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!

 

 

 

 

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.