Monday, December 15, 2008

A Delicate Operation

Our bathroom renovation is very close to completion, which shouldn’t be surprising since it’s been going on for over two years. What is surprising is how many things there still are to be done and subsequently how many things to go wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, N discovered that our plumber, while installing the thermostat for our in-floor radiant heat system, had put a screw right through the thermostat wire, seriously wounding it. Unfortunately, the damaged wire was inaccessible deep inside the wall, our beautifully tiled wall.

  • Solution one, chisel out the surrounding wall tiles and repair the wire, necessitating a costly call to the tile setter or a messy, and possibly amateurish time consuming repair

  • Solution two, purchase the appropriate tools from the local army surplus store and perform surgery on the wire to remove the offending object and repair the damage

N both dreamed up and chose to perform solution two.

the newly acquired surgical tools

the patient (top right) prepped for surgery

the operation in progress (disclaimer--no electrical circuits were active during the operation)

I'm pleased to report that the surgery was a success. No tile was harmed during the operation.


As the project nears completion, it’s the little things that can hold you (by you, I mean us) back.

For example, when our vanity mirror was to be delivered early last week, everything seemed to be going well when I heard, from another room, the unmistakable sound of breaking glass.


Our marble slab, purchased as an off-cut from another project, turned out to be just a little over an inch too small to do both our vanity counter and shower seat. We are waiting for another off -cut from a project using statuario marble. Coincidentally, the project we are waiting on, so that we can get the remnants of their counter, is the kitchen of our next door neighbours, which is very strange since we chose this marble company in another city through a series of random incidents. Unfortunately, our neighbours’ renovation seems to be progressing almost as slowly as ours, so the shower seat may be a long way off.

Still, the bathroom even as it is—doorless, shower seatless, and mirrorless—is wonderful. We are very happy with it and will soon (relatively) be posting an entire bathroom redux.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Frightening Truth

We began this blog mainly to document our house renovation progress. But lately we've been posting about small daily pleasures, outings, and fond travel reminiscences. The truth is these little snapshots are a highly edited view of our renovating life. So, here, in honour of Hallowe’en, is some of the scary side of life we don’t usually reveal.

The Ugly

Large parts of the house, including the most public rooms--front entry, kitchen, future library look like this:

We have holes between floors:

The Scary

We have or had (please let the past tense apply) bats in the attic:

bat mugshot carved into our 'blue ghost' pumpkin

On bats: We have practiced the recommended bat exclusion techniques. Our painters used over 30 tubes of caulking to seal up any bat sized gaps in the soffits and gables. Our bat colony had a luxury one-way door (read $350.00 for a chicken wire tube) installed by a certified bat exclusion professional to allow them out, but (oh please) not back in. Still, we sleep in a state of low level anxiety—listening with our liminal brains for the tell-tale click of bat sonar.

WARNING, the following is not for the squeamish:
By day we scan all horizontal surfaces eyeing, while our heart rates climb, any suspicious piece of dirt that could in fact be—a bat dropping. We are now expert in identifying bat droppings, which are oblong, just larger than a grain of rice, dark brown to black, and crumble into mica-like fakes when touched (no, not with our bare hands). The mica-like flakes are bits of bug exoskeletons.

Outside in the twilight I love to watch the bats swooping against the darkening sky, knowing all the good they do and hoping for the survival of their threatened race, but inside, I just… can’t… cope. Bats, please be gone. It’s been over a month since the last bat dropping sighting. A very good sign (or absence of sign).

The Beyond our Control

Our neighbours, or rather their full-time construction crew (the neighbours themselves have vamooshed to an apartment while chaos reigns), are in the middle of a year plus-long home addition project and the sound of construction is with us from morning ‘til evening Monday to Friday and sometimes Saturday. Did I mention I work from a home studio? My work may enter a new dark age. An imposing new plywood-clad wall looms where once there was open sky and a view of a craggy apple tree.

the looming new wall next door

The Moral

Okay, this sounds like a litany of complaints, but I’m really not complaining (much). We are extremely fortunate in the grand scheme of things and the renovation is going well, all things considered. However, this list could be viewed as a kind of warning to any future live-in, DIY home renovators. Here's what we've learned:
Your renovations will take more of your life, time, and money than you think. Your stress level will increase and you will miss time spent with friends and family. On the other hand, the planning can be exciting, the work rewarding, the finished product exhilarating. Like the Hallowe’en haul, home renovation is a mixed bag of tricks and treats.

