Tuesday, 23 January 2018

How to Cook Like a Granny

Photo by NordWood Themes via Unsplash




Did you make any resolutions for 2018?  Mine is to stay somewhat sane and learn how to make sourdough.  We may also, after a year of heavy contemplation, start building our dream kitchen Chez Nous

Our current kitchen was always meant as a temporary solution.  Besides from a pretty porcelain sink in the corner, there were but a single electrical outlet and three built in cupboards to work with.  To fit in a bit of practicality, i.e. a worktop, fridge and the likes, we had to block one door completely and obstruct the usage of another.  Not ideal, but actually worked pretty well for us.  Later we improved the space even further by swapping some of our modular elements for a stunning Art Deco buffet and cutting off the steal framed hood that did very little else besides from looking ugly and stopping James from standing straight when washing the dishes.  Addition of two more electrical sockets made a world of difference, too, but we still need to shuffle things around if we wish to use the microwave and the hotplate at the same time.  

Our modular kitchen almost a year ago...





...and the latest addition.  This appalling collage of appalling photos is supposed to give you an idea of what our new art deco unit looks like.   What did you say, a child did these?  Darling, don't be a hater!  Bad photos are still better than no photos.. right?  
Long story short, functional as our little kitchen is, we simply want more space.

The two of us cook a fair bit and generally enjoy spending time in the kitchen.  Currently every inch of space serves a function and does not yield any room for leisure or socialising and certainly not for not dining.  Cooking elaborate meals, especially in the weekends is something I and James love to do together, but there is frankly not enough space to do it comfortably.  Our dining room, although adjoined to the kitchen, feels very separate and does not allow much communication between people dining in and the cook.  For structural reasons, opening up the wall between the two spaces is not practical, thus we have decided to convert the dining room into a joint kitchen-diner.  The room is certainly big enough and it has direct access to our favourite part of our home, a large north facing balcony.  

Like anything else in our house, this plan is not without complications:  first up, plumbing and electrics need to be well planned out before calling in the cavalry and the ceiling needs to be re-plastered.  But before anything else, we want to start it all off by replacing our narrow french door that opens into the balcony with a walls worth of bi-folding windows.  Once this is all done we will need to re-finish the century old oak planks on the floor, remove the fireplace (that will be later reinstalled elsewhere) and start building our kitchen cabinetry.  This project will take a few years and may or may not begin next summer, depending on how much money we got flying around and the how long it takes to install the panoramic window.  That part will need to be done by professionals - replacing a whole exterior wall with glass is something I bluntly do not want to be responsible for.  

You may think with all this waiting I may be anxious to start already - hah, and you would be dead right.  We have already started hoarding components for our new awesome kitchen diner, the latest piece being an antique wood burning cooker.  

I know, I know... a bit obsolete isn't it, but they are lovely!  First we seriously thought about getting a reconditioned AGA and even visited a small business that would be willing to ship and install one for us in France.  In the end, it turned out that they could only build us an electrical one as the gas or wood burning models were not fitted by their French agent.  More and more we thought about the matter, it seemed that both of us would prefer something more period accurate and started looking for solid fuel ranges online.  Sympathetic restoration of old properties has never really been the rage in France and old cast iron cookers do crop up at online markets like Le Bon Coin pretty regularly.  

It is sad how commonplace it is to dispose antique kitchen elements in favour of, for arguments sake, IKEA flat packs.  Beyond their historical and decorative value, old cast iron ranges can be made to work with a bit of elbow grease and are not that complicated to use.  They chuck out good amount of heat in the winter and being mostly great big lumps of iron, they do stay warm for longer than your average modern wood burner.  Sure, not nearly as environmental and efficient as their modern counterparts, using an old one is still safe and easy as long as you understand basic principles behind heating with wood and take good care of your chimney. 

Don't let this phone camera horror show fool you - there is a beautiful stove hidden in there.
Somewhere.



We found our late 1920's solid fuel cooking stove online for a measly 100 euros.  Compared to even a second hand AGA, and deducting possible restoration costs, we are looking at three grands worth of savings, which is music to my ears already.  I also think this one is more beautiful.  It is about a meter wide and 80 centimetres deep, standing a little lower than a standard modern day worktop, and has two ovens, two adjustable hot plates and a water tank - everything a pre-electical era housewife could ask for.  You load it through the top, after lifting out the left hand hotplate, and clean the ashes from a draw below.  This type of cooker is a pleasure to use once you get used to it - I can confirm this as my granny had one, albeit hers was Finnish and twice as big.  I would, though, recommend having an alternative mean of cooking as a reserve for the times you want food fast or it is too hot to fire up the old beast.  We already use a portable induction plate in our modular temp kitchen and it will continue to serve us from time to time in the new one.  

Although reasonably small, this cast iron stoves is heavy as sin and could not be transported home in our trusted Laguna, but thankfully a friend gave us a hand.  I stayed at home as the boys boarded his's Kangoo and headed towards Albi.  Let me make it clear that it happen before any red wine was consumed, but on the way back the Kangoo, our new stove and the merry men took a steep turn to a roundabout, causing the lump of iron to tilt suddenly on one of its legs, twisting it and sending what was now a few hundred kilos of instant regret against one of the minivans windows, braking said window and releasing loose cooker parts flying onto the road.  Long story short; no people were harmed in the bundle, but the van was left with a smashed window and the cooker with a broken set of cast iron rings. 

