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!

 

 

 

 

Le Grand Balcon – Setting up outdoor space for the summer

It all started with a catalogue.  You know, one of those supermarket add-magazines soliciting variety packs of Walkers and the best deals on Birds Eye frozen macaroni bites.  We get a fair bit of those here in France, in fact they drop semiregularly into our mailbox, once or twice a week, from all of the major supermarkets in the area.  First I thought about putting a stop to it by attaching a small “pas de pub” note on the door like before, but as a homeowner, I thought why not give the catalogues a try.

Who knows, they may even have coupons, I remember thinking.
 
Little did I know that a mag from Casino was going to change the way we would use our balcony, a leaky, smelly and callous place, which at that juncture mostly served as a place to dump smelly bin bags.  Like a good little wife I browsed through each leaflet full of special offers and multi-buys, occasionally setting a few aside featuring decent beer offerings or a tasty coupon.  From this pile of domestic misery, James spotted a set of patio furniture, a modular sofa, armchair and a tea-table-combo, for a price too good to miss.  As the weather was warming up, we wanted somewhere nice to sit outside with our G&T’s and made a trip to the Géant Casino in Castres the very next weekend.

The near impossible-to-assemble patio set with our riggity old table and chairs.

As you would expect, the furniture was a real bitch to put together.  Made of composite plastic in charcoal-black and casted to look woven in, these sets are fairly commonplace.  We were attracted to this particular combination, not just for its price, but because of the modular nature of it.  The furniture is lightweight and can be made to suit various situations: it’s not ridiculously opulent for the two of us and in the fair occasions we have company, you can seat up to five people comfortably.  The detail I was not expecting to be pleased about were the cushions, which turned out to be nice and fluffy, machine washable and moisture repellent.

 
While James was putting the pieces together in a drunken rage, I contributed by removing the cushions from their protective film and complained about certain men’s inability to read instructions.  Happy times.
 
Having sorted out the seating as well as a pesky hole in the fugly-but-functional fiberglass roofing, our little terrace was coming together nicely.  We chose to prioritise other projects for the summer to come, therefore it made sense to repair rather than remove the corrugated fiberglass sheets keeping the balcony dry from the rain.  You see, the water had previously found its way through the concrete base of the terrace, all the way to downstairs and the only way to start managing this was to make sure the floor was staying dry.  Installed sometime over ten years ago, the fiberglass sheets were in a proper state, but seemed to be holding on fine enough.  After James replaced a missing sheet and bolted it in place, this issue was solved. 
 
 
This corrigated fiberglass had weathered so badly that on the first glimpse James and I both thought it was asbestos.
With relatively little direct sunlight filtering thought the dirty fiberglass into this north facing sitting area, we get to enjoy our stunning view without being burned to crisp – something I truly appreciate as a perma-pale Finn.  Sure, the roofing will go as early as we have the time and the money to replace it properly, but in the meantime, the situation could be a lot grimmer.
Our current collection of herbs and flowers.

The concrete base will also get dug up and replaced.  For the time being we are thinking about terracotta tiles, perhaps re-using some already in this house, but in the interim the cracked concrete was covered up with a “rug” of synthetic grass.  We used to have this stuff covering a few problem areas in our old gallery-rental and we both liked the playful nature of the material.  Our garden, still a bit of a project, as is everything else in this house, does not have any grass and likely never will, so putting down a piece of artificial lawn felt like a fun thing to do.

 
Rest of the apparent décor, the little table and chairs, the herbs and the accessories migrated into this place almost on their own.  A north facing balcony is not the best place to grow herbs, I know, but so far so good.  They add a certain je ne sais quoi to the place and grow close to the kitchen where they are needed.  My favourite of all things in the balcony is probably the large ceramic statue of a stork, given to us as a wedding present by a friend and made by her elderly mother who was quite of an artist back in her day.  The garland of LEF-bulbs is also wedding related: it was bought from a Scandinavian household-all-rounder Class Uhlson to light up the stage in our wedding venue.



