In which a Christmas gift has conditions attached *

We are a horribly traditional couple, and no role model at all for our grandchildren.  If it’s jobs round the house that need doing, Malcolm’s your man.  He’s a very handy plumber, and spending the morning fiddling with the electrics presents him with no problems at all.  He’s good at what he does. I’m not even any use as the gopher.  I’ll bring him the wrong sort of screwdriver, and am apt to confuse hammers and mallets.

Cooking however is a different story.  I’ll open the fridge and plan a meal round whatever catches my eye or needs using up.  I read recipe books for fun, but rarely use them whilst actually cooking.  Spending time in the kitchen is relaxing for me.  Malcolm requires a detailed recipe, and if he finds we’re out of some minor ingredient, the planned-for dish is hastily abandoned.  In advance of actually cooking, he carefully lines up, measures and weighs all he needs, just like Delia Smith used to do.

So this Christmas, I’ve given him a present designed to remove cooking-related stress.  Here it is: a whole book of dishes needing only five ingredients, and top of the best-seller lists as well.

Jamie Oliver’s latest book.

Very meanly though, I’ve insisted that in return for the gift, he has to plan and cook a dish from it once a week.

He says he’s up for the challenge. Happily, he hasn’t given me a D-I-Y book in return. No home deserves my botched attempts at repair and maintenance. Instead, he’s given me this: much more my cup of tea.


  • Malcolm says I ought to call this post ‘The Poisoned Chalice’.  I think that’s a bit harsh.

Feeling blue…..

I’m feeling ‘Off-Black’, as Farrow & Ball might style it.

'Off-Black'. From the Farrow & Ball shade card.
‘Off-Black’. From the Farrow & Ball shade card.

Or possibly rather ‘Down Pipe’: that’s grey-black to you.

'Down Pipe' from the Farrow & Ball shade card.
‘Down Pipe’ from the Farrow & Ball shade card.

My camera’s gone bust.  Just as I was coming to the most photogenic bits of a walk yesterday, and just as I was about to take a shot of some unusual fungi to show to a mushroom-geek friend, my camera declined to switch on.  Or off.  The toggle simply wobbled about a bit.  It’s going to have to be sent away for repair, and I shall be camera-less for…. oh I dunno, a couple of weeks I suppose.  I can’t even download the photos I’d already taken, and it’s all going to be somewhat expensive.  And how can I write a blog post without photos, hmm?

To add to my woes, we’re just getting to the final brush-strokes of decorating our bathroom, to which our landlords have recently offered a make-over.  I can’t show you our efforts here, which may be just as well, because our previous well-known lack of enthusiasm for painting and decorating has turned into sullen resignation.  Let’s just get it over and done with, ASAP.  I’ve even been heard to say I’d rather take in ironing to earn money so someone else could do it.  And if you know anything at all about my lack of enthusiasm for ironing, you’ll know that things are really serious.

So this is all I can show you of the bathroom.  The shade we are covering the walls in.  It’s called ‘Cat’s paw’.  Nothing to do with cats, apparently: ‘Cat’s Paw is not named after the animal but after a complicated knot. The perfect name for this colour as it is the darkest accent for the often knotted String and Cord’.  The theory is that this naturally cold room will feel warm and nurturing on those cold winter days which seem to be marching towards us already, even though it’s mid-August.  We like it, anyway, and perhaps by the end of today we’ll be able to pack up our paint brushes, fold up the dust sheets, and give the lot away to anyone who’s made enough  to be planning a painting project any time soon.

'Cat's Paw' from the Farrow & Ball shade card.
‘Cat’s Paw’ from the Farrow & Ball shade card.

Man on a warm tiled roof: woman on a warm tiled roof

It’s five years since we were last up there, and it shows.  That roof of ours needs a good clean-up, just as much as any other part of the house, because if we don’t…. it leaks.  You’d think that a good coat of grime and lichens, with a thick crust of moss nudging at the edges of the tiles would provide a nice impenetrable and insulating covering to help the roof in its task.  But no.  Rain soaks into the moss, and wiggles its way into the roof space and then our attic.  It’s not managed to break through yet, but time is not on our side.