So if you know a skilled craftsman that could make us a new cast iron hotplate I would be very grateful to have their number. 

Even after the dramatic turn on to the roundabout of shame, the piece is still in pretty good nick for its age.  Ignoring those few broken rings and a twisted back leg, the restoration will be mostly a cosmetic one: removing the extensive surface rust from the top and some from the chrome safety rail, re-lining both ovens with clay and patch up a few coin sized holes in the enamel.  Only thing needing to be replaced completely is the water tank that is nearly rusted through, but commissioning what is basically a stainless steal box should not be too difficult. 

This cooker is nearly identical to ours and for sale in Samur ;)



I had no change to photograph our beautiful cooker before it was transported Chez Nous and dumped into my studio and the ones my husband took later were ehem.. a bit blurry, so I thought I ought to find images of a similar one for you to look at.  This burgundy one caught my eye and it is near identical to ours besides from the colour.  The condition is incredibly good and as far as I can tell, it is only missing a part of its safety rail - and that could easily be replaced.  The blood red seductress is for sale in lovely city of Samur - in case you would like one of your own.  

In this model, the wood goes in through the left hand side hotplate.



The reason we wanted to opt for a wood burning cooker was simple - cutting down on our reliance on gas whilst avoiding huge electricity bills.  Burning locally grown wood, especially in a modern energy efficient stove is one of the most environmentally friendly ways of releasing energy - something I feel quite strongly about.  Although our cooker will not have the specs of a modern Scandinavian-style wood burner, we do have access to cheap firewood grown on the Montagne Noire, literally less than twenty minute drive away from our house.  That will make a world of difference compared to the price we pay for our logs in the UK, which we buy in bulk from a local supplier but are grown and packed in Latvia.  

You can't beat a good gas fired range when it comes to reliability, but the routine of cranking up a wood burning one is something I wholeheartedly enjoy.  James and I both have enough confidence in our cooking skills to know what to expect, especially after making meals on top of our little stove here on the West Riding Kindred Spirit on a regular basis.  Having said that, a thermometer for the ovens would not be a bad thing to get.  And a really thick pair of oven mittens.  I am not much of a baker, but I got a long list of traditional Finnish dishes lined up to try once our cooker is in operation.  It is nothing too fancy: rye bread, root vegetable casseroles, karelian pies, baked porridge... - just your typical northern comfort foods that lack a certain je ne sais quoi when made in a conventional oven.

I promise to invite you all for tea and pie when it is all done.  Do not wait by the phone though, it may take a few years to make this plan to a reality.  In the mean time, you will find me browsing pinterest for wood burner suitable recipes and tile inspo. 

...à tout à l'heure! 



Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Ghost of Christmas Past





I've been neglecting you haven't I.  But then again, I have been neglecting my family, my dog and my husband in particular so you're in no way special position. 


What can I say for my defence... it's the holidays!  You are supposed to spend time together; quietly contemplate the meaning of Christmas and be merry in your togetherness with a glass of mulled wine whilst wearing a stupid post ironic statement jumper.  That sounds just lovely.  It really does.  Just don't shit a brick when you find yourself swept away by the realities of hosting a Christmas: all that cleaning and cooking.  Keeping in mind that you are a capable adult is not going to help matters at all, not at Christmas, oh no, and especially when there are presents to be unwrapped and candy canes ready to be suckled into sharp shanks. You will pull through it, just like every Christmas before this one, just don't let the existential dread set in.  Not too closely anyway.

I repeat: DO NOT LET IT SET IN.

We, James, Rusty and I, travelled home for the holidays.  Chez Nous in Mazamet that is.  Where, after a few variably chilly months in the good old West Riding Kindred Spirit, we were greeted by a warm and cosy house thanks to our wonderful friends who looked after her for us.  And boy, I tell you, it was great to be back.  Even the dog went a bit bonkers at first.  A rescue with abandonment issues on top of his abandonment issues, he couldn't believe we were back at our regular old house and just kept running up and down the corridors and stairs.  I do like living on a boat, honestly, but nothing beats your own bed and a good central heating system.

Sleepy Rusty settling in for his first cruise in a cabin.



Oh, and just to mention, to get to France, we took the ferry as usual, but chose a dog friendly cabin for the first time.  Although he was not over the moon about needing to be muzzled on the short walk to our cabin, Rusty loved it.  He does not mind the car either, but certainly for overnights I'll be keeping my eyes out for these in the future.  Brittany Ferries even gave us a little doggy-goodie bag with a collapsible wateterbowl, treats, poobags and a rope toy in it.  What's not to like. 

To our mutual surprise, the roof over our kitchen had only leaked a little bit.  Sounds very damning when you say it like that, but the alternative would have been a lot and I was incredibly happy the situation had not gone worse.  Due to dismal weather right before we left for UK in October we did not have an opportunity to set things right beforehand, but that roof was going to get it this time.  James had already purchased some felting so all we needed to do was to wait for the rain to stop to get cracking.




