored eyes.


Lola Åkerström has written, photographed, and dispatched for various major publications around the world, including National Geographic. She has won many awards for her travel writing. She is based in Stockholm, Sweden. View her portfolio here.

2017-04-24T02:31:54+00:00