By Nicholas Asheshov
In a backyard patio in Tica Tica, a barrio high above old Cuzco, a cauldron was bubbling over a wood fire.
“It has to be 200, 220 degrees,” Mario Calderon tells me. “If you let it get any hotter the colours will spoil, go muddy.”
The cauldron contains 50 kilos of paraffin wax from China and Argentina and Mr. Calderon, a master candle-maker, will use this batch to make dozens of elaborately worked bright red candles of different sizes most of which will be used in churches for fiestas and saints days, or by people like me who like candles.
Candle-buyers preparing for the Virgen de Asunta for mid-August were crowding the Calderon’s shop in Calle Meloq down near the Plaza de Armas. Mr. Calderon’s wife, Gavina Ninantay, says: “Our year really gets going on May 3 with the Fiesta de la Cruz. That’s our big day of the year.”
Of course, there are dozens more saints days to attend to.
The candles produced by the Calderons are brightly coloured and elaborately decorated in blue, yellow, bone, black, green, brown and reds—with endless carved baroque vine-like curls on which are stamped silver and gold flowers recalling, one supposes, the days of the Colony.
The biggest candles here run to 1m 80, a head taller than most of the clients, and six inches in diameter, a pair of which, elaborately decorated as always, run to S/400. Foot-high candles, three inches thick with three kilos of wax go for S/50 the pair with all sorts of sizes and colours in between.
Ms. Ninantay, a bustling hard-sell grand-mother, tells me that clients take cases of her candles to Germany, Argentina, the U.S., “a todos partes. Los Chilenos son bien pagaditos.” Saga Falabela in Lima send her designs and substantial orders, she adds.
“Easily the best wax comes from Argentina,” Ms. Ninantay says. The China wax is “rough and flakey” by comparison but the Calderons use it because it’s cheaper, at S/.8,000 the ton. The Argentine is S/11,000/ton.
“Con pura China al momento de decorar se revienta.”
“The worst is the Española y Turquesa. Parece grasa, desaparece rapidito.”
She also brings in from Lima the coloured die powder, made by Bayer in Germany, and liquids, also from Bayer, with different aromas. Mr. Calderon says, “We use canela, rosas, vainilla, clavo de olor, chocolate”. Sounds lovely, but Ms. Ninantay says, “Putting in the aromas gives us both a headache.”
Another important element is the wick.
“Some are too fast and sputter,” Mr. Calderon says. He puts arida on the rolls of thick thread as well as acido borico “para purificarlo de lo plastificado porque ya pues no es puro algodon.”
“Experimentamos para que nuestra vela arda bien.”
Most of the Calderons’ candles come from home-made molds cut from PVC tubes of different thickness bought in the hardware store. Some of them were originally tin cans of Cil cooking oil.
One end of the tube is blocked with a round piece of tin cut to size, with a small hole in the middle for the wick. The liquid wax is poured into the top end of the mold.
“If you put the wax in too hot it melts the PVC and twists it,” Mr. Calderon says. “So you have to wait till it cools to 150′.”
Then it takes six or seven hours to cool: “You can’t do it in the fridge, se raja. Cuando trabajamos en esto, cerramos las puertas.
“Seria mas facil para mi comprarme unos congeladoras, but once we did it for a rush job but they came out pesimo, perdimos todo. In the fridge the outside of the candle gets cold faster than the core.”
The decoration takes two hours for each candle. I watched three lads in one of the rooms of the rambling house sitting on low stools with an iron bowl of hot wood coals on a low tripod. Each had a thick candle hefted in his left hand which he held over the brazier to keep the candle soft enough to carve, with different size sticks like pinceles, the intricate vines and flowers into it. They would quickly dip a small wooden flower stamp into silver or gold-coloured powder to produce an amiably busy shining effect.
Each of the lads, one of them one of the Calderon children, would be off to technical school later in the afternoon.
“Se trabaja a base de tradicion y habilidad,” says Mr. Calderon, whose father was a candle-maker. “There’s no how-to-do-it handbook.”
Published in Spanish in Caretas the week of August 14, 2009