I never put down felt on a roof before, but it turned out to be easy as pie.  Good thing, as we quickly realised the damaged part of roof with an array of ancient terracotta tiles was not going to take the weight of a grown man and pretty much all of the grunt fell on my shoulders. The damaged area was roughly five meters times two meters in size and from start to finish it took me five to six hours to remove and relay the existing old tiles plus a few spanking new replacements.  Laying down the felt once the tiles were removed was not too bad, but clearing the thick layer of rubble that used to sit under the terracotta turned out to be a real time killer.  If we didn't know this part of roof is to be ripped out, raised and replaced in a few years time, I would have replaced all of the woodwork as well, but in these circumstances that would have been a bit wasteful.  So, I merely replaced a few completely rotted planks and blocked a hole or two before covering it all with felt and tiles.

Out of sight, out of mind, they say.

And rock me sideways, there have been no leaks since and the only damaged party turned out to be James' ego after he was told off for running errands and letting his wife work like a man.  There will be no photos of this expedition as I did not want my dad ever to come across pictorial evidence of me dangling on roof without safety gear. *

*Please for the love of God - always were the appropriate safety gear.  Do not do as I do, do as I say. 

But what I did manage to photograph was some pretty charming 1920's wallpaper I uncovered while stripping the walls of our lounge.  I had seen little slivers of it before, but the steamer allowed me to uncover parts previously hidden by 1940's, 70's and 00's wallpaper, revealing for the first time the complete pattern of this floral art nouveau gem.  The results of the strip, if you will, will be revealed later.  Not for any other reason that I forgot to snap a few photos.  Dang, there creeps the existential dread again..




DO NOT LET IT SET IN!

Decorating what is basically a building site for the holidays could be challenging.  We got a lovely little tree, (still in its pot and currently in our garden waiting for next Christmas) that immediately made everything look festive and James drove me to the mountains to nick few bits of evergreen to dump on the mantelpieces.  And it looked great, even if I say so myself.  We even got ourselves a little piece of mistletoe from the Mazamet market.  I put fairylights on everything and let me tell you, you could make Draculas grave look cosy with that stuff.

Perhaps it is because we are both blind to it already, James and I don't mind the cracked plaster nor the half stripped wallpaper anymore.  It is our home regardless.  Even if our budget for this renovation was bottomless, I think we would still prefer to take things easy, live in our house and make the decisions regarding future finished and layout when it feels right rather than as soon as possible.  It would be so easy to fall into the same trap with the previous owners of our house and try to keep the ageing building liveable by cheap cosmetic fixes like wallpapering on top of damp or covering up tiles in vinyl rather than taking care of them.




We have been privileged to call the N°21 our home for over a year now and it's been tough at times.  The little time we had to spend in Mazamet during the holidays wasn't nearly enough and every bit of me just wants to go back home.  To my own bed, my central heating and my bath.  Yet I recognise time spent away is temporary and necessary, for me and James to be together a bit more, but also to raise enough capital to afford the next face of our renovation - and that will be something to look forward to.

Stay tuned and remember, DO NOT LET THE EXISTENTIAL DREAD SET IN.

DON'T LET IT SET IN. 





Friday, 1 December 2017

My other house is a boat...



There comes a point in every marriage where your husband walks up to you and asks how would you feel about living on a narrowboat my little sausage.
 
Oh, they generally don’t, you say?  Must just me and my James then. 

Here we are regardless, on a boat!  Being either naïve, stupid or both, I said yes in a heartbeat.  The winter months in Mazamet are incredibly calm; when it gets cold and grey, everything slows down.  In fact, the colder it gets, more sluggish it is, up to a point where even the never-tiring labour of atoms comes to a halt and everything we love and cherish will cease to exist.  Wait – I might have accidentally described you the absolute freezing point, but I hope you catch my drift.  Winter is not the best season by the Montagne Noire.  So, to cut a long story short, as James works in the UK anyway, I thought I might as well join him on the Kindred Spirit with our little pupper Rusty.




The house will wait patiently for our return in the spring. 

As narrowboats come, The West Riding Kindred Spirit is a pretty typical one; basically, a floating one-bedroom apartment clad in wood – with a kick-ass log burner.  Once you get used to the narrowness of it, the boat is more comfortable than many flats I have lived in; it is bigger than my first apartment and far more comfortable.  Our unusual accommodation does not feel like a compromise either.  The lounge is nice and cosy, and so is the snuck bedroom with a double bed and a wardrobe.  Our galley is roughly the same size as our kitchen chez nous, but with the added convenience of fitted cabinetry, a gas hob and an oven.  The bathroom too boasts all the modern conveniences including a generously sized shower and a fixed cassette toilet.  We a reliant on our mooring for electricity as well as water, but when chucking down the canal system, a handy set of leisure batteries keep us powered up.  The regular maintenance includes emptying the toilet around once a week, keeping us stocked in gas, wood and coal and filling up the boats water tank when needed. 