Happy Hallowe’en, all.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Alchemical Quince--this is too good not to post

If only our homes were so easy to transform.

Last night after reading a little more about quinces, I couldn't resist the temptation to experience their transformational powers firsthand. Using a simple recipe from the Joy of Cooking (the latest edition) I made Membrillo--the quince paste of Spain that is the perfect accompaniment to Manchego or any other strong salty cheese.


Peel, core and slice three quinces. Put slices in saucepan with one cup of water.
Simmer until soft (45 min.)

Puree the quince slices and return to pan with 3 cups of sugar. Simmer over low heat for 2 1/2 hours until mixture is very thick. Pour mixture into buttered parchment-lined pan.
Let dry overnight at room temperature. Cut into squares and serve with Manchego (or Parmigiano-Reggiano) cheese slices, sliced pears, nuts, crackers or anything else.
Quince paste will keep unrefrigerated for a month or more, but ours will be long gone before then.

This is an absolutely delicious and almost preposterously simple recipe. Just my kind. I see quince paste in my future. What could be more perfect for the holiday season than a square of sparkling red Membrillo with a slice of aged Manchego, (or possibly a Quebec aged cheddar?) atop a slice of crisp flatbread accompanied by a glass of Pedro Ximenez sherry?

Monday, October 20, 2008

The most wonderful home scent

Smell and memory are linked so closely that I can’t be sure how much my initial experience of this particular aroma has coloured my current perception, but I’m sure I can’t be alone in thinking this must be one of the most delicious scents anywhere.

Our first experience of it was in France. It was a moody September day just outside of Moustiers-Sainte Marie in Provence. As we drove the narrow road up a mountainside to our destination for that evening, the rain began to pour down. Through a miracle of good luck, we found our chateau, which emerged all rosy stucco and pale blue shutters at the end of a winding lane through a chestnut wood. The rain had stopped and afternoon sun was slanting through tree branches, raising a slight mist and turning everything to gold. Like so many French chateaux now being rented out by ambitious new owners to tourists, this one had fallen from its former glory, but its air of grandeur remained intact. We were early and since no one came to greet us when we called, we walked through the heavy open doors onto a worn limestone floor and then into a high ceilinged dark paneled room with an imposing stone mantle and game trophies crowding the walls. At one end of the room was a doorway lit by the sun which we headed towards almost automatically. There in a rustic back kitchen, glowing in the gorgeous late day sunshine, was a bounty of golden fruits and the most pervasive and wonderful smell.

It was un coup de foudre. The fruits were quinces. I was in love.

A bowl of gold--quinces (and pears) from the local farmers' market

I didn’t think the name, which sounded like a description of a pained expression, did justice to this fruit of the heavenly aroma, but then I discovered the inevitable downside to the seemingly perfect fruit: quinces, which look and smell like an otherworldly combination of apple and pear with a little extra je ne sais quoi, are too astringent and grainy to eat raw.

Quartered quince showing the grainy hard flesh

I’ve since poached quinces and strained them into gorgeous clear red jelly—their ivory flesh turns russet when cooked—but I love them best in a bowl, looking like slightly lumpy golden orbs and sending their lovely scent into every corner of my house. Sometimes, in the grocery store, I find quince imported from the middle east or asia, but the variety seems different, the fragrance not so intense. These ones came from the farmer’s market where two young girls told me they had climbed the tall quince tree in their backyard to pick them by hand the day before. Has anyone else fallen for a quince?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Art Acquisition or A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

As our savings dwindle and our RRSPs shrink before our eyes, we are glad that we haven’t always scrimped to save, and that some of our money is already spent on things we still have and will continue to enjoy forever. Specifically, I’m thinking about the beautiful ceramic platter we bought on vacation this summer. For five of the last six summers, we’ve found ourselves renting a tiny place right on the ocean in Nova Scotia. Because we always plan a return, we’ve never felt the need to lug home any souvenirs from our trip. But this year we decided that nothing stays the same forever and we needed to mark the event somehow—to bring something home that would remind us of our wonderful summers. Souvenir shopping can be fraught with problems. We want something that won’t wind up in a junk drawer, something unique, something that fits or is allowed across the border, or on the plane, or in the already overpacked car, something that will always return us to a moment in time, a place, an experience, the feeling of a vacation. In the globalized world, it can be hard to find something you can’t find anywhere else. The last time we were in France (on the highway and in need of a WC), we checked out an IKEA store to see if there were any major differences between ours and theirs, and, no surprise, there was virtually none. Okay, I know IKEA is an extreme example of uniformity, but it illustrates the problem of the ubiquity of mass produced goods. Our solution is to look for local artists or artisanal producers, antique shops, or something from the natural world.

