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!

 

 

 

 

Raiders of the Lost Tiles

As some of you might know, I had a summary of my modular kitchen-post published by ApartmentTherapy and as a direct result, the traffic on Chez Nous N° 21 has increased a fair bit.  It has been amazing to read AT community’s comments on our temporary kitchen solution, but it was our century old cement tiles, a detail that really sold us on this old house, that stole the show on the discussion-forum.  Having engaged in a conversation with one tile-connoisseur in particular, I was tipped of about the endless possibilities of Le Bon Coin, a local flea market site, with links to a couple of offers for antique cement tiles.  One of these happened to be advertising a lump of reclaimed tiles, not similar but identical to ours, and mere three hours away from Mazamet. 
 
Long story short, we went and got them.  We had to.
 
I was going to write about pictures and framing this week, but as this kind stranger pointed us to the direction of the best possible tiles for our future kitchen, you are getting Raiders of the Lost Tiles instead – a story about road tripping to an old Roman settlement and the perilous journey back with a boot full of cement tiles.
 
This was supposed to be a weekend of 6 Nations rugby and some serious gardening, but my husband wasted no time contacting the seller and organising a rendez-vous.  Until now every material we considered for the floor of our future kitchen had felt like a compromise.  This was really a once in a life time opportunity to replace the current 80’s porcelain tiles with something more courteous to the age and style of this house.  As we were already travelling over 200 kilometres to see these tiles, we decided to make a night of it and stay in a nearby city of Arles, an ancient Roman settlement on the river Rhône.  James hunted down a nice pet-friendly hotel close to the centre so we were able to take our dog Rusty with us too.   
 
 
Shut-Up Rusty, or just Rusty for short, is our third family member, adopted in January.  To fill you in, he is an Alsatian-cross who likes long walks on the beach, ham and plenty of belly rubs.  This was quite likely his first ever stay in a hotel and oh boy he was ever so well behaved.  Lucky us, he also loves riding in the car.  And speaking of cars… here’s a word of caution for any of those looking to pick up over 15m² of cement tiles.  They are heavy as hell; heavy enough to seriously damage your vehicles suspension or the axel if not balanced properly.  You’d be a proper bell-end not to hire a van. 
 
Naturally, we headed on our way in our humble Laguna estate.
 
The seller of these tiles was asking a “fair offer” for his reclaimed tiles and he accepted ours after a little haggle.  Each deal made on Le Bon Coin is different, but so far we had nothing but great luck with the things we bought and the people we have dealt with.  I kid you not, we found our house on Le Bon Coin!  The guy who showed us the tiles on behalf of his wife was very professional and really helpful to the point of coming to meet us in a traffic stop after their address turned out not to be on the navigator.  He even helped us loading up the Laguna.  Without trying to be disrespectful, (our offer was pretty damn close to what they were thinking about anyway)  I have seen these types of tiles go for nearly ten times that on dedicated salvage websites.  Driving three hours to view something you saw online may seem excessive, but for a deal like this, we would have done twice miles. 
 
 
And besides, Arles turned out to be beautiful!  We had the weather on our side, a high of 25 that day and not a single cloud on the sky.  Having packed up our new purchase we checked in to the Hôtel Le Rodin, a tidy little place that was more than happy to accept dogs as big as our Rusty.  The service was wonderful and the hotel was situated within walking distance of the city centre – our next stop as by the time we had fed our pupper it was pretty much beer a clock.  So we had a pit stop of dark craft beer and local cheese + a small plate of charcuterie, seated at the terrace of Picador, a bar with their own deli, near the old amphitheatre.
 
 
After checking out few of the main attractions, being hurried along by Rusty who was frantically looking for a grassy spot to do his business, we found a little restaurant called l’Autruche – the ostrich, which had just re-opened.  They, like most businesses in France to be honest, were happy to have a dog lounging in our feet as we tucked into their daily-changing set menu of locally sourced produce.  James and I both chose fresh asparagus, served with a soft boiled egg, a small salad and pureed greens.  A superb starter to go with our chosen bottle of organic wine, which James followed up with a combo of a lamb chop & tatties, and I with flaky white fish, steamed and seasoned, on a bed of green lentils.  Not normally a huge fan of the bio wines, I enjoyed this red – it was a lot lighter than expected, almost like the new season’s stuff, apparently due to the lack of sulphites that help to preserve the flavour in wine produced using the traditional methods.  The tipple came warmly recommended by the owner, who was really damn nice.  For a Friday night, it was pretty quiet everywhere.  We felt a bit like crashing a private party – everyone here was clearly pretty well acquainted…
 
 
 But hey-ho.  We did stay for a second plate of cheese that day to end the evening. 
 
In the morning we were faced with a task of redistributing yesterday’s loot in a manner that our Laguna wouldn’t brake in half during the hard drive home.  That meant fitting as many tiles as it was safely possible into the front passenger seat, thus seating myself in the back with Rusty.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, folks.  Just because we and our vehicle survived, it doesn’t mean it was a good idea.  As the bottom of our estate was nearly scraping ground all the way to Mazamet, we chose to favour the motorway.  Pity, as otherwise we would have taken a detour to see where the couple that built our house came from.
 