Kindred Spirit, currently leased to us, was built by its current owner, an electrical engineer with his dad who’s a carpenter – and the expertise shows.  Every nook and cranny of the boat has been beautifully crafted and finished with real wood.  Storage has been well thought out too, and there’s enough of it.  Only thing I am missing at all is a fixed dining area, but a foldable table is not bad either.  The layout of the boat is pretty straight forward: first up there is the lounge and the kitchen, followed by the bathroom, our bedroom and finally some storage space in the engine room at the back of the boat.  I personally like how they have divided the public living space from your private bedroom- and storage space by placing the loo between the two.  So far, we have had one quest staying with us, on our handy sofa bed in the lounge, and the separation of space worked really well for us and the dog.  




And speaking of dogs - Rusty the dog, who has his bed set up right by the fire, has settled in well, although there has been one of two Houdini-acts performed while I was out on errands.  It is tricky to say whether he dislikes staying on the boat on his own, or if he would great-escape his way out from our usual residence as well if the door wasn’t so secure.  Once on board with us, though, he is as relaxed as ever.  Equally importantly, we have settled in well, too.  Neither James or I have never lived on a boat before and leasing Kindred Spirit has felt right from the start.  We both love the wood burner most; fiddling with the fire is incredibly relaxing.

Altogether, this feels like a great alternative to renting a flat, especially considering the price of renting in England.  The biggest bonus is of course that unlike an apartment, it is not tied to a specific location.  Let’s say James’ work moves to London next month – we can move the boat with it.  It has always been a big stressor for the self-employed folks like him and I, the need to relocate ourselves where ever the work may be at a moments notice, when the standard rental period is 9 months.  The UK’s extensive canal network and the ability to chug our home anywhere on it is a huge benefit. 

Other important aspects of the boat life I have embraced so far, and I am trying really hard not to get too preachy here, are not just economical but ecological.  Needing to be aware of our usage of energy from seeing we have enough gas or logs and making sure the electricity meter is topped up, makes me almost instinctively scaling down our consumption.  Also, as the space, storage space in particular is at a premium, you think twice about bringing in more stuff – often realising you can happily do without certain objects and things altogether.  The times I do use up a lot of energy around the house, when cooking for instance, I actively try to go with as little gas as possible.  In practise this means keeping the kettle on the log-burner rather than firing up the gas every time I want a cuppa or slow cooking stew on it rather than roasting the meat in the oven.  Having our food cooking on the residual heat of the wood stove is incredibly satisfying.  And did I mention, you can toast crumpets on it too! 




Don’t get me wrong, I will stay a material girl ‘till the day I die, but who really needs to acquire every new book/film/gismo that is available to buy?  No doubt this newly found self-awareness of my habits as a consumer will extend to my life in France and have an impact on the things I purchase rather than borrow, store rather than sling.  It is easy to advocate a life without luxuries when you have a nice house full of nice stuff waiting for you in France, but there we go.  As the alternative would have been renting another house or a flat, I think we have done pretty well.



Wednesday, 13 September 2017

BLUSH - a two tone paint job


When the nights are drawing in and the trees turn golden, so does the painting season come to a halt.  In this damp old house anyway.  But before I got to pack up those rollers for the winter and curl up on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of earl grey, from where I greet you, Dear Reader, there was one goliath job to finish: sorting out the walls of my artist studio. 

To be brutally honest, my atelier, the old crèmerie on our ground floor, has been giving me grief ever since we moved in; from the grimy cement tiles neglected to the brink of disrepair to the brittle plasterwork covered in chipped gloss and a layer of mouldy wallpaper in the most depressing shade of sunshine yellow, the space was an all-round disgrace.  The wall-tiles that used to frame the space were long gone, but the original double doors and two of the cupboards remained.  A third cabinet used to stand by the wall.  It was put together in the early noughties by the previous owner to secure the electricity- and gas-meters, but needed to be taken down to make way for a modern fuse board.  All and all, the atelier needed sorting out:  After half-arsed wallpaper removal and dismantling and rebuilding the old locking mechanism that kept the double doors permanently shut, cleaning and restoring the floor was the first big issue we tackled.  That turned out to be, frankly, utter hell, but throughout the course of the spring I muddled through.  The cement tiles still show the wear and tear of a century, but that is why I love them so.  Having been cleaned and resealed, they should be good for another hundred years or so.




Just a few snaps of how the atelier looked like when we first moved in:  The walls were covered tip to toe in mouldy yellow wallpaper and what was underneath turned out to be even worse...





With the tiles looking fab and out of mind, I was finally able to set up a working space for myself.  A tobacco-coloured ceiling got painted somewhere between the watercolours and I started scraping paint from the doors.  …And just like that, it was summer.

And what a summer it was!

As the mercury climbed from the mid-twenties to the mid-thirties the newly exposed plaster started to dry.  It dried slowly at first, feeling cool and damp to the touch – a strange contrast really when the weather was as scalding as it was.  Then, as if overnight, it was completely dry… and flaky.  Small cracks appeared next to the old ones, the old ones growing into canyons, sending little feathers of paint and whole chunks of plaster freefalling onto my freshly painted canvases.  Not cool, I thought.  Upon closer examination of my walls, it became evident that some clever dicky had done a bit of patching up, using straight up lime plaster, rather poorly and straight on top of existing gloss paint.  No wonder nothing was sticking up where it was supposed to! 