So, one day on our seaside vacation, we set out on an ambling drive with the vague objective of acquiring something to take home. We wound up in Chester, a patrician sailing town full of lovely old houses, a gentle coastal landscape, calm marina, and many tourists. We passed by many little shops crammed with ill curated selections of tourist luring products. Although there may have been some treasures within, N and I are not hard core shoppers, and didn’t feel up for a hunt.

Jim Smith's studio and store front (images from

We were on our way out of town when we drove by a gorgeous storefront window so beautiful, that even at driving speed, we knew it was something special. We turned around, parked, walked in and discovered the studio and tiny storefront of acclaimed ceramicist, Jim Smith. We weren’t surprised that a place so striking and singular was the product of a fine artist. Inside, the ceramicist’s partner, Shannon, was painting a white clay slip over the surface of some heavy red clay plates. She explained the artist’s process: Jim forms his plates, vases, platters and bowls from the native red clay of Nova Scotia. Then, a fine white clay is applied over top. When the white slip has dried to the appropriate texture, Jim draws his evocative and thoughtful patterns into the slip revealing the red clay beneath. Coloured glaze is applied and the object is fired again. The look of the objects is both substantial and delicate. The patterns are not merely painted on, but carved into each piece. They all evoke the rich world traditions of ceramics and manage to appear simultaneously fresh and ancient. Jim himself was listening to our conversation and came out from his studio to meet us. He is passionate about his work and excited about his new pieces. It’s nice to meet a non self-effacing artist so evidently proud of his work. Jim is a sophisticated artist with a very disciplined practice. His work is unique, and I think that is especially unusual in the realm of functional ceramics. We fell in love with his style and his philosophy and purchased a beautiful platter to take with us and ordered two dinner plates (his plates are the only non-existing pieces he accepts orders for). The plates should be fired any day now and should arrive here sometime this month. We plan to visit Jim Smith’s studio every time we return to the south shore and amass a collection of his work bit by bit. I hope you'll visit his website and take a look at his beautiful work.

Large oval platter with peas by Jim Smith, 2008

Souvenirs of trips past:

Our most daring import was from a trip to France. We brought home a little cooler full of unpasturized, semi-dry, washed-rind goat milk cheese in various stages of ripeness (and mold growth) called Picodon de Dieulefit. When we showed up unannounced on his doorstep, the cheese producer had taken us into the ‘cave’--really more of a warehouse--where the little round cheeses age, and fed us samples of cheese from its smooth-textured fresh beginnings to its incredibly piquant full maturity. We couldn’t help ourselves; we had to take some home. The cooler, suspicious looking in its swathes of yellow Lufthansa packing tape, made it home without drawing the slightest interest from customs officials. What they pulled us out of line to question us about was a bag of tulip bulbs clearly labeled as approved for importation to Canada that we’d picked up at the Schiphol airport. Go figure.

The Picodon cheese label. The cheese, unfortunately, is long gone

Our most used vacation souvenir is the beautiful yellow and green coffee service we bought on the same trip in Poteries des Grottes Dieulefit. We use the little yellow cups every morning for shots of espresso (yes, we are unabashed espresso, latte, and cappucino drinkers).

Some pieces from our coffee service from Poteries des Grottes Dieulefit

I also love the tiny fig leaf pressed into the pages of a travel journal (everytime I find it there, it brings a smile to my face), and...

fig leaf

a brass cicada pin from a little shop in Provence where the cigale is a ubiquitous symbol of good luck, and...

The brass cigale (cicada) pin

books. I’m always seduced by gallery catalogues or histories of historic buildings or gardens.

I’d love to know what other people bring home from vacation. Do you shop/collect/gather alone or with someone else? What is your favourite vacation souvenir?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Exterior Painting Progress

Paint colours (from top): hiking trail CC 514 (porch, fascia, and eaves), chelsea gray HC 168 (brickwork), frontenac brick CC 182 (gable ends and soffits), kendall charcoal HC 166 (window sashes)

In mid-July we began to transform our house exterior with paint. We've gone from an ivory elephant with bright yellow and coral accents to a more stately and smaller (we hope) neutral gray elephant with darker gray window trim, warm brown fascia and eaves, and brick coloured gables and soffits. Although the job is still far from finished, the mood of the house is completely transformed. I'd like to say that neighbourhood feedback (direct, overheard, and rumored) has been uniformly positive, but in truth I think the comments are about 80 percent in favour, 20 percent against. This is probably a good average in a diverse and recently historically designated neighbourhood. Some people just don't like change. In the winter I wrote that we would probably paint the house ourselves, but after contemplating the massive undertaking--our house is a three story Victorian and requires a 40 foot ladder to reach its peaks--our enthusiasm waned a little and we hired a one-man painting company.

