There was a moment, early in my cottage-owning years, when everything about our rustic cabin in the woods seemed just right. Except the smell, which, apart from a hint of mildew, was as odourless as a new condo in downtown Toronto.
Mornings and evenings in the fall, I’d stuff the woodstove with big, resinous fir boughs and cute little birch sticks and set a demented blaze. But the fragrant smoke, rather than perfuming our living quarters, would escape up through the chimney, thrilling the nostrils of squirrels and other boreal freeloaders.
No one wants a cottage that isn’t redolent of woodsmoke, and it was finally my wife, Liza, who helped us pass the sniff test. “Here,” she said, handing me a clear glass jar of dove-grey wax. “Try this!” It was called Feu de Bois, by the Paris candle-maker, Diptyque. I lit the wick and, voila! Within minutes, our living space had morphed into an olfactory Eden of crackling cedar fronds and balsam pitch.
Friends, unaware of the huge molecular assist we were getting from Monsieur de Bois, would exclaim: “The thing I love about your cottage is how it smells like a cottage!” Haha. Such saps.
Thus was born my love of scented candles, renewed every late autumn as the clocks fall back and the nights grow cold. Partly, too, it’s vestigial – a throwback to my Catholic childhood when, after Mass, my mother would lead me up to the glittering red rows of glass votive cups by the altar. After genuflecting, I could drop a dime in the coin box and, with a Church-issue ‘punk,’ light a candle while making a silent wish. (“O Lord, please bring me cookies and good sodas to wash them down.”)
I lost my Catholicism somewhere along the way, but I never lost my sense of candles as sacrament. The glow they cast, the heat they give off, and the aromatic waft that can transport you into a different dimension.
With the holiday season soon upon us, it seems the right time to sniff out some new and old favourites. Bear in mind: we tend toward the sandalwood and ‘smoke’ end of the spectrum. Or if you prefer: the ‘Yuletide hearth’ genre, which means these also make for great Christmas gifts for the bougie nerd in your life.
the best seasonal candles
Le Labo Cedre 11 ($105 CAD and $75 USD at nordstrom.com) contains rich essential oils “to provide a dark, smoky and romantic ambience for any room in the home.” A blend of cedar, gaiac and birchwood, this soy-wax scent bomb gives an advertised 60 hours of burn time. As a bonus, the Cedre 11 jar comes with a personalized, typewritten, apothecary-style label that screams: ‘We are of very lofty pedigree here.’ I love it, for about an hour. After that, its waft acquires a cloying note – as if someone jammed a burning cedar twig up your nose. DO NOT use this candle during dinner service, especially with guests. (In fact, never leave a scented candle burning during meals -- unless you hate food, and your guests.)
Nest Birchwood Pine ($56 CAD and $40 USD at sephora.com) There is a type of seasonal candle so noxious it could send Santa and his elves into anaphylactic shock – a nostril-searing melange of dollar-store potpourri, ersatz vanilla and crushed candy cane. Then there’s this fragrant high-end flare, which restores grace to a long degraded genre. Nest’s Birchwood Pine infuses a room with soft, blended notes of musk and balsam and something trickier in the background. Tamarack? Arguably the best candle in its price range, and the filigreed glass pot looks pretty on the mantle. (Also recommended: Nest’s ‘Hearth.’)
Indigoscents Chestnut & Autumn Amber ($10 CAD at chapters.indigo.com) Just as there’s certain cheap plonk that offers value close to that hoity-toity vintage from Tuscany, there are some department-store candles, like this Chestnut & Autumn Amber from Indigo, that give the snobs pause. I don’t really get the ‘chestnut’ claim, but it imparts a sweet nutmeg note that’s entirely pleasant. Bonus: the mercury glass vessel gives off a warm, translucent glow and you would be on the right track if you set three or four of them down in a row to create a shimmering nighttime ‘runway.’
Cire Trudon Spiritus Sancti ($115 CAD and $95 USD at saksfifthavenue.com) Many years ago, we visited Cire Trudon’s shop on Rue de Seine in Paris. My wife seems to recall watching as a nun in flowing robes hurried in and asked for a bag of communion wafers -- or maybe she just conjured the whole scene while in a religious trance. Established in 1643, Cire Trudon’s ‘churchiness’ is a given. Not much can prepare the nose-novice for Spiritus Sancti’s solemn olfactory slam. Think swaying thuribles and incense vapours fogging an altar at High Mass. Think benzoin and myrrh. Think Catholic guilt. One of the great scented candles, by the oldest candle maker in the world.
Hermès A Cheval! ($258 CAD and $185 USD at nordstrom.com) “On horseback!” I’m tempted to say A Cheval, from the haute French saddlery firm turned global luxury brand, has a price point in line with what you’d expect to pay at auction for a decent racing foal. That being said, A Cheval!, which comes in a faceted ceramic pot inner-glazed in the company’s trademark orange, is a smart objet d’art that holds its decorative cachet after the wax has burned away. The scent? Imagine a rich leather satchel resting in a field of violets. Seriously.
Illume Woodfire Squat Metal Candle ($28 CAD at thebay.com and $23 USD at bloomingdales.com) Here in the 'geek newsroom, we like nothing better than a slow-burning bargain that conjures Christmas without emptying our pocketbooks. Woodfire, with its not-quite-charred smoke aromas (think smoldering twig embers in a wintry bonfire), comes in a patterned, copper vessel and promises 35 hours of 'burn time,' which is more than enough for multiple carrolling sessions and a romantic evening à deux under the mistletoe.
Diptyque Feu de Bois ($45 CAD and $32 USD at nordstrom.com) The ultimate fall flare. I’m not prone to quoting from press kits, but Diptyque describes Feu de Bois, the star of its vast and excellent roster, as “a sophisticated accord of woods, as warm as an open fire.” Exactement! Our cottage was sold years ago, but every time we light Feu de Bois here in the city (which is often), it transports us back to autumnal evenings on the lake. Just add chipmunks and loon-song.
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Do you have a favourite seasonal candle?