Based on the details they left behind, we have a reason to believe the original owners had a connection to a village called Blauvac an hour and half away from Arles.  Down to the design and colour, the tiles of our kitchen and the ones we just purchased are identical indicating they came from the same factory.  These types of encaustic cement tiles are still being manufactured by hand, using the traditional colours and patterns, most prominently in Marocco.  Our motif is pretty rare and typical to these parts of the South of France, so it is reasonable to assume there might have been a factory manufacturing them in the region. 
 
 
 
I couldn’t resist digging around online and it seems, indeed, that the biggest cement works producing encaustic cement tiles, Cimenterie Lafarge, was based in the village of Viviers in the department of Ardèche since 1850.  Their tiles were initially reserved for the bourgeoisie but soon became popular everywhere.  Sadly the production was ceased in France by the 1970’s; colourful cement tiles featuring intricate geometric- or stylised floral motifs, had fallen out of vogue in favour of ceramic tiles which were a lot cheaper to manufacture.  In 1910, however, when our house was built, encaustic designs were still all the rage.  It may be relevant to mention that Viviers, the centre of cement works in the South of France, is situated an hour and a bit from Blauvac as well as hour and a half away from Arles. 
 
I present my case: our tiles are made in France, not so far from where the builders of my house might have come from. 
 
They rest safely in out cellar now, waiting to be cleaned and re-sealed before being installed into the room downstairs that is to be our new kitchen.  It will not be any time soon – perhaps the summer next year, but I am glad we did not let this opportunity to slip through our fingers.
 
Random stranger from the Apartment Therapy forum – thank you a million times for finding out about this seller and his wonderful tiles!  We couldn’t have done it without you.  And an honourable mention for our Renault Laguna, you are the best. 

the Forgotten Symbolism of Ornament

Time to get your tin hats on folks, as this week I’ll be rambling on about the forgotten symbolism present in the turn of the century design in Europe, inspired by a particular piece of plaster work in my own historic home.  From the symbols of catholic saints to the marks of the funny handshake brigade, I will try to get to the bottom of the odd ornaments chosen by the people who built this house in 1910.

Let us start with a little lesson in art history:

Towards the end of the 19th century and as a counteraction to what was seen as the emotionally poor strife for realism in art, the symbolists wanted to get back in touch with the the invisible and the mysterious – their psyches.  As defined by Michael Gibson in his book Symbolism: “Less an artistic movement than a state of mind”;, the artists and artisans inspired by symbolist ideas never formed a defined style or a movement, but greatly affected the development of others such as Art Nouveau in France, BeNeLux and the UK, the Jugend Style in Central Europe, Russia, Scandinavia and Spain and the National Romantic Movement, most prominent in Norway and Finland.  Idealistically exhausting itself by the beginning of the First World War, symbolism acted as a bridge between the impressionist and expressionist way of seeing the world, standing between the old and the new at the dawn of modernism.  

Examples of symbolist painting (left to right): Gustav Klimt Hope 1 (1903), Félicien Rops Pornocratès (1878), William Blake The Great Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun  (1806), Francisco Goya Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823).  Klimt and Rops representing similar symbolist ideas that Goya and Blake were pioneering in the beginning of the 19th century.
Although painters such as Paul Gauguin were known to travel far and wide for inspiration, symbolism was predominantly a European phenomenon, mixing together old superstition and Christian iconography together with themes of the early industrial age.  Allegorical, biblical and often melancholic, symbolist artists` favourite themes were love and loss – especially the loss of innocence, dreams vs. nightmares, coming of age and sexuality as well as passing of time and death.  Although not necessarily by a conscious choice, it was a dominantly male movement that had reserved two seats for women they so often fetishised in their works: the seat of a mother or a femme fetale – a whore.
On a completely unrelated subject, I’ll firmly recommend reading about the history of syphilis after the industrial revolution in Europe.  Illuminating read, truly.
Paul Gauguin Arearea (1892), Hugo Simberg, the Garden of Death (1896). The red fox in the first picture by Gauguin symbolises sexuality and coming of age.

 

But enough about the artsy-fartsy semantics: long before the adaptation of openly symbolist language into liberal arts, our ancestors, mostly illiterate and superstitious, used symbols to decorate and to communicate – just think about the image of a skull and crossed bones that today is near universally understood as a sign of danger and death.  The typical heart shape, an ideograph of the heart, has been used to express the idea of romantic love since the 14th century.  Folk art, religious iconography and the art of illustration, not even discussing the complex mannerism of literature and the performing arts, had been shrouded in symbolism long before the painters of the 19th century took notice.  The exotic and intriguing language of symbols was all the rage in the Victorian England, too, as the mood turned melancholic in the hangover years after the industrial revolution.