At this point I had two options – to find a way to make these walls stay at least roughly wall-shaped or completely re-surface them from scratch.  I like to do things properly or not at all, but hey-ho, there’s a first time for everything.  I made an exception.  James and I had just agreed to spend some time away from Mazamet in the winter and starting the plasterworks during the summer at hand was looking unlikely.  I feared that if left untouched the plaster would go from bad to worse during the long damp winter and so a decision was made to bind them up with the toughest primer one could cook up, followed by a lick of paint and return to the problem in a few years’ time.

It may have not been a tremendous plan, but any plan is better than no plan…

…right?!


From a cracked up mess to... Barbie Dream House!





From the beginning I wanted to go for a two tone look as a nudge towards the rooms half-tiled past and the colours I chose were a subtle blush pink with plain old brilliant white.  Not exactly an epitome of timelessness, sure, but knowing this was to be a temporary fix I wanted to play around a bit.  I am not the first or the last to jump on the hipster pink-bandwagon, and that is fine by me.  Perhaps subconsciously all millennials such as myself are wishing to recreate the Barbie Dream House our Gen-X parents refused to buy us?  Perhaps it is because the Barbie Dream House is all most of us can afford?  For all I know, this house has gone through so many colour palettes and so many tastes - what’s one more in the grand scheme of things?  Besides, I thought it would look achingly cool.  Isn’t that all that matters? 

Now, boys and girls, try this out at your own risk – if you are not sure what products to use on plastered or any walls, drop by at your local paint dealership and ask around, there are qualified people being paid to help you not to cock things up!  I know a bit about paints and was willing to take a few risks with this primer job because the walls were already awful beyond the point of return.  After all, you can’t ruin something that’s already ruined.  This is not painting and decorating as I know it, it is damage management.  Now, with these words of caution, the primer I mixed was a combination of standard stain blocker, white emulsion paint (mr. Brico value range) and standard PVA glue.  Oversimplifying a little, most primers have adhesive qualities to allow them to stick firmly to the surface being painted and to offer a support for a top coat.  A good one has plenty of pigment for a complete coverage as you would want a neutral base (most commonly white) for the top colour of your choice.  I was willing to compromise on coverage in favour of ultra-stickiness to stop the surface of my poor walls from crumbling any further.  Adding PVA to the mix would also allow me to use a non-oil based solution to cover up the existing blue gloss paint.






Here you can see the various stages of priming and painting.  Last set of three images is illustrating the whole process from the beginning:  First picture is taken right after the wallpaper was removed and the walls were cleaned with sugar soap.  The ceiling has already been painted.  Second image is showing the same wall with just a primer and the last one features the complete paint job with the white top coat and Rusty the Good Boy lounging by the door. 


   
Completely clogging up a wall with PVA is not exactly kosher: usually you would like your plaster walls to breathe a little.  Stopping a wall from breathing can eventually lead to moisture problems when condensation gets trapped under a layer of unsuitable paint and that, as you must know by now Dear Reader, is like pissing in your own cereals, i.e. not recommended.  In my case, however, sealing the plaster in a thick layer of unyielding primer was a necessary evil as I could not have these walls deteriorating much further.  Once the plaster is re-done – and when I say re-done I mean completely removing the old and re-plastering from scratch, I will be choosing my products with more care.  To mention a few UK based manufacturers, Farrow and Ball, Fired Earth, even the trusted old Dulux all have products suitable for priming, sealing and painting various types of plaster surfaces. 

But to continue on this priming journey - I chose to make my rather thinly pigmented primer bubble gum pink by adding a few droplets of fuchsia and ochre pigments and mixing thoroughly.  As a visual artist I got this stuff lying around, but if you wish to create your own custom tint, I warmly recommend hoarding paint samples and mixing them as needed.  By tinting my primer to the desired shade of blush I would need to use “real” paint only on the would-be-white top halves of the walls.  To completely cover up every last speck of that blue gloss paint, I chose to use a highly pigmented matte white emulsion.  The would-be-blush bottom halves did not have an existing coat of paint as they used to be tiled and thus required only a few layers of primer/sealant to achieve an even coverage. 




Before starting the long process of priming and painting I tore off what was left of the old rotten baseboards as well as the supports for the obsolete electricity cabinet, washed the walls with diluted sugar soap and covered my precious tiles with sheets of old wallpaper.  Remember boys and girls - reuse and recycle!  As one would expect, a lot of the loose lime plaster trickled off with a mere stroke, and plenty more came down when I was washing the walls.  In one or two places I deliberately chipped off some half-arsed repairs that were never properly bonded to the surface below.  If plaster has nothing to bond with, let’s say, when applied on top of smooth and unyielding gloss paint, nothing will keep it in place, not even a turbo-charged primer.  In these circumstances I would rather have lumpy walls with a few visual cracks than whole chunks of bad plaster falling down with the slightest touch.  

Crude, I know, but I am happy to say my butchery worked.  After a couple of coats of my special primer-brew the walls were set and crumbled no more. 