We have a routine.  An early breakfast, so we can get as much done as we can before the sun gets too hot.  By quarter to 8, we’ve rounded up old pointy knives, wire brushes, lengths of thick wire, softer brushes, knee pads, kneelers, a bottle of drink: and up we climb onto the roof, via our roof terrace.

We’re neither of us wild about heights, me especially.  But it’s not quite as scary as it looks.  The pitch of our roof is quite gentle, and we can move about more safely than you’d think, though at considerable damage to our knees.  We try to divide the roof into work zones and fail.  It’s easy to go off piste when one tile looks so much like another.  But we both scrape and scratch and pry away at springy cushions of moss, yellow puddles of lichen, odd tile chippings.

A couple of hours on, one of us will say: ‘It’s getting hot.  Had enough?’  Neither of us needs asking twice.  We each sweep our section of roof carefully, round up our tools and put them away, ease our aching bodies into the shower….. and flop, fit for nothing much at all, at least until lunchtime.  Malcolm at least is allowed this luxury.  He’s 73, long past the age at which most roofers begin their careers.

We’ve had three sessions already.  Might a fourth see the job done?

Painter’s Toast

You might have noticed we’ve been busy lately.  Bathroom-building.  Time-consuming lunch-time cooking doesn’t fit well with such industriousness.  I’ll often have a pot of soup on the stove, but the other day, a lunchtime treat from our days in England suddenly popped into my head.

Painter’s toast.

I think I read this recipe back in the 70’s, in an early example of the genre where famous people were invited to submit a recipe for a book raising funds for a charity.  I’ve just remembered what it was:  ‘The Shelter Cookery Book’. Was it Roger McGough who suggested crisp sandwiches?

One of Elisabeth Ayrton's best-known books
One of Elisabeth Ayrton’s best-known books
Novel by the painter
Novel by the painter

Anyway, Michael Ayrton said he and his wife were often too busy to make lunch.  Unsurprising really. He was a painter, printmaker, sculptor and designer, broadcaster, novelist and stage and costume designer.  Fascinated by the Minotaur and the maze-builder Daedalus, he created many works inspired by them.  Elisabeth, his wife, was a writer and the author of several cookery books.  So I suppose beans on toast just wouldn’t do.

Here’s what they came up with, as far as I can remember.

Mix grated strong cheese – cheddar is good – with a small amount of milk and softened butter.  Add a bit of whatever you fancy to liven it up.  Maybe mustard.  Maybe a little chilli.  Pile onto bread which you’ve toasted on one side only, and grill until bubbling and browned on top.

That’s it.  This close cousin of Welsh Rarebit always goes down well with us on cheerless winter days.  It may suit you too.  And while you’re at it, you might enjoy looking at a few more of Michael Ayrton’s works.

‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’

Take a look here at Richard Hamilton’s iconic 1956 work whose title I’ve taken for this post.  You’ll see it wasn’t our home he had in mind.

We love our house.  No architect ever had a hand in its creation.  Rather, it’s evolved as the needs of its various owners changed.

Colombages on the top floor still awaiting attention
Colombages on the top floor still awaiting attention

Oddly, the top of the house shows clear evidence of being over 200 years old, with its ‘colombages’ (lath and plaster) construction, whereas other parts lower down are clearly more recent.

One of the guest bedrooms with original woodwork intact
One of the guest bedrooms with original woodwork intact

Walls sometimes up to sixteen inches thick break drills and the will-power of anyone who tries to get through them.  No wall is perpendicular, no door standard size, and when we once tried to draw a ground plan of the house, we realised we were creating a work of fiction.

On and off, we’ve been ‘doing’ the bathroom for months.

Persuading the bathroom walls to be vaguely vertical
Persuading the bathroom walls to be vaguely vertical

The tiles were solidly concreted on maybe in the mid 20th century, and nearly reduced us to despair when we tried to remove them. But now we’re doing 21st century tiling. The walls aren’t straight in any direction.  There’s no such thing as a right angle.  Even erecting plaster board walls within the bathroom can’t compensate for the room’s wilful disregard for symmetry.  Construct a wall that is truly vertical from top to bottom, and you loose several inches of space at floor level. Even measuring up, or drawing lines that are both horizontal AND parallel with the floor are almost impossible tasks.