Decorative symbols, warning symbols, coats of arms, pictorial traffic signs, badges, logos… the list is endless, are an integral part of the cacophony of visual information we are bombarded with.  The meaning of popular symbols, however, is not always fixed.  For example, the swastika – the feared and loathed symbol of Nazism in today’s Europe, is a popular symbol of the god Vishnu when drawn clockwise and a symbol of the goddess Kali when drawn anticlockwise in Hindu religion, dating back a millennium.  Due to its easily repeated form, the swastika has been a common ornament in decoration, especially in embroidery, since the invention of embroidery.  For more of a contemporary example, just think of the “save icon” on your computer and how it has evolved, in less than 20 years, from a literal depiction of the format used to store data, into a general symbol of saving information.

The times they are a-changin’…

 

Naturally, countless of symbols get ignored or become obsolete, and after a time, forgotten.  How long will it take for our insignia, lets say a sign for a wheelchair space or the Starbucks logo, to start looking like meaningless decoration?

My home, like most homes built before the wars, was decorated with an array of ornamental detail from plaster reliefs to marble fireplaces.  A leading Victorian authority on ornamentation, Owen Jones (1809-1876), sees decoration as a fundamental desire of man to create.  In his Grammar of Ornament published in 1856, he has this to say about the nature of decoration:

“Construction should be decorated. Decoration should never be purposely constructed. That which is beautiful is true; that which is true must be beautiful.”

Built originally with a neo-classicist flair mimicking the grandiose houses of the bourgeoisie in Mazamet, my home is a typical example of a townhouse from the beginning of the 20th century in the industrial South.  It was originally a crèmerie, habited by a family of cheese mongers, complete with two beautiful cheese cellars, three floors of living space, a garden and an outhouse, situated on a street dominated by businesses on both sides and a large protestant church.  The leather and textile industry here was just starting to pick up speed, drawing people from the surrounding countryside and streets such as mine could easily be built up within a decade.

From the original detailing chez nous, the most intricate piece of ornamentation is hands down the surviving plaster work.  What would have been a thick, possibly ornate crown moulding was removed in the sixties in an effort to mod this place up, but two full panels of decorative plaster work were kept above the fireplaces in two of the grandest rooms.  These plaster reliefs were commonly arranged into a shape of a frame, and mine are loosely neoclassical in style, featuring motifs re-popularised by the renaissance revival.

Arabesque-style frescoes in late renaissance-style from Owen Jones’ the Grammar of Ornament 

 

This is my lounge, there are many like it, but this one is mine.

 

The detail in our lounge, what would have been the original formal salon, is pretty well preserved.  Most of the ornaments in this frieze are typical examples of classicist flora and fauna; the top horizontal panel is decorated with foliage of anthemion, a motif of ancient Greek origin, interspersed with heavily stylised bouquets of acanthus, in turn popularised by the ancient Romans.  Tops of the left and right vertical panels, featuring a shallow arabesque-style detail, are capped off by a suggested Corinthian capitals, again, archetypal for the periods classical revival architecture.

 

 

This decorative panel was built to house a mirror and is a typical, if not an ordinary example of a period feature.  Several examples, some more sophisticated, some not, in both wood and in plaster, can be found in townhouses of a similar age – except for the fact that ours has snakes in it. A pair of Caduceus’ to be exact.  Nested between a pair of primroses and a stack of branches, the staff of Hermes – two serpents intertwined around a winged pole, rests above a pair of crossed arrows, hiding in plain sight.  Although beautiful, it is clear this part of the frieze meant something beyond mere fashion to the people who commissioned it over a hundred years ago.
The Caduceus, although often mistaken as the Rod of Asclepius – the symbol of medicine, is a symbol for commerce.  A fitting touch in a house built by merchants.  Commonly depicted with a pair of wings at the top of the staff, the symbols association with trade comes from being linked to the Greek god Hermes (or Mars, the Roman interpretation of the same divinity) who, among other things, was the protector of merchants and tradesmen.
The interest in the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome had been growing steadily since the renaissance, but the archaeological discoveries in the 19th century around the Mediterranean and high profile exhibitions of classicist art, such as the anglification of the so called Elgin Marbles from the Greek temple of Parthenon, made the study of the antiques incredibly fashionable and helped to popularise the various classic revival movements in applied arts all around Europe.
It is evident the family that built my home also appreciated classical symbolism, but what is the meaning of the rest of this motif?  The crossed arrows, for example, is a popular mark of friendship today, especially in contemporary tattoos and illustration where the meaning is derived from native American symbolism.  In Europe, however, arrows, especially in heraldry, are knows to symbolise conflict and war; single arrow standing for martial readiness and an arrow with a cross representing affliction on the battlefield.  It is reasonable to assume the crossed arrows are referring to a military conflict and the direction of the arrowheads, here pointing upwards, could indicate a victory, general defiance or hope.