 



Setting all things and furnishings aside, I am in love with that view.  How could you not!  In a clear day you can see the rooftops of Mazamet, over the valley and all the way to the forests of Sidobre.  You can sit comfortably under a blanket and spy how the weather here changes in seconds and when the night comes, you may sit back and admire the stars.  It never stops to amaze me how one view alone can be so engaging.  Hopefully we will manage to extend this panorama even further by opening up the left side of the patio by reducing the height of the concrete wall that luckily is not part of the supporting structure for the roof. 

 
 
A room with a view…
Having a balcony that functions as it should has improved our social life too as here in France, it seems, everybody smokes.  Now, even when it rains, our friends can enjoy their fag-brakes without having to trek downstairs to the garden.  And of course, eating out in our place really means eating out now.  Even with the occasional bats, wasps and ants, it’s a great place so sit down and relax with a hearty G&T.
 
There is a one last person in the family that is yet to embrace the transformation of our terrace: Rusty the pupper.  He seems to find the confined outdoors a bit of a drag and much prefers the comfort of his own bed.  Well, you can’t please everyone they say… but at least the humans of our unit love the transformation. 

  

Les Nouveaux Bohémiens

82592-bohemians

 

Rant warning! The following content may not be suitable for hipsters or anybody who wants to be a modern bohemian.

Bohemian style, rescued from obscurity by Coachella going fashionable millennials and the pesky bike-riding hipsters of this world*, has been mainstream for a while now.  Despite of, in principle, being a movement of unconventionality, today the bohemian decor is available to buy in any home store near you.

And frankly I think this is a bit of a pity.

Bohemian interiors are layered, casual and quirky.  I stumbled on an old Buzzfeed piece on boho style whilst researching (procrastinating) for this blog and I think the writer, Peggy Wang, sums up the feel of typical bohemian homes better than I ever could:

“Lush exotic fabrics, perfectly disheveled pillows, and overgrown foliage – these are the trademarks of the cozy yet eclectic bohemian aesthetic.”

Being a visual artist as well as a walking talking stereotype, I have been invited to a few rather bohemian households and I can concur, this is pretty much true – aesthetically anyway.  These spaces, thinking about a beautiful home of a couple that traveled the world in love, a shared flat of young and curious individuals, or a conventional house full of un-conventional memories in the middle of the “Middle-England”, were not decorated to be bohemian – they grew around their owners like a well maintained garden would, with care and time.
Bohemian interiors from Buzzfeed

Sure, you can take Ms. Wangs advice and hit the charity shops and the flea markets for your own piece of eclectic cool, or you could wait and see what life brings your way.  The boho style has been hot enough for several years that all sorts of bohemian goods are available to be consumed, from the high end boho chic brands such as anthropologie to the offerings of the trusted opium for the masses-giant IKEA.  Lets look at the example of Moroccan wedding blankets, the readers of popular design blogs will know exactly what I am talking about, the ultimate bedding accessory of 2015 – I would be lying if I said I did not like them.  They are beautiful objects, trendy, expensive.. proper showcases, but there is just one problem: I already have a good blanket.

My blankie, as scruffy as they come, has multicoloured spots on a white background and I paid 3.99£ for it in Pound Stretcher right next to the Meadowbank Sainsbury’s in Edinburgh about seven years ago.  It’s made or 100% polyester and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

My “incidentally” bohemian bedroom.

My relationship with decor has always been complicated: When I moved to my first flat back in 2006, still living in Finland, I had practically no furniture beyond my childhood bed.  My mum stepped in, teamed up with a few relatives and collected everything a young person could need to set up their first home.  I was almost sixteen and in my head a fully grown adult.  Four years later I moved to Edinburgh to study painting and my sister, in turn just about to move into her first apartment, inherited all of my furniture and the nick-nacks I used as decoration.

Like most students, I moved several times whilst in uni, sometimes living on my own, sometimes sharing with friends or befriending the strangers I moved in with.  Although I carried a suitcase full of things back from Finland to Scotland on each of my visits, I always purged away twice the amount when I moved house. By the time I moved in with my future husband I had two suitcases full of clothes and three IKEA bags of other stuff and this was roughly the sum of my worldly belongings.