...but we are getting there.
…but we are getting there.

In a despairing moment last week, I found myself observing that never had buying a house on a lotissement seemed more appealing.

I don’t mean it.  Not for one second.

Lotissements are the French answer to the housing estate.  Areas of land, usually at the edges of villages or towns are divided into plots that are sold for development.  You buy your plot.  You choose a house off plan, and you get it built.  Or you build it yourself.  Or, as is more likely, you go for a mixture of the two.  You’d be a fool not to.  Deposits are lower on new build homes, as are legal costs.  You plan your home according to your budget, and once it’s completed, there you are with your modern, low-maintenance home.  There are thousands of them, all over France, and they all look much the same.  Only the roof-pitch flattens out the further south you come.

Part of a lotissement in a nearby village
Part of a lotissement in a nearby village

Whereas we who buy old houses tend to buy problems: the roof that leaks, the wallpaper that shrieks ‘France, 1960!’ at you, the impractical kitchen (so-called American kitchens have arrived late in France), and the bathroom which, like ours, requires re-modelling.

Why on earth do we do it?  Perhaps because we like being part of the town community.  Perhaps because the house, for all its disadvantages, has charmed its way into our hearts.  We recognise the character it’s acquired over the years, and enjoy the stories we hear from other who knew the house once-upon-a-time.

We look askance at the concrete boxes surrounded by grass and chain-link fencing.  We resent it that when land is sold off for housing, we lose open countryside, farmland and much-loved landscapes in exchange for sprawling village ‘suburbs’ with no community features: no shop, school, church or bar. But in every village and town centre there are increasing numbers of empty and hard-to-sell houses, many with long years of useful service left in them.  We wonder why it’s made so easy and cost-effective for those who choose to buy new, and made so difficult for those of us who decide to renovate, restore and give new life to old houses.

Anyway, I can’t sit here moaning.  There’s grouting to be done, then the painting, and then…. and then…..Cake and yard July 2011 031

…and then it’s payback time in the summer, when we get to relax in our wonderfully hidden back yard.


We’ve been up in the atelier today, making the workshop part of it frost-free for winter.  Because the roof will HAVE to come off next year – it really leaks quite seriously – there is no point in doing a tremendously fine job at the moment.  Cobbling something together from odds and ends is the order of the day.

Now this is fine by me, less fine by Malcolm.  In the DIY department, we are an extremely ill-assorted couple.  Malcolm has a fine selection of tools,which he keeps neatly organised, clean, sharp and  ready for action.  I have only the haziest notion of DIY skills, and am prone to use broken knives as screwdrivers.  The only time I went in for any serious sawing, more than 18 months ago now, I made such a bad job of it that I permanently damaged my shoulder.  I’m as keen on DIY as Malcolm is on cooking.

This leads to conflict.  Increasingly, I feel obliged to help – well, it’s my house as much as Malcolm’s.  The poor man is up against someone who simply has no instinct for the task in hand.  Holding steady something to be sawed, I’ll grip the wrong end of the plank.  Asked for a hammer, I’ll produce a mallet.  I yawn.  I clock-watch. I fidget.  I don’t notice when I could be fetching and carrying, and that is indeed as much as I’m fit for.  I make a mess of the simplest tasks: I confuse screws with nails and can’t remember where I put the drill bits.

Poor man.  He enjoys what he does on the whole, and is usually entitled to feel real satisfaction in a job well done.  If only he had a keen apprentice, rather then the moody and reluctant Work Experience type he ended up with, he’d get on so much faster, and we could all knock off in time for tea.

Don't even ask what's going on here.  You get the picture.  There's A LOT to do in the atelier
Don’t even ask what’s going on here. You get the picture. There’s A LOT to do in the atelier

The painful death of a door

The good life? Not with all that DIY to do

You probably thought we’d finished with all that house renovation stuff.  Perhaps you imagine us out there in our fully finished yard, sipping a chilled white wine as we wonder how to fill the long hours between lunch and dinner.  It’s not quite like that.