It’s by no means an uncommon symbol: before being adopted by the hipsters, the crossed arrows were used as a pottery mark by a German manufacturer Porzellanfabrik Kalk from 1850 until their closure in 1976 as well as a Japanese dupe company in the 1950’s.  It was also a central motif on the old Swedish ör coinage before the introduction of krona in 1873 Here, too, the meaning of the symbol must have stemmed from heraldry, but my further investigation drew a blank.  Heck – I even checked the known symbols of the freemasons. Another blank. So I decided to turn to God and read about the symbolism of catholic saints, knowing this would have been a catholic household.  Frustratingly, nothing obvious cropped up; St. Ursula is often seen holding an arrow and St. Sebastian pierced by a few more, but the connection felt too loose.

There must have been a concrete reason why the crossed arrows ended up on the background of the serpents, but I couldn’t seem to figure it out.

 

Then, after referring back and forth with a guide of heraldic symbolism I finally checked the actual heraldry of this region… and BINGO!  Or may I say Blauvac.  A mere four hours away from here, in the department of Vaucluse, nests a rural commune with a coat of arms of crossed arrows with their tips in the air, on a bright green background.  Could it be that my family came from Blauvac?  Short look at the history of the tiny village tells me about the arrival of the first telephone connection in 1926, followed by the first power lines and electricity in 1928, indicating that the area must have been pretty damn deprived at the time my cheese mongers settled in Mazamet – one of the richest provincial towns in the South due to the immense wealth created by the industries of the Montagne Noire.

A closer inspection of the wings on the top of the Caduceus reveal another interesting quirk – that they are those of a honeybee rather than the wings of a bird as normally expected.  An insignificant detail if it wasn’t for the fact that one of the symbols of Mazamet is – you guessed it – a honeybee, prominently present in the Mazamet coat of arms as a symbol of the heavy industry.  If you ask me, it seems who ever designed this little crest and placed it so prominently on the centerpiece of the grandest room in the house was proud about their trade as well as their roots.

Coat of arms of Blauvac featuring crossed arrows, a sign of military power and conflict with the coat of arms of Mazamet, featuring a cock, a sign of  great courage in battle and honeybees that stand for of industry and creativity.  There are three bees in the crest, one for each dominant industry: textiles, leather and pelts.  The colours of the crests are equally important: green stands for freedom, joy, beauty and hope where blue signifies steadfastness, strength, truth and loyalty.

 

The other plaster relief, in our current bedroom, is a 1920’s addition and in poor condition.  The detail has suffered after being painted with heavy gloss over the years and some of the trims are crooked or asymmetrical.  Situated above a simple wooden fireplace surround, this ornament is Greek-revival style with a hefty nod towards art deco.  There are no serpents and no crests in this frame, in fact, no symbolism at all that would go beyond the aims of decoration.

 

The Greek revival-mantel.  Note the beautiful portrait of my dear James – he’s changed glasses since it was drawn. Thank Cheesus for that.

I would love to think the revamp of the third floor salon/chambre, that we know was finished around 1924, was done by the couple that built this house.  Homes like these used to be passed down in the family alongside the family business, often while multiple generations lived and worked under the same roof.  We know the crèmerie was still up and running, along with many of the other businesses on this street, in the late 1950’s, as confirmed by our plumber who was born on this street.  Today, the Caduceus might be the only visual clue of the family that once lived and loved here, but perhaps the more we continue to dig around, the more there is to be found about their lives here.

My father is a builder and regularly collects things left behind by builders like him generations before; packs of cigarettes, coins, items of clothing and scraps of paper, letters even, but this is a first time, in a domestic dwelling, where I’ve seen a message or a brand left behind by the inhabitants, encrypted in symbols.  I am convinced leaving traces such as these, little clues, is more common than people think.  Just like with us, the signs were always there, just hiding in plain sight.

From all the symbols in the world, the caduceus seems oddly fitting, thinking about us, the current owners of this house, being both self employed.  The shop downstairs has been empty nearly fifty years, but I have plans to re-open it for the summer, this time, reincarnated as an artists studio and a gallery.  Somehow I think the family of the crèmerie would approve.

 

 

 

 

 

Series of unfortunate events: FLOOR EDITION

I talked previously about the history of our walls and thought it is time to kick off the grand saga that is the ongoing restoration and cleaning of our floor tiles.  After all, it was those gorgeous antique tiles that sold us this house last autumn.  And boy there’s a bit to talk about: some of the floors were already beautiful beyond belief and only needed a deep clean – but some… well, had been considered to be beyond repair.  SPOILER ALERT – THEY WERE NOT.*
*So suck a fat one, the previous owners of my house from the 1960’s who thought so!
Starting from the most labour intensive job, this is a story of me and my hubby discovering, cleaning and sealing a bunch of terracotta tiles that were hidden under ghastly sheets of linoleum.
Over all, the tile work in our little old house is in pretty good nick:  The trend of erasing history of old dwellings swooped by our place, not once or twice, but every generation or so and where the walls with their decorative strips of crown molding took a bit of a hit each time, the floors were left pretty much as they were – with the exception of these 20x20cm terracotta tiles.  We discovered them on our first visit to the property, hiding under some pretty fragile linoleum and in a desperate need of tender love and care.
In fact, only one of the rooms of this house has had a complete floor change since the house was built in 1910, not counting in the bathrooms that would have been retrofitted by the 1940’s-1950’s.  Tile-wise, on that ground floor salon that was refurbished as a bedsit, perhaps to accommodate an aging proprietor in the early 80’s, they did a pretty good job, ignoring the complete lack of taste exhibited by their choice of a patterned porcelain tile.  I am normally against replacing something that is perfectly good and functional, but these tiles are just so god-awful that I am willing to make an expensive exception.

