The Portuguese Azulejo

To the Try the World subscribers who’ve hesitated to open Briosa Gourmet’s canned seafood for fear of ruining the beautiful wrapping: please, go ahead and eat. Here is a history of the hydraulic tiles that inspire Briosa Gourmet’s packaging. We hope it satisfies your curiosity as you satisfy your appetites with bacalhau, Portugal’s trademark salted codfish, or another Briosa Gourmet snack.

Briosa Gourmet
© The Frynamic Duo

Hydraulic tiles—also known as Portuguese, Moroccan, or cement tiles—are made by hand according to a time-honored and environmentally friendly tradition. To start, mineral pigments are set into a mold, with the cement poured on top. Instead of being baked, these tiles are hydraulically pressed and then cured for several weeks. The end result is a lovely “azulejo,” as the Portuguese call it, a word that comes from the Arabic az-zulayj, which means “polished stone.”

The colorful geometric and floral patterns of hydraulic tiles are a testament to the fusion of Moorish and European cultures. Southern Portugal was invaded by the Moors in the 700s, and their rule lasted until 1492. The Moors brought with them advances in agriculture, introducing new crops like rice and citrus fruits. The diets of the Portuguese improved as the arts also flourished. Greek philosophy made its way to the Iberian Peninsula, and great strides were made in medicine, astronomy, and mathematics.

The Moorish influence is also palpable in the architecture of Spain and Portugal. Although no examples of Moorish tile work have survived in Portugal, the country’s love affair with decorative tiles can be traced back to the Moors. In the 1500s, the Portuguese King Manuel I marveled at the tile work of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. He resolved to decorate his own palace with similarly magnificent tiles. Since royals are often trendsetters, tiles became a popular way to decorate homes and public buildings. The tiles were initially imported from Spain, and their design followed Islamic law, which forbade the portrayal of human figures. Portuguese tilemakers soon began to deviate, though, from the use of strictly geometric patterns, using tiles to tell religious and historical stories. Geometric patterns became popular again towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, in the time of Art Nouveau.

Today, Portuguese tiles exemplify the tendency of cultures to blend. By trade or by conquest, cultures spread, affecting everything from the arts and architecture to the food on your plate.

Mirielle Clifford is a writer, editor, and educator who lives in Brooklyn. She loves waxing poetic about the food and drinks she’s sampled abroad, like buffalo milk lassis from Nepal, Café au Lait from Paris, or dolmas from Egypt.

Mirielle Clifford


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