Journal

The timeless power of the Pestle and Mortar

The timeless power of the Pestle and Mortar

How this simplest of objects has had the power to span millennia transcending cultural barriers. The pestle and mortar is ubiquitous; found in every culture, its use can be traced back through each millennium. Evidence of its place in the lives of humankind dates back to Ancient Egypt and 1550BC, but it’s estimated that this simple yet highly functional tool was actually put to work more than 6000 years before the existence of the Pharaohs. Essential for preparing medicine in Roman times, the pestle and mortar was an early symbol for apothecaries or pharmacists. In Malay and West Asia, it’s still used today to grind meat, whereas in the Philippines its function continues as a rice de-husker.

The pre-Hispanic cultures of both the Mayan and Aztecs used the pestle and mortar to grind spices. Indeed, they’re still employed for exactly this task in modern day Pakistan and India. And it’s long been understood that in Papua New Guinea, pestles were carved into elaborate birds’ heads, whilst the Chalon and Mutsun peoples of California’s Salinas valley chiselled shallow depressions into bedrock in order to grind up their grains and acorns. Browse the Internet today and you will find numerous articles describing the best way to go about choosing the pestle and mortar ideal for your modern kitchen.

The longevity of the pestle and mortar’s design is astounding; it has changed very little over the course of thousands and thousands of years. From culture to culture, it has merely adapted in order to suit the materials to hand, the only caveat being that the user – whoever and wherever they were – must be able to crush and pound. And even though modern kitchens might have access to industrial grinders, many chefs prefer to use the traditional pestle and mortar to bring the best out of their ingredients; much like bread enthusiasts often choose to enjoy the immediacy of kneading dough by hand instead of machine. One place where the cuisine is just as diverse as the population is Africa. As varied as the food is over this vast continent, there’s a tool that is the common denominator: the pestle and mortar. Essential for preparing everything from staples to spice mixes, the use of the pestle and mortar was once so prolific that it was the custom in some West African cultures to give one to every new bride. Traditionally, the African mortar is a large, heavy vessel made of wood on a pedestal base. Between one and one and a half feet high, most have a diameter of between 24 and 30 inches.

The design of the pestle is a slender rod form with a ball-shaped end and therefore a larger surface area, thus making the grinding process less time consuming and more effective. Cleaning was simple: water, a clean rag and time to dry naturally. Modern technology has made the process of grinding easy and - on the African continent - food processors, blenders and powdered staples have all but rendered the need for this handcrafted tool redundant. Except for one thing: flavour. For a tool that predates agriculture, many have made the mistake of considering the pestle and mortar obsolete and inefficient. However, the pestle and mortar cannot be underestimated for its unrivalled ability to create rich, authentic aroma, taste and texture. Simple, organic and seemingly as old as time itself, it’s not very often that form and function come together to create such a joyous and long lasting union.

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Kuba Cloth

Kuba Cloth

Kuba cloths are so admired for their elaborate designs and craftsmanship that mathematicians have gone to great lengths to study their intricate, complex geometric patterns. Unique to the Kuba Kingdom of central Africa – now the Democratic Republic of Congo and formerly Zaire - vegetable dyes are used to give the fibre of the Raphia Vinifera Palm leaves a variety of earthy tones. Then, Kuba cloth is woven from the leaves’ strands. Traditionally used in a multitude of ways, from the prestigious (including ceremonial court adornment and dance regalia) to the more prosaic (for example, as wrapping, sleeping mats and even currency) the cloth remains highly coveted.

 Textile production is firmly rooted in a cultural practice where the division of labour is based on gender. Men are wholly responsible for cultivating the palms and weaving the raffia cloth, whereas it is the women who engage in hand-stitching embroidery and appliqué or the technique of cutting the pile as a form of embellishment in itself. Traditionally rectangular, two main types of Kuba cloth are most prevalent: cut pile, which has been shorn in such a way to form a surface similar to velvet in texture and flat woven, which is the most often decorated. What is common to each piece of Kuba cloth however, is its individual nature; meticulous craftsmanship ensures that every piece is unique. The geometric patterns on the Kuba cloth speak of far more than the artisanal skills of their makers; they’re also illustrative of the extent of the exploration that has taken place by the Kuba people into the formal possibilities of geometric variation. It has been clearly evidenced that – in their repetitive border designs - the Kuba people use every single geometric possibility. Of the seventeen geometric designs able to be used on a surface, they have mastered twelve.

Being adept at geometry however, with an innate understanding of its facets does not mean that the Kuba people confine themselves to this patterning alone, especially on larger, open surfaces. That said, their geometric designs – especially when layered and placed in bright light – work rather like a three-dimensional puzzle, giving the eyes and mind a sense of space and upward movement. Indeed, the designs on the cloths have often been described as creating true magic and visual alchemy, which is one of the reasons why the cloths were so coveted and prized, especially during ceremonial occasions. The mathematics behind Kuba cloths is both fascinating and deeply impressive, as is the textile’s cultural history and its relationship to African music and other African art forms. Their elemental colours and intricate patterns will add warmth, depth and - perhaps surprisingly for some, an historical mathematical element - to any interior. For AU’s carefully sourced collection of vintage Kuba cloth cushions, click here.

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Carlo Scarpa - the architect and his impact on interior design and style

Carlo Scarpa - the architect and his impact on interior design and style
Au Bespoke was born out of the love for beautiful design and the appreciation for unique products with their own individuality. I often get asked what inspires me so, I thought that I would share just some of my passions and inspirations as well as highlights from my carefully edited AU Bespoke collection. Carlo Scarpa is definitely one of my favourite designers. Continue reading