Working out the divide between blush and white areas was easy as the line between the old tiling and blue paint was still mostly visible despite of the odd splodge of lime here and there.  Painting a neat line between two different shades of paint isn’t always easy, but where I was able to follow the old tile-divide the job was done freehand with an angle brush.  Where I needed to work out a line, a used a roller and some of masking tape.  After the first layer of white paint had dried, I used the same soft brush to loosely go over the bottom line all around the room.  Some like their divides extra sharp, but I preferred a more organic look.  On balance, a bullet straight line in the middle of a lumpy wall would look a bit silly, don’t you think? 







As far as I can trace it, the blue gloss that was covered up with that ghastly deep yellow wallpaper sometime in the late 90’s to early 00’, was only the latest of many coats of paint in that room:  Before the baby blue, the room had a tint very similar to Pantone’s colour of the year Greenery and before that, perhaps in the days of the crèmerie, it was clad in sophisticated warm grey.  It took me three coats of primer and tree coats of matte white to cover up these secrets, at least for a few more years.  More slivers of history can be read from the woodwork that remains to be restored.  Surprisingly it seems, the wood has always been painted – first in the same shade of grey as the walls of the crèmerie, then treated with a woodgrain effect (lovely reminder how commissioning a professional to create a look like that by hand used to be cheaper than just simply using actual wood), and finally painted white, rather poorly may I add, at the time the room was wallpapered.  It will remain to be seen how I will restore these details, but for the time being I am most intrigued by attempting to recreate the wood grain affect.

Artist studios have always been painted in light colours to reflect the maximum amount of natural light. I have visited only a few that would be anything but dominantly white or a specific shade of light grey.  The Art School Grey, as this colour is sometimes called, did cross my mind, but I wanted something more playful to adorn the walls of my atelier.  In the end, my own artworks have a certain frivolous aesthetic to them, something I actively try to explore though my usage of colour.  Perhaps, I also wanted to make a clear distinction this space is mine alone.  Not James, nor anyone else’s.  When it comes to the rest of the home we try to combine our tastes as well as possible, sure, but why risk a compromise of aesthetic in a space as important as my workspace?*  When the time comes to re-plaster and re-tile it all, I need to be more careful about my choices as they will be more permanent, but until then, I can afford to mock around a little bit.  Perhaps I will try out a new colour or a new material.  A cork pin board would be an interesting way to organise my notes, or I could give chalkboard paint a go.  Only the price of paint is the limit!

*Obviously, at a time when James wants to decorate his study he may choose the H-Block Beige for all I care.









From this angle, owning a house is great.  If a detail keeps bothering you – go and change it.  No storage - no problem, built some!  Change the lights or buy a new showerhead and go nuts.  The list of relatively inexpensive improvements is endless when there is no landlord to breath down your neck.  You can make a space your own with a pot of paint and a bit of elbow grease in a matter of days.  It is truly amazing.  Yet on the flip side, when the roof leaks or the boiler decides to go out of commission, you are at the mercy of your home insurance provider.  Succeeding to sculpt out a functional and beautiful atelier for myself is just one of those little things that I need to keep in mind when something unexpected happens or I get cold feet.   How boring would life be if everything was predetermined!  James and I are pretty level headed when it comes to taking on a project like this; doing the place up in small chunks, one day at a time, trusting our abilities and most importantly, knowing when to wheel in the cavalry of professionals.  

Speaking of, if somebody wants to come and help this strong and independent renovator get a few sacs of plaster dust and heaps of rotted baseboards to the déchèterie, I’ll buy you a beer.

Anyone?


Monday, 7 August 2017

Wunderkammer - DIY Restoration for a Vintage Map Cabinet



Don’t you just love summer; sizzling in the sun, all the BBQ’s, hay fever, swimming, sitting out sipping adult themed drinks and complaining about the mozzies… the works?  It truly surprises me anything gets done during the summer months when the sun is shining and the beach is burning!  However, in chez nous, it’s business as usual and I have been continuing to get my atelier organised.

One of the big perks of my studio space, the old crèmerie on the grown floor, is a large built in cupboard where I keep my art materials.  In the absence of any other storage however, I have been forced to keep my stock, i.e. all of my finished paintings, drawings and prints, either propped up against the walls or in boxes and plastic bags which is obviously not ideal.  Wanting to get something more permanent sorted out for these fragile things cluttering up my workspace, I took on the long overdue restoration of a piece of furniture I and James bought nearly a year ago – an old map cabinet big enough to house my paintings and protect them from the hustle and bustle of the atelier.



Actually, these draws of mine are not map draws at all; the owner of the local Depot Vente who sold us the parts, said they used to house the robes of members of clergy working in a nearby church.  He in turn found the pieces in a skip as the chapel was being refurbished. 

And yes, the piece was in bits when we got it; two of the draws had lost their supports completely, the top was broken in three and the right side panel had been taken out and replaced with a piece of plywood.  Having studied the woodwork and the metal pulls, looks like it was custom made for this church in or around 1960’s and kept well for most of its life.  Seems like a great waste to through something as stunning in the bin, but their loss, my gain, I suppose.  Even in the condition it was in, the cabinet had so much potential it ended up in my studio where is stood patiently, waiting to be restored back to its former glory… until now of course.