Having needed some space to live, our first task upon moving in was to clean enough floors to fix ourselves a temporary living room, a bedroom and a kitchen.  The house had been derelict for just over ten years and everything was, understandably, dirtier than a blind mans toilet.  Cleaning the kitchen floor, rocking the beautifully moody encaustic tiles shown above, was a piece of cake:  It turned out, most of the tiles cleaned up well with just a drop of PH neutral dish soap and were, rather surprisingly, not in a desperate need of resealing.

The case of terracotta tiles found hiding in our bedroom and the lounge, however, was a different matter entirely.  Having been in a need of a sealant and re-grouting, somebody in the 60’s (curse these people to hell) thought, either, that repairs were too much work or just preferred more of a contemporary no-maintenance material.  Luckily, instead of lifting the tiles and the sand-cement they were laid on, the homeowners leveled the floor by covering it entirely in lime and installed a carpet of linoleum straight on top of the compacted lime dust.

 Of course, a no-maintenance material does not exist – except in the dreams of salesmen and lazy homeowners.  Easy to install, easy to care materials such as linoleum, vinyl or laminate do not need maintenance at first and clean with ease, but after a decade or two, depending variables such as the quality of the product, general wear and exposure to the sun and moisture, even the toughest of these materials will age ungracefully and will need to be replaced.  The wood imitation-linoleum, laid on top of our century old terracotta tiles, had faded, bubbled and cracked so badly under the blazing sun of Mazamet that it was taken straight to the tip.  It did not adhere to the floor at all, implying that it was never properly fastened to it’s base or the glue holding it had dissolved a long time ago.

Turned out, taking off the lino was the easy part…

It took the both of us, me and my husband that is, two days to scrape off the packed lime dust on each floor.  Sometimes the stuff came off in big sheets, but more often than not, it needed to be chiseled off one tiny chip at a time.  To save our little Henry the Hoover from clogging up, we swept the dust by hand before revving up the vacuum – in hind sight, I firmly recommend wearing a mask for these types of jobs… safety first boys and girls!  You don’t want to be digging out dust from your nose like I had to.

We followed up by a couple turns of serious moppin’ before getting down and dirty armed with a sponge and a bucket.  Where the scrubbing was not quite as back-braking as the chiseling of the lime, it took it’s time; a full working day in each case.  I finished the job with two coats of sealant that was specifically designed for porous terracotta tiles.  This stuff was pretty easy to use and dried up in about half an hour per coat.  If only the tiles had never been covered in the first place!  Where we spent four days on each room restoring the look and function of our antique tiling, cleaning and sealing them in the 60’s, instead of paying for linoleum, would have taken less than 4 hours per floor.  Cheesus Christ!

 

But all said and done – I’d say the results were well worth it!  These tiles don’t look new, but why should they?  They got holes, residual lime stuck between the grout lines as well as wear and tear worth a century, but that’s what we like about them.  Replacing these tiles with new ones would have cost us a big penny – even if I would have chosen to go with new linoleum.  And that would have, in turn, needed to be replaced after a few decades under our burning sun.  Terracotta is hard wearing, extremely easy to clean and maintain, as well as pretty trendy for the time being, just in case you need a reason or two to start giving your elderly tiles some love.
I hope ours will be good for another 100+ years.

 

 

 

 

News from the 1920’s

Our house was built before the first World War, but so far the most fascinating insight to the early history of our dwelling came in the form of a few sheets of L’Express du Midi, found under the wallpaper on our built-in wardrobes.  These newspapers date between 1918 and 1924, thus giving us valuable information of when these cupboards were constructed, but beyond learning about our home, the brittle pages open a window to a world long gone: the everyday life after World War I in regional France.

People talk about the roaring twenties, but the idea of a golden, carefree era between the end of the 1914-1918 war and the stock market crash of 1929 did not really exist.  In reality, most people took their time to recover after the war, emotionally, as well as economically:  The war machine that ate away the sons, occasionally spitting away nothing but bones; worse yet, broken men had grown quiet, but the lives lost left behind a sizable hole in the young male population, shaking small rural communities to the core.  People displaced by the fighting and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 were struggling to return to a normal rhythm of life – and what was normal anyway?  It could have been said the Great War marked the beginning of modern times – in both good and in bad.  Things that contributed to the myth of the 1920’s: the café culture of Paris, the bohemians and the flappers, the Great Gatsby, Josephine Baker and all that jazz… that was not most peoples reality living through the decade.