Thankfully, he did have furniture of his own; very nice furniture, things that he had collected in good time, with pride and love.  He is a maximalist with more clothes than I have, a brilliant taste regarding antique pieces and he shares my appetite for drifting.  We have, successfully may I add, bought furniture together; done the IKEA relationship test, haggled in a depot vente (a sort of a flea market), and replaced some of our old things with new, some of which were expensive and some on a budget.  Our decor is an eclectic mix of old and new, high and low-end – a bit… bohemian.

Interior details from our little old house, with raw plaster walls and pealing wallpaper.

 

I never thought of myself as a bohemian before. Never. Not even in the middle of my art studies with the evenings spent in pubs discussing painting and sex with other fashionably artistic millenials.  Bohemians, for me, don’t shop at Lidl and they certainly don’t store their H&M undies in a MALM dresser and enjoy watching the Embarrassing Bodies or the Jeremy Kyle Show.  To be honest, I think the culprit is this house – there is nothing more romantic than the idea of a creative couple living in a crumbling old house with charming period detail in the middle of the most picturesque France.

With a dog.

We did not set ourselves out to become cliches of bohemian living, it merely crept up on us and I guess this is how most interiors loved by the people who live in them are born. Just like all good gardens, with care and time.  Once we get going with the plaster work in this house, paint the walls and patch a few not-so-discrete holes on our ceilings, our dwelling will start looking more conventional again.  I like the rustic boho look we got going for the time being, but I would never pay a designer to recreate it.  Just as one might walk to Anthropologie today and pick up a piece of exotic old world chic to crown their eclectic lives, I imagine it could never feel the same as haggling for it in the bazaars of North Africa.

Avocados growing on an IKEA stepstool – is this what hipsters are made of?

I feel immensely privileged to be able to live where I do and it works for us well.  Part of our choice to live in the South of France is to do with the relatively cheap cost of living, especially the price of property.  Like many, we would have not stood a change in owning our home in the UK where the system does not exactly favour the self employed, especially those working in arts.  Just like the bohemian artists that flooded the quarters of the poor in Paris at the end of the 19th century – we are part of the cycle of gentrification that is more relevant today than never before.

This is why I am cynical about the boho-craze: nothing is ever as simple as it looks.  Les Bohémiens of the golden age of Paris were mostly an ideal constructed by themselves; Henry Toulouse-Lautrec, the epitome of a poor bohemian artist, came from a wealthy aristocratic family who supported their son financially enabling him to pursue his artistic merits and live the jolly good la Vie de Bohéme.  To appreciate the bohemian aesthetic is fine as is living the bohemian life, I am not trying to point the finger on anybody, but this style, like any trend, is also a gargantuan business venture.  Boho-chic enterprises such as Coachella in the States, to use an obvious example, look like great fun, but let’s not forget the fact that the cost of tickets for the weekend is more than most people pay in rent each month.

The cozy, laid back bohemian feel of these types of events and products is often just an illusion.  Using the undying words of Dolly Parton: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”

Raw plaster wall in our bedroom

 

An quick search of bohemian interiors on Pinterest reveals a never ending stream of beautifully curated eclectic interiors from all around the world.  On a lot of cases replicating a look like that would be a choice between a new decor or a new car.  A few of us can afford to complete a process such as furnishing a home in one blast, but worry not – the process can be just as rewarding when you take, yes I am going to repeat the punch line one more time, time and care with your choices.

Want to live like a new bohemian? Hit the flee market, anthro or your local asda – and get only the things that you need.  Focus on the stuff that reminds you of good times and good people or what you really, really love.  With this set of guidelines you can’t go wrong.  Trends, they come and go, so you might as well do you.  This is what visiting other peoples delightfully eclectic, cozy and totally bohemian homes has thought me.

*Drops mike – rant over*

*Disclamer: You might meet me driving around on my vintage Motobecane bike, rocking a sundress-winter-scarf-combo.  I grow avocados on my lounge, like craft beer and I have a degree in fine art.. So dear hipsters – don’t hate me, I’m one of you.