The previous paint colours revisited

When I read on his website profile that he was an accomplished rock climber, I knew he was our guy. In addition to no fear of heights, he had insurance, a commitment to safe practice, and fantastic work ethic. The deal we struck was that he would prep and paint all of the third story wood trim, windows, gable ends, and get as much of the lower two stories, especially the parts most visible from the street done in the five weeks he had before moving on to another job. We would paint whatever trim remained as well as the windows on the on the first and second floors. To help him in his time limited task he hired two assistants: one a champion lacrosse player, one an aspiring singer songwriter with girlfriend problems. I'll leave it to you to guess who was the more efficient. Prepping the woodwork took almost two full three-person weeks. We never could have handled this job on our own. And yet, the job is only mostly done. Some crucial areas, like the windows on the second story front sunroom, remain incomplete.

Our well-tended sash brushes--it's taken years, but N has finally convinced me of the value of good brush husbandry

Since we returned from our vacation we've been ready to proceed with the job and finish at least the most visible bits of the house before autumn denudes us of the cover of foliage and the paint job is on full display. But the weather seemed bent on foiling us. Although the tail end of Ike didn't hit us with the full predicted deluge, the (available) days of early September were wet and cold. N, who once painted with a good painting company in north Toronto between school terms, said that with nighttime lows under 10degrees C, the paint wouldn't properly cure and we were about to abandon hope. But this is where new technology came to our rescue.

Benjamin Moore's new Aura paint

It turns out that the paint we chose to use, Benjamin Moore's new Aura paint, only available in Canada since July, requires temperatures of only 4.4 degrees Celcius (around 40 F). This means despite the chilly evenings we have no excuse not to finish the job. The recent weather has turned in our favour and now we are hopeful about finishing. And a bit more about our paint: in addition to allowing cold-weather application, Aura is one of the lowest VOC paints on the market. It goes on beautifully and smoothly, much more easily than Farrow and Ball paints (except for oil). Its coverage is very good--last weekend N prepped and painted the sunroom windows previously ivory, now slate gray, in one coat, with no primer. We skipped the primer step for expediency, but really, the coverage is so complete you'd never know.

the house wearing its new paint colours, east view

We took a long time choosing our colours because we knew our final choices would be very public. In our pedestrian friendly neighbourhood, nothing escapes comment. Because our brick was already painted, we had fewer limitations on our choice of palette. After cruising around many neighbourhoods to decide what look we liked, we consciously chose a low contrast scheme which relies on tensions between warm and cool colours of the same value rather than the more common high contrast exterior paint schemes. The palette seems to unify the house and bring out the textures of the wood trim, shingled gables, and the brick. For the first time in years, the house looks of a piece. N even admits that the new paint job has changed his mind about the 1940's tudor-style sunroom addition above the front porch that he's often talked about tearing down. We are especially happy with the dark window trim which recedes into the facade rather than standing out (this is an especially good feature on the upper floors where we still have some ugly aluminum storm windows). One thing that bothers us about many home exteriors is the default use of white for windows and trim. As a considered choice, white can look perfect: crisp and clean, but other times the white is far too stark against the rest of the house. Victorians often painted the window sashes dark colours to reduce the contrast between the black voids of window glass and the trim. Our preparations for painting revealed that our wood trim and and windows have been a very dark, almost black, green, a deep red, dark brown, mustard yellow, and in more recent years, tan, pink, and pale yellow. Now, they are a deep slate gray. The house looks good to us right now. I hope we feel the same way about it in mid-winter.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bathroom Update--Window Coverings