 

 

The First World War memorial in Mazamet.

 

 

Mazamet, my hometown, was a thriving industrial hub built on the textile and leather trade. A quick look at the development of population in Mazamet reveals that it had dropped during the war, but grew steadily throughout the twenties: an indication of an abundance of jobs available and economic stability.  The Montagne Noire with its mountain streams provided a steady supply of clean water for the industry and there was plenty of unskilled labour available to take on the jobs the factories provided.

Our house was originally built as a crèmerie and this must have been a prosperous time for them, as we know they embarked on a hefty renovation program remodeling two of the grandest rooms of this house in a trendy Art Deco-style.  The rest of the town was booming too: great big townhouses and villas were being erected to house the families of the wealthy factory owners, some of them being the oldest steel framed houses in the South of France. These grandiose homes were decorated with marble and hardwood, whereas my cheesemongers settled for the next best thing: wallpaper.  And this is where the L’Express du Midi comes in: the makers of the new built-in units used sheets of newspaper to line the exteriors of their new wardrobe doors.

Sheet of newspaper used as a wallpaper liner where I found it – covering a door of a built in wardrobe.

 

I found these pages hiding under what felt like a million layers of wallpaper and they are pressed as full of text as it is possible to read, broken up only by regular and beautifully illustrated adverts for products such as fortified apéritif wines, ladies garments and pseudo-medicines, basically all the goods that were again openly available after the war.

 

Selection of 1920’s advertisement from L’Express du Midi

L’Express du Midi, (1891-1938) produced by Le Nouvelliste de Lyon-group was a catholic newspaper based in Toulouse.  One of the leading voices of the conservative opposition in the region and the main competitor for the left leaning La Dépêche du Midi, it defined itself as “the publication of the social and religious defense”.  Mazamet, at the time, was a town divided by religion and class: the vast, catholic working classes led very separate lives from the predominantly protestant upper class.  I had been trying to guess the beliefs of the family that built my house and by finding out about the politics of their chosen newspaper, I can be certain they would have been devout Catholics.  As merchants, though, they must have worked with all walks of life, serving cheese right beside a grand protestant church.

Catholic sacraments of marriage and confirmation as illustrated by these photos taken in Tarn in the 20’s and 30’s.

But what created headlines in the early 1920’s?  Aftermath of the war and signing the treaty of Versailles, sure.  Everyday political upheaval between the left and right, strikes, general elections… and refugees flooding Europe.  After the end of the war – surely that can’t be right?

Once the guns had been lowered between the Allies and the Central Powers, the killing had only started in the newly formed Soviet Union and the supporters of the old régime were fleeing the bloody civil war that was raging between the Bolsheviks and anti-communist “Whites”.  The ones that managed to escape were seeking a passage to mainland Europe via Odessa, desperate for a ship to carry them and their families to safety.  An estimation of 400 thousand of the refugees chose France.  The influx of these strangers would have been strongly felt and the L’Express du Midi paints a powerful portrait of people, displaced and waiting for rescue – or certain destruction.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It is harrowing to think how little the world has changed in nearly a century.

Russian refugees fleeing after the civil war that was raging after the revolution.

 

Another little article talks about “the wives of (coal) miners opposing the imminent strike action” in the United Kingdom, referring to activity that would ultimately culminate in the 1926 general strike that lasted for nine days.  The low consumption of coal, decreasing export market and the artificially strong position of the pound had driven the price of coal to a record low, nearly halving the miners wages.  To stir up the mess that was forming, Germany, whose industry had been heavily sanctioned following the defeat to the allied forces, was allowed to re-join the coal market in 1924 and provided coal for Italy and France practically free as a part of their post defeat reparations.  In the end the miners were to achieve nothing.  They held their ground at first, but had to return to the pits to work even longer hours with less pay – those who still had their jobs anyway.

Mr. Clavier fixed hernias in Mazamet as the delegates of newly independent Finland finished negotiating peace with the Soviet Union.

 

In addition, both my native country of Finland and my current hometown of Mazamet get a mention in 1920:  The delegates of the newly independent Finland and the Soviet Union were involved in negotiating what would be know as the “Treaty of Tartu” in Estonia.  This peace treaty was to draw a new border between the two countries and cause bitterness and friction on both sides, notably affecting the decision in Finland to try and reclaim the lost areas during the Continuation War (25/06/1941-19/09/1944).  This decision was to turn sour for the Finns: They avoided being occupied by the Soviet forces but ultimately lost further areas, including massive chunks of the Finnish heartland, Karelia.

Mazamet achieved prominence this week thanks to the visit of M. Claverie, an esteemed authority on the treatment of hernias and other displacements of internal organs, offering immediate and long-lasting relief.