The bathroom renovation involves tearing down heavy, impossibly unbreakable layers of concrete which some ham-fisted type many years ago slapped thickly onto every surface, floor to ceiling.  It certainly held the tiling in place, as well as fixing irrevocably all the ancient plumbing.  It has to go, though two powerful drills have already given up on the task.  When we finally manage it – and we almost have – it’ll replaced by some decent insulation, a new surface and tiling.  But it’s so frustrating, that any displacement activity will distract us.

On Monday, for instance, for no reason other than it seemed a good idea, we set about removing one of the doors into the old cold rooms in the former butcher’s shop.  Now it’s become a store room, the space simply doesn’t need to be protected by a fortress-like door 13 cm. thick, with chunky prison-grade hinges, and heavy door handles some 20 cm. long.

Not many of us require a door so sturdy, handles so stout and strong

Wooden doors, thickly insulated and finished off with a heavy sheet of protective asbestos (aagh!)  are not easy to manoeuvre.  Screws, in position maybe 50 years and probably held in place by crusty layers of congealed blood and pig fat don’t respond well to gentle teasing by a screwdriver.  We togged up in steel-capped boots and wrestled.

I wonder when Toulouse phone numbers were last only 4 digits long?

And eventually won.  Then the asbestos back of the door had to come off.  The tip won’t take asbestos, and the dangerous substances depot won’t take wood.  Finally, using thick and sturdy planks,  we had to lever the door onto the trailer and trundle off to the tip.  It’s gone.

Off to the tip. Shame really, it’s quite a handsome door

And so it was back to the bathroom yesterday.  If you pride yourself on your DIY standards, stop reading now.  Yes, that includes you Kalba and Sharon.  Here is a picture of how we’ve worked out where the floor tiling should go.  Lots of paper cut-outs, held in place by the contents of a book case.  Well, when you’ve got an odd-shaped room, with not a straight wall in sight, what else to do?


A guide to tiling for the cack-handed

The floor tiling on the roof terrace.  It’s finished.  It’s usable.  It’s looking rather good: ready to be kitted out with garden furniture and a few well-chosen plants.  All that’s for sure.  The other thing that’s certain is that neither of us will willingly do floor tiling ever again.  Never.  And Vicki and Marc aren’t all that keen either.

After cleaning the surface carefully, there’s the tile cement to mix.  Even with a mixer attachment on the electric drill, this is punishing work.  Ask Malcolm.  In the manner of Goldilocks’ porridge, the mix must be not too thick, not too thin, but Just Right.

Job done

Then the laying of the tiles themselves. This involves long hours on creaking knees and dermatitis from the cement: gloves and tile laying don’t mix.  Is the tile level?  The spirit level says ‘no’.  Yank it up and start again. Keep it the right distance from its neighbours with spacers which somehow get clarted up with cement.  Work quickly! The sun is getting high in the sky, and soon we’ll have to knock off and erect complicated shelters so the cement doesn’t dry too quickly and crack.

Are the tiles clean of cement?  No?   Get it off quickly, before it sets and resists all attempts to shift it.  Stop!  Don’t press too hard – you’re de-stabilising the tiles!  Oh.  Too late.

Finished at last.  Now we can uncurl our protesting bodies, clean the tools, and knock off for a couple of days while the cement sets good and hard.

Noooooo.  Unexpected rain threatens. Quick!  Improvise plastic sheeting, lengths of wood to prevent water getting under those tiles……

But now, 48 hours later, we’re ready to do the grouting.  Same story.  Grout mix is difficult to get Just Right, and it goes off in about 2 hours.  Get the team going – one to force grout between the tiles, the other to clear, clean and check there are no air bubbles, troughs, mounds…..

By now, we feel as if we’ve been on a long pilgrimage on our knees in the manner of a medieval penitent, weary, sore and with aching and crippled backs as well.

Anyway, it’s done.  Are we suffused with a satisfied glow of pleasure at a job well done?  No, we’re simply relieved.  Next time we come across a floor tiling job chez nous, we might just have to settle for lino.

The view as we take morning coffee on the smart new terrace.