Monday, November 23, 2009

CHIM-CHIM-CHIMENEA


We’ve made enough trips to Mexico for me to appreciate Mexican artisans and their colorful pottery, and I was especially impressed by the pottery work of Oaxacans when we vacationed in Oaxaca City about six years ago. Since then, I’ve passed displays of pottery and chimeneas in Texas and New Mexico that have caused me to covet one of the earth-toned chimeneas for my patio. Friday evening, I finally decided that I just had to have one, so we set out for Wal-Mart’s to look for a front-loading fireplace and found a small one that we felt would brighten up a patio devoid of anything except a bereft looking St. Francis statue. Right away, we learned that if we purchased one, we needn’t expect to be able to transport this big-bellied oven to the car. Even so, the brawny Wal-Mart worker had to use a wagon to carry it, and my neighbor was enlisted to help us unload the piece and place it on the patio without dropping it on its stomach.

Just as we prepared to fire it up with pinion wood (to ward off the ubiquitous mosquitoes that hover around my patio), Janet, my neighbor, informed us that “Downtown Alive” had been cancelled because of storm clouds. Her forecast held, and as we unwrapped the package of wood (yes, you can buy firewood in Wal-Mart), rain began to fall. Ever wonder how you prevent rain from pouring down the chimenea’s chimney and flooding its stomach? If you have been through a Louisiana hurricane, you know that blue tarp will cover anything, including leaky roofs, so we unfurled blue tarp and shrouded the chimenea for two days.

Yesterday afternoon, we folded up the blue tarp and brought out the wood. Now, I’m a former Girl Scout executive, and Victoria has camped in every campground in the U.S., but we must have had a senior hour before we remembered to use kindling to get the fire started. We burned up an outdated copy of Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana canons (a lot of pages to keep us wayward clergy in line), a cardboard box, and we even tried to set fire to a damp pine cone before figuring out that we needed to strip kindling from the pinion wood. Voila, we had a fire going by 3:30 p.m.! We sat and looked at the fire, basking in the glow of the flames, and reminisced about fires we have known – including my memories of ovens in Iran that were used to make the wonderful nahn we often bought at the bazaar and ate with homemade chili.

I’ve since learned a lot about chimeneas, including the fact that Mediterranean food tastes better when cooked over a wood burning fire, but instructions that came with the chimenea warned me that this big-bellied oven sitting on my patio can’t be used for cooking. Chimeneas originated in Mexico, of course, and were primarily made of clay and terracotta, but today you can buy elaborate ones made from cast iron. On a windy, chilly day in San Diego, California, I enjoyed an outdoor meal near a cast iron chimenea, and I’ve eaten in other restaurants where they’re used for cooking and for creating a cozy ambience.

I’m told that my chimenea may not have a long life span due to its tendency to crack because of the difference in expansion between the inside of the chimenea and the outside surface temperatures. I’ve been advised not to move the chimenea around very much as it likes a stable environment and fractures easily. It also prefers gardens and enjoys the faces of flowers, rather than blank walls. (You can plant plants as close as six inches away from your chimenea. As for maximum warmth and coziness, two-four people can stay comfortably warm by sitting two-four feet away from the chimenea.

Articles about chimeneas warn that wet climates like Louisiana may cause cracking, flaking of glaze, and crumbling clay, so I guess I’d better get the most use from this open fire garden heater before I meander back to Sewanee, TN in the Spring. I’m thinking of having a chimenea party on one of those gray days in winter to share the aromatic scent and radiant blaze of this wonderful oven.
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