Reading through these pages of yesterday’s news has been an eye opening experience.  As a keen student of history, war history in particular, I always found the Great War distant and hard to feel largely due to the focus on numbers and statistics over the real human experience in mainstream history telling.  It is also a conflict largely overshadowed by the Second World War.  It’s easy to forget the Average Jacques when reading about the undying personalities such as the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, but these articles dating from the last days of the war made it all feel eerily real for me.  The memorial with rows upon rows of names carved in cold, hard stone, could not evoke as deep of a sense of sorrow as the last advert I’ll post here for you to see: a notification of a free service for locating lost soldiers, two years into peace, for families that were still looking for their loved ones.

For the families of soldiers disappeared during the war…

 

 

Portrait of a young man in WWI uniform, identified as Caporal Caffarecca in the back of the picture. According to the inscription, he lost his life on the 21st of August in Alsace.

The estimated casualties of the First World War were more than 38 million, including a total of 17 million military and civilian deaths, 20 million wounded and numerous who simply vanished.  For the many thousands of families that had to bury a loved one, thousands more never got to know what happened to their nearest and dearest.

I am lucky enough never to have known war.  Let us not forget the horrors these people lived through and those who lost their lives for others to exist in a world without war, after all, this was supposed to be the war to end all wars.

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief History of Our Walls Part 1- Wallpaper

We fell in love with our house from the bottom up: the century old cement tiles just aching to be polished and the parquet, dusty, but mostly in excellent condition.  From there on, unfortunately, it was a different story.  Our walls, plaster on lath as you might expect in a house built in the beginning of the 20th century, have all seen better days.  Some were painted, but more often than not, they were covered in layers upon layers of wallpaper dating back to the construction of our house in 1910.  In this first part of A Brief History of Our Walls I’ll be focusing on the latter: all the wallpaper I have managed to uncover so far.
And boy there’s a bit of it!

 

Peeling back the layers of time was one of our first priorities as to inspect what was going on below, after all, this house had been uninhabited for ten years.  And sure enough, we did come across few signs of moisture damage caused by a previous leaks in the roof, ranging from minor to severe and several smaller spots to where the plaster had been damaged and had came loose from the lath.  On top of all the damages and the ass-about-a-face patchwork of repairs, our house, was covered in an array of ghastly 90’s vinyl coated wallpapers that quite frankly would have seen the bottom of a bin sooner rather than later.  

 

During the stripping process that followed, it turned out, I am not the only lady of the house* who has had her say regarding suitable wall coverings, in fact, some rooms had been wallpapered up 6 times since this old house was built in 1910.
*I will milk this stereotype dry – despite of currently holding evidence of the male of the species having had their say in decorating this house too: Well, at least my darling James and the previous proprietor, who kicks ass not only in chemistry class, but in wielding a trowel as well. 

We we able to found mere fragments of the original wallpapers that graced the freshly plastered walls over a hundred years ago, and they feature an array of small and detailed floral motifs in bright, airy colours with intervals of light stripes, accented by a narrow floral boarder.  Popular at the time, these wallpapers are typical late-term art nouveau: more subdued and sporting a nodge or two towards old classicism where as early art nouveau, with their swan-neck arches, favoured highly stylised flora and fauna. These motifs were widely reproduced, relatively inexpensive and remained popular for decades.

Excamples of 1910’s wallpapers – what’s left of them anyway.

First of the re-decorators, perhaps the original owners of the house, had a change of heart around 1924 when they repositioned some of the internal partitions in two of the grandest rooms to make way for a set of built-in wardrobes, new plaster medallions and stone mantelpieces.  Perhaps inspired by the grandiose paneling found in the luxurious townhouses of what then would have been one of the richest industrial towns in France, they chose a faux wooden finish with vertical borders in light sage, accentuating the lines of the built-in cupboards and the fireplaces, then finished with a narrow trim in beige and dark navy blue.  This labour intensive job must have cost them an arm and a leg at the time and it would have been a spectacular example of early Art Deco wallpaper.  Sadly – mere scraps remain today, hidden away by the efforts of later decorators.

Dating this early job was made easy by the discovery of their chosen liner – sheets of Express du Midi-newspaper, contemporary to the renovations and dating between 1918 and 1924.

Selection of Art Deco wallpapers with sheets of the newspaper-liner showing through.

 

After the Second World War, a new generation wanted to brighten up the space and updated the whole house, including the electrical work, in the mid to late 1940’s.  Their choices were much more subdued, featuring floral motifs typical of the day in hues of muted greens and browns, blue and sage.  Shortages of dyes and other materials after the grueling war and the general shift towards functionalism, the wallpapers in the 40’s tended to be reproductions of old motifs, often without decorative borders.  Formalist rather than dainty, these wall flowers couldn’t have been more different from the cheerful bouquets of the 20’s.
40’s limited palette reproductions and formalist florals.

 

The limited post-war palette was evidently not groovy enough for the folks taking over the decorating duties in the 60’s as they went and covered nearly every single surface of this house, including the insides of the built-ins, with psychedelic flower patterns in the brightest colours available.  My personal favourites include a crazy pattern of waterlilies, chosen to decorate several of the rooms in the shades of electric blue, bright green and olive.

