HOW TO... ... make a clay pot
Clay is not a particularly fun-looking raw ingredient, but it has been an essential part of man’s evolution. Jonny Crockett looks at how to create a cooking pot from scratch
In the UK, you are never more than three miles from clay, or so they say. They’re probably right, but have you ever thought why that should be so important? When you’re in the middle of nowhere in a camp you return to time and time again you’ll probably have the means to light a fire, shelter, access to some edible morsels, but have you anything to cook in? You need a pot!
It’s easier than you think. Firstly, you need to find a damp patch in the woods or fields. Dig down with your hand into the soil and examine it. Does it look like clay? If it’s sticky, holding water and feels like toothpaste, then it probably is. Remove a sizeable chunk of clay (pic 1) and break it up.
The next step will take a little time, but persevere. You need to remove all the ‘organics’ from the clay (pic 2). Really get stuck in here. Every bit of leaf, grass, stalk, root or other plant life needs to be separated so that when you come to fire the pot, it doesn’t burn through and leave a hole or crack the pot.
Now for the fun part. With the clay free of organic matter, you need to grab a handful, mix it with a little water and knead it and knead it and knead it. When you think you’ve kneaded it enough, then knead it again. You should then add a little grog. This is a finely ground sand or pottery sherd. You need this so that if you get a microscopic crack it’ll end at the grog particle.
Then mould it into a pot shape (pic 3). Keep it simple! The simpler it is the better it’ll be if you’re a beginner. If you have experience of pot making,
knock yourself out and go bold. Put handles on it and make an elaborate prize winner. If you are going to cook with it, it is worth making a lid too (pic 4). I’ve decorated mine with a snake motif from the Chincha Province in Peru.
The downside to this process is that you now need to dry it out slowly. This can take a few weeks. I left mine for three months.
It is now time to light a fire (pic 5). The fire needs to be big enough to get seriously hot and should also have a wide base to it so that it can support the pot(s) that you are firing. Do not put the pots straight into the fire; they need to slowly warm up (as illustrated by this thermal image; pic 6). If you put the pots into the heat straight away, they will go into thermal shock and will explode as the inside expands more quickly than the outside. Fun, but ultimately a waste of your time. When they are hand hot or just a little bit warmer, place them at the very edge of the fire using a glove. You can now start to nudge them into the centre of the fire. The fire needs to exceed 890°C. Keep the fire going for a good couple of hours; after that, let the fire burn out but leave the pots in the embers (pic 7). If you remove the pots too soon they will go into thermal shock again as the outside cools quicker than the inside. This will make them crack.
When they’ve cooled naturally, they are good to use (pic 8). You might like to glaze them but it’s not necessary. There is something really satisfying about foraging for a meal and then cooking it in a pot you’ve made yourself. Bon appetit!