Way back in June (but shamefully only three blog entries ago), N reported on our bathroom progress. The windows had been trimmed and were in need of some kind of covering. Natural light in a bathroom is a wonderful luxury and during the course of our renovation I'd fallen in love with the unfiltered light streaming in all day. Sometimes I'd find myself just hanging out in the bathroom doorway, drinking in all the light. At night, however, the three big uncovered windows became black mirrors and put us uncomfortably on display. So we faced the dilemma of choosing window coverings that would allow bright light through the day while simultaneously providing privacy and standing up to the humid conditions of a bathroom. We have a cellular blind in our current bathroom--the kind that is translucent and offers light by day and some privacy at night and has the option of being lowered from the top to allow views of some of the surrounding landscape. But I've never liked that blind and never felt that it offered quite enough cover at night. The commonly prescribed option for our set of circumstances (at least according to my web and magazine searches) seemed to be the Silhouette blinds by Hunter Douglas. On the website, the blinds seemed to meet our requirements: louvres encased in nearly invisible netting allowed filtered views outdoors by day and near opacity by night. The top-down option was also available for unobstructed views out the top of the window. In the showroom I visited the blinds looked, well, commercial, and manufactured. Something about them reminded me of childhood appointments to the doctor's office where old fashioned gray aluminum horizontal blinds covered every window. The mood they evoked was all wrong, but my options seemed limited, so I got a quote for our three windows and I was astounded. The price for three blinds with the option of the top down function was over $2000. Granted, our windows are large, but for mass-produced synthetic blinds with an inescapable commercial feel and mechanisms that might eventually break or tangle, $2000 seemed ridiculous. I talked to some of my neighbours, one of whom had also recently considered Silhouette blinds for the sunroom on the front of her house. She too had been shocked by the price and was exploring other options. I'm sure those blinds might be perfect in some situations, but they were not for us.

The main window shutters--I can't really explain the strange soft focus

This is when we began considering shutters. Up until now I had thought a custom option would be out of reach. Initially I was also worried that wooden shutters wouldn't stand up to bathroom conditions and might warp. We briefly entertained the idea of vinyl shutters, but didn't like them in person. Most of the shutters we saw required an ugly frame to be installed within the existing widow frame. Given the time and care we'd spent on our window trim, the idea of an aluminum or vinyl frame marring the refinished wood was an anathema. This is when I stumbled across the website of the shutter guys. They offered custom hardwood shutters with louvres of varying widths and complete freedom in choice of finish. They could match our paint precisely or even use a paint we specified. Best of all, the shutters would be constructed to fit our windows precisely, which in our case, because our window trim is deep, would mean no additional framing.

Shutter detail

The shutter guys were as good as their word. One of them came, with samples in hand, which allowed us to change our minds from the 3 1/2" louvre we'd been leaning towards to the narrower 2 3/8" louvre (which in person seemed much more in keeping with the scale of the room and our house), measured, and promised to return in a couple of weeks. Both of the shutter guys returned, on time, and installed the shutters, a process which involved a little onsite planing and retouching for a perfect fit, and left. We couldn't be happier with the result. Even with the bottom louvres almost closed, the shutters allow in a huge amount of light.

The shutters cast great shadows

The cost? Less than half the original estimate for blinds. And, by going with shutters, we supported a small business and the tradespeople in the Toronto area factory where the shutters are built. I'm sure we'll choose shutters for the windows of several other rooms (once we complete them). Any window covering epiphanies or advice out there?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Slow Food Picnic Slows Renovation

Scenes from the Slow Food Picnic

Our home renovations were on hold again this weekend as we braved dire forecasts about the tail end of Ike and headed to Toronto to meet some good friends for the second annual Slow Food Picnic at the Brickworks. The event pairs some of Ontario’s best chefs with farmers and food producers as well as wine makers and brewers. Working side by side with the food producers, the chefs find creative ways to show off the sustainable bounty of the land. For those who attend, the event is four hours of non-stop feasting. When we arrived we received wrist bands and wine glasses—ours to keep. Thus armed we had access to over 60 different food and wine stalls, each helmed by the producer of the chief ingredients and a chef or winemaker. We wandered around the open air pavilion beguiled by new tastes, smells, and sights at every turn. We sampled spit-roasted goat, hand-forked waygu burgers, fresh-shuck’d oysters (granted not local, but still Canadian, definitely sustainable, and served in their own biodegradable bowls), cheeses, sorbets, charcuterie, and all types of late summer herbs, fruits, and vegetables--heirloom tomatoes being in particular evidence.

The great information exchange

The picnic is a billed as an eco-gastronomic event, which means that everything, aside from the reusable wine glasses, is biodegradable and compostable, so the serving methods are creative: one enterprising chef served sausage hors d’oeuvres on oyster shell lids, which worked very well, but the trick of slurping black currant sorbet and poached pear from a grape leaf required more practice. We had a blast. We left feeling completely satiated, in love with all of the small local producers and conscientious chefs (whose passion for small-scale, hands-on farming is the only thing standing in the way of factory farms), slightly better informed, and virtuous: the event is a fundraiser after all. Philanthropy via informed gluttony.