Out with the old, in with the new – this was the motto of the day, in politics and fashion as well as decor.  The home owners of the 60’s did no longer look up to the grand old homes of the bourgeoisie, but created their own aesthetic with the materials of the modern world: cement and plastic.  An array of fashionable choices was opening up to them as the archaic imitation of classical motifs gave way to a generation of bold designers not afraid to answer to the demand of everything fresh, new and modern.  It was bye bye subtlety in favour of statement motifs, printed as loud and as big as possible.

In an effort to modernise old buildings and inspirited by the minimal detail and clean lines of the new pre-fabricated apartments, many people living in older homes chose to get rid off the excess decoration, such as ornate ceiling medallions and the crown molding, that was seen as old fashioned and difficult to maintain.  And sure enough, this is what happened here: upon removing the numerous layers of wallpaper, we discovered a ghost line of raw plaster underneath the 60’s florals where a wide crown molding used to be fixed to the top of our walls.

Many old buildings still bear similar scars of sins committed in the 60’s and 70’s, but sometimes the damage done extends beyond a missing detail: the historic infrastructure was being destroyed and replaced with modern construction so fast, the manufacturers couldn’t always keep up with the demand.  Town centres were forever changed, communities  with roots reaching back centuries were run to the grown and packed one on top of one another, one block of flats at the time, just for it to fall out of fashion and in cases, then neglected and knocked down within a few short decades. What is worse yet, we still continue to live in a culture where new is automatically associated in being better, and the tendency to replace rather than repair triumphs.

Groovy, baby: examples of 60’s wallpaper. (Check the middle picture for a speck of early 20th century pattern peaking through.)

 

Next few decades came with minor changes to the general wallpapering of this house, with the exception of the downstairs chambre sporting the most 1980’s wallpaper I have ever seen, sitting on top of a moody Art Deco diamond pattern and a layer of post war blandness. Talking about Miami Cool-vibes with this tropical pastel number! It had it’s brief moment to shine before being covered up with latex-coated salmon orange, mere ten or so years later.

In general the 80’s wallpapers were light and subdued. Pastels and smaller patterns were preferred over the 60’s and 70’s extravagant designs and borders were starting to make a big comeback, often paired with painted walls or a wallpaper in a neutral shade and/or texture.  Wallpapering had become more and more affordable, thus allowing people to redecorate their homes regularly to reflect the current trends.

The tropival 80’s. At this point, allow me to blurt out what the fuck were they thinking. On the right: An earlier take on the jungle fever, found inside a build-in wardrobe.  

 

The 1990’s streching to the millenium gives us the most recent and by far the most boring layers present.  It is evident that the level of craftsmanship and the quality of goods deteriorates the further long we travel in time from the expertly installed and hand finished Art Deco coverings to the off-the-shelf, stain repellent modern papers that were, in most cases, just slapped in on top of antiquated electrical fittings, plumbing and the hastily repaired aging plaster work.

At this point my house, an old crèmerie, nearly celebrating it’s first century, was divided into rental flats.  This had an effect on our walls as the new coverings chosen during the conversion process were picked to cover up blemishes, ward off stains and to stand as a neutral backdrop to any decor.  They were mostly cheap, bland and plasticky – unceremoniously slapped on top of holes, bent nails and trims as a quick fix for what could only be described as a need for maintenance typical in any old dwelling.

Late 1990’s and early 2000’s renter-friendly wallpapers.

 

Two wallpapers from a late 90’s children’s room with adorable teddies and a vibrant blue and white check-pattern, originally separated by a decorative border.

Further advances in both printing technology and development of polymer-based household products for homeowners to use, and sometimes, to abuse have evolved to be more durable, stronger and again, more affordable.  Wallpaper, printed using the traditional methods of the trade, has become somewhat of a luxury these days and a quick tour around any home improvement store quickly reveals that the cost-effective and the most common options are vinyl coated, if not made completely from fiberglass.  These products are great as they are tough, durable and water resistant, but beyond problematic in older buildings.  The polymer-based products do not breath like paper does, thus trapping moisture inside the walls and leading to damp and, in the worst cases, rot.

Vinyl coated wallpapers in salmon pink and bright orange.

The ugly truth is that it’s more affordable to replace rather than restore any hand made damaged or endangered details.  Adding a coat of fresh paint on a cracked piece of molding or wallpapering over a damp patch of plaster will cover a multitude of sins, for a moment or two, but once the cover up fails, it might be too late to start dealing with the underlining problems that puts the structural safety of old buildings in jeopardy.

I feel a slight sense of melancholy in exposing and subsequently removing all these layers of history from my lovely old house.  They tell a story of the people who once lived and loved here.  But change is paramount, as we cannot just keep threading water with the repairs that need to take place here.  It’s impossible to promise whether I will make the right turns along this road of renovation, but I will try my best not to make the future owners of this lovely house, in another hundred years or so, cringe at my choices.