Even the most ascetic, least material of monks has need of three things: robes, in which to clothe himself; a temple, in which to shelter himself; and a bowl, with which to feed himself.
This might seem a strange message with which to encourage people to buy (and use, and live with, and love) more pots. I wish only to point to the fact that these fundamental necessities, these universal comforts of warmth, protection, and nourishment, are just that: common to us all. And since most of us do not live in saintly abstemiousness, we could treat ourselves to the thought of enriching our experience of them, in whatever way we can.
The preparing, eating, and sharing of food is the important, universal ritual. Beside shelter and warmth, food is the one thing we all need; and that necessity, the one thing we all share. To cook a meal for a fellow human being must be among the most profoundly simple, yet profoundly compassionate and human gifts we can give to one another.
An explosion of information in the last three decades on home cooking and fine cuisine, farming and gardening, foraging and factory producing, has expanded our food horizons exponentially. But while we spend more and more of our energy thinking about what we are going to eat, and where we get it from, few of us have taken the time to think about that other fundamental aspect of how we eat it – in today’s rush-hour, stress-shocked climate, more often than not at speed, on the go, without savouring it, and from poorly designed, low quality, mass-produced tableware.
Food is far from the only aspect of our lives in which we have focused on substance while neglecting the vessel. Books we once made beautifully, but expensively. Fortunately, an age where great literature was gatekept by those with enough money to own personal libraries is largely gone, and now virtually anybody with sufficient time and patience in a second-hand bookshop (if they can find one) or, with a little more in one’s pocket, in a high-street book store, can buy any one of a thousand classics. But while we endeavoured to make them accessible, at the same time we stopped caring so much about making them readable. So behind fancy, flashy covers with embossed and reflective text, we find too long line lengths in small, black print, on mean paper, the margins and gutters pushed to the edge of the page in an effort to cut down production costs.
The result is that many of us, an hour or so in, give up on reading these books; the experience becomes too uncomfortable, the struggle to compensate for these typographic flaws not worth the payoff. With the worst offenders, the experience is headache inducing. More often than not, we mistakenly think the fault lies with us – ‘I am not clever enough for this text’ – when quite the opposite is true.
As with books, we have more freedom in what we choose to eat, whether depending on mood, situation, or ethos, than ever before in our history. Thanks to round the clock, round the calendar supermarket supplies, we have access to virtually any kind of food; and those ingredients too obscure for high street shops (I’m looking at you, Ottolenghi), are now available to us online in the blink of a Google search. In theory, this has opened whole worlds of new ways of eating to us: soft, warming meals contained singly in bowls; small, simple, contrasting dishes for long, drawn out evening feasts, picked at with company long into the night bit, by bit, by bit. The reality is that, paralysed by this plurality of choice, most of us are settled in routines of eating we often long to escape.
The objects we eat from are as intimately connected to the food we consume; but if we sometimes neglect our love of food, we almost universally neglect the things we serve them in. Look at a nation’s pottery, and you will find not just an insight into their cuisine, but their national character and values. For Europeans, this has long meant gatherings round high tables, food dished out onto plates; the meal as charity for the thankful, the service an act of grace, rooted in a Christian theme of the spiritual dignity of breaking bread.
In Japan, you will find similar customs too, but of an entirely different appearance: this food on that plate; this drink from that bowl; structure, harmony, mutual respect. Today, those customs are so culturally intertwined that the sharing of food in one’s home becomes an intimate expression of personal values. Pots should be central to that expression. Change the vessel, and you change the meal: bowls are to be hugged in the hands, sat in a soft chair, perhaps legs folded; plates and platters to be laid out across a table in jubilant array.
Like mass-produced books, plain, white, machine-made tableware is straight-forwardly functional. It is mostly affordable and unobtrusive; and it has given families who would otherwise not have the means the ability to share food with friends and loved ones. But unlike the frayed and folded corners of a much-thumbed edition, or the furiously underlined passages of a poetry volume, or a borrowed copy of a family favourite novel, there is no conversation to be had with plain white plates; no relationship to be explored; no memory to inherit; no variation; no sense of change.
The smell of a new book is matched only by the smell of an old one; change, an object’s ongoing history, is part of its appeal. Handmade pots change: sometimes a patina of overuse, sometimes in our relationship with an object; a sudden realisation of a detail, an aspect, we had not noticed before. When all your tableware looks the same, there is none of the seasonal, or the random, instinctive, rotation of the kind we do with our food all the time. Winter calls for those hot, heavy meals, made in big pots to last a few days, when motivation to cook as the darkness draws in becomes harder and harder to find. Meals which heat the kitchen through as they simmer on the hob, or roast in the oven. I tend to look to darker pots in winter: glistening black tenmoku, or a wintry nuka on dark clay, like snow on hard soil.
Summer calls for more and smaller pots: little bowls for olives and cured meats, salads, meals of picking and plenty, but occasionally there is an impulse to shake things up – winter salads and summer crumbles – or to draw out a pot unused for a time: jet black slipware for crisp, red tomatoes in the height of June, or a pale, delicate porcelain dish to contrast a thick, rustic helping of November pudding.
And perhaps the most enjoyable of all, handmade cups, of which one, two, five is never enough. Some handles encourage the hand to hold the mug from the crook of the finger; others ask for the palms to clasp, fingers slipped between cup-wall and handle-nook. Whatever the design, when it is made by a person, what you have is not an aggregated average – it prompts, rather than demands you work to its specifics. And there is nothing quite like the impish, impulsive rejection of a favourite mug for a ‘second fiddle’, from the dusty back of the cupboard, only to find it become the new go-to staple.
In the 15 years we have been selling pots, we have always sold domestic ware: pots made to live in a home, to serve an immediate use. They are all vessels of one sort or another: to hold, like bowls and plates and cups; and to give, be it jugs or bottles or dishes. We decided to sell them because we had lived with them – and we still do, when we can get our hands on them before our customers do.
Three things: clothes, shelter, and food. We can’t help with the first two…