Reasons to Embrace Winter, Part 1: Candles
For five thousand years and more, the humble and silent candle has been a constant bringer of light and joy, be it for illuminating our homes at night, or giving us vision outdoors on dark evenings. Its gently dancing flames have been a daily and abiding source of calm, comfort and security.
Cathedrals and churches worldwide and of all denominations would lose a pivotal part of their ceremony and aura, if these symbols of reflection and peace were extinguished and removed. Numerous religious festivals, would simply be unimaginable without candles.
Initially made from tallow or animal fats, today’s best candles are predominantly manufactured from beeswax, producing a less smoky flame and as a result, much less odour! Magnificent in their natural ivory complexion, their calm glow also burns that much longer than other, similar sized and cheaper candles.
Until the 19th Century, they were major contributors to commerce and industry, providing an abundance of light in places where otherwise vision and therefore work, would have been impossible.
Candles were essential too in the dark and damp chalk cellars of Champagne, France, where 100 metres beneath the vineyards above, wicks were burned to guide the vignerons at their (pupitres) or inverted ‘V’ shaped desks.
This was (and still is in certain champagne houses) the process of turning and twisting (remuage) thousands of upside down and gently chuckling bottles, in the final stages of the second fermentation. This activity, over a period of weeks, draws the sediment (yeast residues) within each bottle towards the collar, in readiness for the next stage in the process.
Before electricity was introduced into the cellars, once the sediment and deposits of that second fermentation were fully at the neck of each bottle, candles were also used to guide the hands of the workers, whose job it was to remove those deposits (dégorgement à la main) and then top up the bottles with more liquid, (liqueur de d’expedition).
With the cork and metal capsule and cage firmly in place and an attractive label fixed to their collars, the bottles were finally ready for the journey to the surface above and onwards to the enthusiastically awaiting world beyond.
In the early 19th Century though, candles were expensive and only the rich could afford to purchase the sweeter smelling beeswax candle, which in many ways had become a symbol of status. The poor had to make do with the tallow varieties and the vile smell that accompanied them.
Champagne cellars were vast, dark and airless, so lighting them was costly, as beeswax candles were the only truly viable solution for maintaining a happy and healthy workforce.
It was Adolphe Jacquesson (a champagne maker and inventor from Châlons-sur-Marne) who came along with an answer. Adolphe not only invented the capsule and metal cage (1844) to hold the cork firmly in place, but also devised an ingenious system for providing light in his cellars, thus reducing the need or expense of candles.
When first digging out the cellars, it was necessary for mined chalk to be brought to the surface. The most efficient way of extracting this chalk was straight up, through vertical shafts. Daylight could then travel down and illuminate the area in the cellars immediately beneath those shafts.
By placing large, angled sheets of polished tin at the bottom of every shaft, Adolphe had worked out that light could be deflected at multiple angles and spread around the cellars, providing illumination for those working there. In turn, the need for candles was vastly reduced and great savings were made.
However, there is so much more to this story!
At this time in the history of champagne, due to explosions, thousands of bottles were being lost in the cellars every year. Chain reactions were taking place, the explosion of one bottle causing shock waves and upsetting other bottles in the immediate vicinity. It was quite common for up to 80% of the stock to be destroyed.
There were numerous causes for this. Not all bottles were perfect and flaws were exposed by the enormous pressure that the gas, created by the secondary fermentation process within the bottle, was causing. Amounts of sugar and yeast were incorrect and more often than not guess work (it would not be until 1858, when Louis Pasteur published his discoveries on fermentation, that absolute scientific control of the champagne making process was to be finally established).
Exploding bottles were not the only reason for loss of stock though. Until 1844, corks were held securely in place with twine. Unfortunately for champagne producers, chewing through this twine was a favourite pastime of the numerous packs of rats that happily roamed the cellars.
