Although this year the streets of Madrid will not host the city’s annual Easter processions, the Cerería Ortega is still open for business. Steeped in one hundred years of history, this family-run candlemakers is the only shop in the city to sell candles handcrafted using the traditional methods of bygone times. Filled with great passion, José Manuel and Silvia keep alive a trade that today is almost inexistent.
In the Middle Ages in Madrid, guild houses were divided into three professional categories: master craftsmen, journeymen and apprentices. These associations of tradesmen – specifically Old Christians – covered a single trade. These guilds were established not only with the aim to guarantee the quality of the products offered, but also to support the families of members and provide protection against outside merchants. The guilds and their shops and stalls were set up in strategic locations, such as the Puerta de Guadalajara, the city wall’s main gateway, and Plaza del Arrabal, today Plaza Mayor, as a meeting point for merchants and their customers.
To this day, the streets of the city’s old quarter still preserve the names of some of these former trades, such as the Knifemakers (Cuchilleros), Tanners (Curtidores), Embroiderers (Bordadores), and Brassworkers (Latoneros). Neither wax chandlers (Cereros) nor tallow chandlers (Candeleros) had streets named after them, but they did have their own very powerful guild, established in the 16th century. The reason they were so influential was their close affiliation with the church, to whom they supplied votive and pillar candles made from beeswax and animal fat, known as tallow, obtained from the former slaughterhouse.
In this regard, finding a candlemaker in Madrid back then was a simple task, as they tended to be located close to these houses of worship. However, today it’s a little more complicated. There is only one artisan candlemaker in the entire city: Cerería Ortega (Calle Toledo,43) found on the same street as the San Isidro Collegiate Church. The business opened its doors in 1860, and since 1893 the Ortega family has been at its helm. It was José Manuel’s grandfather who was the first to take up this almost extinct trade, which was passed down to his parents, and finally to him and his wife, Silvia. A former accountant, she adores her current profession and delights in seeing their candles light the sets of theatre plays, films and television series, such as the acclaimed Isabel and Águila Roja (Red Eagle).
This century-old establishment, with a workshop home to the very same equipment used in times past, is at its busiest during the Easter period. Here nothing has changed, and for this reason the candle manufacturing process is a particularly slow one. The mornings begin with chopping paraffin blocks into smaller pieces, which are then melted down at high temperatures in a large pot for several hours together with pure beeswax, which gives the candles their aroma.
This is when the art of candle making gets technical. The melted wax is first poured into a large metal container from where, pot in hand, José Manuel transfers it to the double boiler, a container similar to a bain-marie. Next, plaited cotton wicks – tied to a rod with weights at either end to prevent it from bending – are dipped into the wax.
This process is repeated several times, with each dipping adding a new layer to the candle. Now all that’s left to do is to insert the candles into a type of wooden mould to set their diameter and ensure their perfect shapes.
There are endless models of candles to choose from at Cerería Ortega: decorative candles for parties and for use by the general public, votive candles for religious ceremonies, and even honey candles. These should be lit on the 11th and 22nd of each month to make a wish or for good luck in money matters. Let’s also not forget that candles are said to light the way in our dreams.