The very first step in the restoration process was to replace the supports for two of the bottom draws which turned out to be easy as pie.  Using an existing piece as a template James cut two new runners out of new pine, dry fitted them in place to make sure they were the right size before attaching a strip of recycled wood on top of each to stop the draws sliding out of place.  Next up, I would attach the new runners permanently in situ with the help of a mallet and some wood glue. 



Our dog Rusty helped a lot too, mostly by wagging his tail and being in the way adorably. 

To complete the framework, I re-attached the top of the cabinet by using old nails still attached to the panels and glued in a few strips of wood that stuck out where the top-pieces had been torn apart in the past. The draws, although dirty, were in pretty good shape and only needed to be waxed to help them slide in and out with ease.  



After the structure was secured I begun the cosmetic side of the restoration.  To even out the tone of the piece and mask out a few old scratches and wood-worm marks, I stained the whole chest, including the new plywood side and the draws, by using a strong solution of Yorkshire tea.  A bit un-orthodox, I know, but I only wanted a thin coat of stain that would cover up some of the imperfections and damages without compromising the woods lovely patina.  I applied it with a microfiber cloth, in three coats, letting the wood dry thoroughly between each layer and sealed it with two coats of a furniture wax that gave the piece a lovely sheen.  The product I used contained 8% beeswax, giving it a slight orange tint.  It took an hour to be dry enough to touch (or re-apply) and around 12 hours to dry out completely.  




Beyond cleaning and polishing, I did nothing with the pulls and so they will remain brown for now.  As it stands I have not decided on whether I ought to get new ones, perhaps in brass or aged copper, or strip and restore the old steel ones.  The brown paint, which is a bit chipped around the edges, I believe, is original to the pulls.  The chest being a vintage piece rather than an antique one, I am not too bothered by changing the minor detailing like the pulls as long as the woodwork won’t be damaged in the process.  Not that I am fundamentally against painting woodwork anyhow, I’ve done it before, but here it is just too lovely to be covered up.  

For something that was ready for the skip, or actually already in a skip, this magnificent chest of draws is now perfectly rehabilitated and ready to serve in my atelier, with or without the retro-brown.  My precious artworks couldn’t be better protected in these priestly draws and I have one less project to worry about.  (Insert a sigh of relief!)  James is happy, the dog is happy and I am happy.  Having finished it all, I actually feel like I deserve the cheeky swim and an ice cold beer…

Meet you at the Lac de Montagnes... anybody up for that? 


Tuesday, 25 July 2017

They Wash Rugs Don't They?

The spring is a magical time in Finland; as the sun kisses the frosty land, slowly melting the snow and a layer of dog shit usually around two foot deep, and each of our thousands of lakes is suddenly freed of ice, shortly followed by millions of birds returning to their shores to nest… so the first Finn crawls out of their cave – and immediately seeks to start a fight for the best position at the local rug-washing station. 

Washing of the rugs is an important task for the Finn, the alpha and omega of good housekeeping.  Although wearing shoes is strictly forbidden inside Finnish homes as to keep our rugs clean, allowing only a rare exception: a baptism, birthday or a funeral, those jolly summer parties we all love and cherish and whip out the good china for.  The rugs must be washed annually.  

Dirty or not. 


Finnish rug washing in Tervo and mangling in Pirkkala - images borrowed from their sites respectfully.


Before moving to Scotland and later to France, I too engaged in this national sport.  And why not - it is made very easy for you as even the smallest villages would have a station, usually outdoors and near a lake, where you can take your carpets, (handmade by grandmothers if you’re a traditionalist or bought if you’re city scum) scrub them clean with pine soap, mangle and hung them to dry.  Like most decent people with an acute sense of good housekeeping, I like my rugs cleaned annually. 

No exceptions.

As we joined our lives and possessions, James, who is to thank for most of our furniture, contributed three stunning carpets to our shared home.  My inner Finn roared and rumbled as I discovered these rugs have never been washed.  Gross.  So unhygienic.  So English!  Three years and a dog later, the carpets remained unwashed and my Finnish needs unsatisfied.  There was nowhere to go, no mangle and they were too heavy.  Then my mother came for a visit and gears started to turn…

Conveniently, I was feeling under the weather on strong antibiotics, having just hurt my face and rendered one of my hands temporarily unusable in an incident involving a stray feline, so it was up to James and ma to get the washing started.  As the nearest rug station is around two thousand kilometres away, we made our own from two architect’s tables, a pressure washer and a few bars of Marseille-soap.  My mum scrubbed as James wielded the pressure washer, starting from the dirtiest rug as I napped upstairs.  It took a bit of grunt, I was told, but the results were truly stunning.  This blond rug with red, white and pale blue accents had gotten so dirty it was nearly all grey to the point where you could hardly distinguish the pattern.  After the wash, Finnish mum-style, it was like brand new. 



James, seduced by the power of his beloved pressure washer, also cleaned up parts of our exterior walls that had gotten mossy over the years, again, with a glorious effect.  I woke up from my nap just in time to capture few snaps of the action and take credit for the job in the eyes of our elderly neighbour who probably thought we were barking mad as the French, together with the Brits, hardly wash their rugs.  Perhaps they just really love shake and vac? 

Bof - Je ne sais pas.