Once the twine was no longer holding the cork in place, the gas within would push it out. Whilst nothing like the explosions caused by flawed glass or incorrect amounts of yeast and sugar, nevertheless, once pressure was violently released, it was sufficient to disturb other bottles and a chain reaction of destruction once again took place.
Back to Adolphe Jacquesson the inventor!
The tin sheets that he had devised to spread light underground had a limited life for practical use. The cellars were exceedingly damp and over a period of time, caused anything metallic to corrode. Once the tin plates started to rust, they were no longer of use and moved aside for new ones. Too cumbersome to bring back to the surface the old sheets of tin were left to rot on the cellar floor.
Adolphe was very troubled by the damage the rats were causing. Then, one day in 1844, a light bulb moment occurred, when he came up with the idea of cutting a small square out of the discarded metal sheets, folding it over the top of the cork and then securing it beneath the collar of the bottle. Although very crude and yet to be developed into the capsule and cage that today neatly adorn the top of every bottle of champagne, the sharp teeth of the rats were no match for the metal and as a result their gnawing activities, no longer a concern. Due to this invention, thousands of bottles were saved annually.
Of course, once electricity and the light bulb came along, at least as a source of internal illumination, the death knell finally sounded for the candle in the cellars of the Champagne region and elsewhere.
If this wasn’t bad enough though, something even more cataclysmic was yet to befall the humble candle.
In the 1970s, wine bars were to become the trend of the decade. Considered to be a cheaper night out to conventional restaurants, they became the battle grounds of those on first dates.
No table within such an establishment, more often than not housed beneath the previously disused archways of railway lines, was complete without an empty bottle of Chianti wine, naturally encased with straw and with a lurid coloured candle shoved in its neck.
So horribly cheap and vile were these candles that their wax oozed rather than burned, producing cascades of molten gunk that spewed down the side of the bottle to the table top and inevitably onwards to the floor beneath.
Hours were spent by those on first dates, when all wasn’t going quite as well as hoped for, rolling the yet to harden wax back up the side of the bottle. It was then shaped into a ball between fingers and thumb and then nervously played with for the remainder of the encounter. At the end of the evening, with conversation dried up and communication at a bare minimum, still rolling that glob of wax, both parties invariably went their separate ways, never to meet again!
Since then, candles have been produced with a variety of different chemicals (not many of them good for you by any means!), in numerous shapes and sizes. They can be found in large containers with multiple wicks and they can smell of absolutely anything you like. Whilst I understand the reasons for their existence, I am no fan of scented candles.
Having spent six years as a chorister in Canterbury Cathedral and with a father who was a clergyman in the Church of England, I am of the opinion that the simpler the candle, the deeper its presence can be felt and its sheer beauty appreciated. They are such magical creations that are so much more than just a means of merely providing light.
Candles made mostly from beeswax are the ones to aim for. They are more expensive, but they really are worth the extra and on every level.
My current preference is for such candles with a two to three inch diameter. These majestic cylinders can in turn take a good height of nine inches or more. As the flame burns, from the top of the candle, a beacon-like and beautiful translucent glow projects itself warmly into the room. Gazing at the flame and just allowing thoughts to freely flow, has become a favourite pastime of these dark, cold and long winter nights. I can be lost for hours!
If you are interested in such a style of candle for your own home, do take a look at what is on offer at Charles Farris, who have been chandlers since 1845 and specifically manufacture church candles.
Charles Farris make their candles in Mere, Wiltshire and there is a shop, from which you can also visit a viewing platform overlooking the factory floor.
Added to this, Mere is also the home of the wine merchants, Yapp Brothers, who import regional wines from France’s small, independent wine producers. When next possible, Mere is most definitely worth a visit! Both website details are at the end.
Whilst candles are currently bringing joy and solace, living in an old house that is not without its fair share of draughts, as I do, presents new problems for those wishing to enjoy and appreciate the glow and magic of a candle at night time. How do you manage to keep warm?
The next item on my list of ways to embrace winter, might well be the answer!
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