When you take a sip from your cortadito or cappuccino at Casa Oro, or cut into your French Toast or kabobs, it’s hard not to notice the ceramic sets in which everything is served.
Casa Oro strives to be a ‘green’ business. Signs throughout the San Juan del Sur hostel and its sister properties, Casa Andalucía, Nuestra Casa and Hotel Pacifico encourage guests to reduce, recycle and reuse. As such, there are no disposable glasses, cutlery or dinnerware. Rather a large selection of eco-friendly handmade ceramic pieces that highlight Nicaragua’s ancestral and environmental roots.
Each time you order a hot drink or meal from the Casa Oro café, your napkin holder, bowl, plate, saucer or cup will reflect a different treasure from Meso-America. Despite the diversity in the designs, colors and shapes of the dinnerware, all was created for the most part by one man.
Elvin Cano is from another San Juan. San Juan de Oriente. It takes a few buses to get from San Juan de Oriente to San Juan del Sur. With wait times and stops all along the way, it can easily take the better portion of a day to get from one San Juan to the next. That is just one of the reasons why Elvin is not in San Juan del Sur 365 days a year.
Elvin and his family follow their own calendar to make and sell large quantities of hand-thrown functional yet beautiful ceramic pieces of art. Each one follows the customs passed down from Elvin’s grandfather down the line to himself and his brothers, and now the 20-something generation set of great-grandsons. Elvin heads to San Juan del Sur during the higher tourist seasons. His nephew, Jonathan, may be selling at the San Juan malecón, or in the colonial city of Granada. Elvin, Jonathan and one other relative are the only ceramic vendors that Casa Oro welcomes inside the hostel to show off their creations. There’s a reason for that.
“The largest order I’ve ever had was from Muffa [Casa Oro’s owner]. That makes me very happy”, Elvin says. “Muffa likes everything natural. Everything we make is natural. No chemicals.”
Elvin met Muffa several years ago. Muffa appreciated his work. “I want quality”, Muffa told Elvin, before he was even ready to place an order. He kept telling Elvin, “muy pronto, muy pronto” about his desire for a major purchase. Then the order came in. It was such a large quantity that Muffa gave Elvin two months to complete it. Elvin proudly says that he delivered before the deadline, thanks to the help of his brother.
The order included dinner and salad plates, coffee cups, demitasse cups, creamer and sugar bowls, salsa servers, shot glasses and soup bowls. That was just for the kitchen. Muffa also ordered about 60 sconces for the bedrooms, dorms and hallways. The wall-decor lampshades have cut-outs in the form of waves, flowers, circles and geometric lines. Muffa liked all Elvin’s designs which represent nature in Nicaragua: hummingbird, turtles, fish and butterflies. There’s also Pre-colombian and geometric designs.
As far as the hues, they are all made out of natural colors: blue, green, turquoise, black (from manganese), yellow, red and orange. The colored clay is brought from different parts of the country. “We go to el Sauce de Leon volcano to find the orange earth”, Elvin says as an example of the natural colors they use on their ceramic pieces before they are glazed. The blue clay comes from the coast.
“Everything we use comes from the earth”, Elvin explains. The clay is from adobe earth. They let it sit with water for a few days. Then, they mix the clay (arcilla) with sand and form the plates, drink ware, candle holders or cylinders. They even use old bicycle spokes to etch designs, and act as insets.
To save energy, Elvin and family only bake the pottery a few weeks each year. Their wood-fired kiln is about two meters high, and it can accommodate 120 ceramic pieces at a time. They load the kiln one day, and take them out to cool the next.
“They are all very much perfectly spun, and the glazing is a special glaze that protects you from any toxic particles that may be in the clay”, notes Casa Oro guest Richard about Elvin’s work. Richard learned to throw pottery on the wheel at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Later, he had his own wheel in his studio near Austin, Texas, so he can recognize finely crafted clay objects. “You can feel the difference in the glaze.”
Beyond the large quantity of ceramic ware that Muffa bought for Casa Oro, Elvin made a major sale to one of the tobacco company owners in Estelí. While not as large as Muffa’s collection, the one close to the Honduran border included 60 large plates, 40 small ones, a coffee set and drink ware.
“I feel very happy and am grateful to him”, Elvin says about Muffa’s trust in and appreciation for his work.
Elvin can ship his pottery outside of Nicaragua for a nominal shipping and packing surcharge. People that are interested in finding Elvin and samples of his work can ask the Casa Oro front desk staff. Or better yet, order your specialty coffees to accompany your breakfast, lunch, happy hour or dinner platters to see the charm in his ceramics.