What’s in a dish? A plate, bowl, cup; round, square, rectangular, oval, large, small, coloured, solid, printed or plain? Quite a lot as it happens. Plates are so often overlooked but they represent an important connection to our personal terroir. They form the base and beginnings of the food we eat and are the vessels we use to enjoy the foods we’ve grown. At the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in Germany, the humble plate has crossed borders through centuries of refinement in a story which unites criminals and kings.
The Meissen story
Back in the 1700’s the first European porcelain was in the process of development by Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus. ‘White Gold’ as it was called at the time, was a highly coveted item within the royal courts of Europe and was imported from China at extravagant prices. At the same time, a poor young alchemist named Johann Frederich Bottger landed in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Because he was a chemist of sorts, he was kept in isolation with the instruction to make gold. Of course that was impossible, but when von Tschirnhaus died his formulas and experiments for what was to become porcelain, landed in the hands of Bottger who eventually managed to master the lucrative art. Upon his success, the then king of Prussia established the Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Porcelain Manufactory by officially moving Bottger’s lab from his prison cell to a castle in Meissen, Germany, where production officially commenced in 1710.
In a mine near the Meissen manufactory you’ll find the subterranean beginnings of some of the western world’s finest porcelain. Here, a pure white clay called kaolin has been extracted since the mine was founded in 1764. Nowadays, it is the smallest working mine in Europe and manned by just two men: Steffen Gottschling, who has worked here for 32 years, and Andreas Kawka who has worked there for 7. After extracting the kaolin, it is then blended at the manufactory (completely by hand!) with native feldspar and quartz to form the pure porcelain which Meissen is so famous for, using techniques mastered over a 300 year period.
After so many centuries in operation, Meissen also one of the world’s oldest and most comprehensive archives of over 700,000 historic models and plaster moulds with which to create its prized offerings. It means that it’s possible to reproduce practically any form of plate, bowl, vase or cup ever to have come out of the manufactory.
From mining to moulding, shaping to embossing, glazing to firing and finally, painting, we were lucky enough to check out Meissen porcelain’s full journey and timeline on a recent visit as part of Terroir Berlin 2019. It made us think long and hard about the serving vessels we use in our everyday lives, so the next time you’re serving your supper take a moment to think about your dish and how it connects you to you personal terroir.