And speaking of our neighbour, although she sneaks us greetings from Jehova every now and then, I really like her and often practise my gardening vocabulary on her as she has the most beautiful jardin I have ever seen.  It has got the perfect balance between a traditional potager with an addition of tomatoes, salads, pumpkin etc. and a flower garden with roses and perennials.  We have a few pots of cherry tomatoes, patisson-squash, strawberries and herbs ourselves and they do give us a good crop but wouldn’t sustain us for the nuclear-winter if you know what I mean.  Anyhow, I like my gardening like I like my men: easy and low maintenance.  Having said that, it is also great to see some of my gladioli finally starting to flower.  The bulbs were planted a tad bit late this spring and my expectations for a flower-show this summer were pretty non-existent.


Fresh from the garden... 


As it stands we are waiting for a hot and sunny weekend to finish up the last of our rugs.  The woollen ones take a day or two to dry completely, but it’s worth it – if not for anything else other than my peace of mind.  I had this funny moment when I caught a glimpse of our freshly scrubbed piece of carpet drying in the garden as the sun slipped behind a wispy cloud: just in that moment there, somewhere far away, my old granny looked down and smirked.  The dirty skank washed hers never

Friday, 14 July 2017

Wonderwall



Wonderwall (Noun) 
“A barrier which separates the mundane from the Transcendent Reality. A true Wonderwall will always have a crack, or a slit or an opening which allows anyone a glimpse of what lies beyond the Wonderwall.”


Do you ever catch yourself staring at a project, an unfinished wall perhaps or a gargantuan pile of ironing and say to yourself will this job ever be finished?  I love my old house with its rough edges and all its imperfections, but living inside a project does take its toll:  I get fed up of clearing up fallen plaster, let it collect in the skewed corners around the house and I tire of fighting the armies of spiders we share this house with, allow them to conquer the contours of our stairwell and erect their flags in the ceiling.  The work never ends.  Priming a wall can take a week when the moral is low.


This is usually when my husband strolls in with a new gismo and I rediscover my enthusiasm of painting and decorating.  To battle my growing apathy towards home improvement, last Monday he adopted a wallpaper kettle and come Friday, I have already given it a name and a place around our dinner table – that’s how much I love it. 

Our new wallpaper kettle and my mum in action...




For those who have not had the pleasure of seeing one of these babies in action, a wallpaper kettle is a simple gadget that makes stripping wallpaper a joy.  It looks roughly like a petrol canister fitted with a hose and a plastic tray.  James told me it was around thirty euros in our local Bricomarche - money well spent I thought.  As water boils in the tank, stream is directed through the hose and into the shallow tray that is kept pressed against the section of a wall ready to be stripped.  Unlike my fingernails, the steam will penetrate several layers of paper at once.  The old adhesive is melted away, allowing big sheets of wallpaper simply to fall off with a gentle pull or a scrape – all in a matter of seconds.  On top of all this, the device is fairly light weight and using one is easy as pie. 

If only it made tea, I would elope to Spain and marry it. 

Conveniently, the purchase of our latest toy coincided with the visit of my mother, who, when faced with a choice between a relaxing trip to Benidorm or being sent to a Gulag, would choose the Gulag every time.  Like a good daughter, I thought, if working like a beast is how she likes to spend her vacation, who am I to stop her.   




So now, in five days, she has managed to be done with Mount Everest’s worth of washing and ironing, pickled enough cucumber for an army and walked the dog around the globe. Twice.  Last but not least, it was she who picked up the spanking new kettle and stripped, single handed, the walls of our entryway that were grotty and unfinished after past half-hearted attempts of wallpaper-removal, going back to the days when we first moved in.  Embarrassed to see how easily she had turned one of our biggest failures into a success, I may need to step up my mother’s day game for next year… 

Despite of my personal feelings of inadequacy, the results are superb: plaster that was hiding under the stained 90’s wallpaper turned out to be painted light green and in surprisingly good condition.  It was always evident that whole sections will need to be replaced, especially from around the front door and in the back where previous occupants had tried to half-arsedly cover up old damages with floppy sheets particleboard, but the rest is pretty solid.  To see these walls for the first time without scraps of paper was both weird and wonderful.  Although the old paint job is in a dire nick, you get a good feel how the space could look like once fully restored. 




Having a partner-in-reno, or a fabulous mum, to share the workload with every once in a while, is helping me to stay motivated.  When I find myself lacking in energy, nothing feels as good as a helping hand and some hearty progress.  My mum will spend a total of three weeks here, this being her whole holiday allowance for the summer, and I must admit, I was dreading it.  No matter how much I love my mother, three weeks is a long time to cater for any guests, including family, on a building site.  Luckily we seem to work very well together and she loves our house as well as Mazamet.  With her help and whirlwind like enthusiasm, I even found myself with a bit of free time for the first time this summer.  In a week I have managed to catch up on work, make a pretty summer dress and see attractions and events all around Mazamet and La Montagne Noire.  To summarise, I have managed to relax.

I can concur,  la vie est belle!  Seeing my mum adore the pace of life by the foot of the Montagne Noire is making me incredibly happy.  And as she happens to be dead afraid of spiders, I have a new reason to brake truce with the cobwebs brigade.  God knows, it's about damn time!