Vicki from Vicki’s Veggies teams up with Toronto star chef Jamie Kennedy

Vicki, standing still, and with flowers in her hair!

We were delighted to see Vicki at the Picnic, and especially gratified that she had teamed up with luminary Toronto chef Jamie Kennedy. Just over a week ago we had stopped at Vicki’s farm in Prince Edward county.

Vicki's road-side, self-serve stand of earthly bounty

We had actually planned our route home from Nova Scotia in part so we could stock up on Vicki’s heirloom tomatoes and wonderful produce on the very last day of our trip. Vicki’s farm is almost 3 hours away from our home, but we have visited her twice in two years, both times on the last day of a vacation, just to partake of the fantastic offerings from her farm (and the handmade soaps of a friend of hers, also from the county).

Garlic, and tomatoes and eggplants of every description (from Vicki's 2007 harvest)

Last year Vicki took us back into her fields to show off her amazing varieties of eggplant. This year the season wasn’t so good for eggplants, but Vicki hiked us back into her tomato field to pick us a basket of stuffing tomatoes. If you’ve never seen one, a stuffing tomato is a revelation. All the seeds are compactly located right up near the stem and the rest of the tomato is hollow, like a pepper, and perfect for stuffing.

One of Vicki's chickens crosses the road.

Prince Edward County, on a little peninsula of land jutting into Lake Ontario, two hours east of Toronto, is Ontario’s newest wine region. Although the vineyards are young--only a decade old--and the process onerous: vines must be mulched over winter and dug out in the spring, the early results are very promising, particularly for chardonnays and pinot noirs (great for us since our earliest lessons in wine tasting were in Burgundy and these varietals have remained our favourites). The region is doing well and boasts several flourishing small towns, passionate local producers like Vicki, many excellent small inns, wineries like Norman Hardie’s, who was also at the picnic, and some fantastic restaurants, notably Harvest in Picton, which we’ve been fortunate to dine at twice, and which also had a booth at the Slow Food Picnic. For a Toronto food event, Prince Edward County was very well represented.

We’re looking forward to the third annual slow food picnic next year.

Friday, September 12, 2008

See you in Sep-tem-ber. See you when the summer’s through

A farewell repast on Nova Scotia's gorgeous south shore

Oh, wait, it is September and summer is almost through. I guess we should’ve mentioned our intentions to stray a little earlier. But we’re back now. Did you miss us? We missed you. We were around, most of the time, but the thing is, it was summer; the days were long, and we could pack so much into the daylight hours that by the time it got dark and we were finally sitting down, maybe with a glass of wine to toast the end of the day, we were too overcome with exhaustion to chronicle our modest accomplishments, or even to read our favourite blogs. It’s only now as we’ve returned from our end-of-summer vacation by the sea on Nova Scotia’s south shore, and the skies are beginning to darken before eight and the unmistakable signs of the winding down of summer mount, that we’re beginning to feel the pull back to the blog and the occasional log of our little pursuits.

The challenge in summer is whether to just do the thing or to take the time to document the doing. The doing won out. But some of the things we’ve done really merit a mention, so the next few blog entries will offer some backward glances into our summer adventures at home and away.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bathroom Trim

Some shots of our bathroom trim (colour is a little warmer than the real thing)

N here, S figures it's about time I put down my tools and stop tirelessly slaving on the 'ol house to write a blog entry and to put an end to all those rumors that I'm just a figment of S's imagination (although this could just be a clever change of voice). The bathroom has been progressing (albeit slowly). Over the last few weekends I have reconstructed the doublehung windows and installed the window sills and trim. S had already stripped and repainted the sashes. Reassembling the old windows was pretty straightforward, the terminology I am going to use may not be, but if you are interested check out The Window Glossary from the WDMA. After reinstalling the original (now refinished) sill, the the upper (outer) sashes needed to go back in. But in order to get the parting strips installed the sashes needed to be installed at the bottom of the window and then raised into place. Unfortunately after the parting strips were installed the sashes wouldn't budge, so the strips had to come back out (they were a snug fit so I had already tapped them in with a hammer -- removing them without breaking them was not easy). Getting the sashes to move freely required lots more old paint to be removed from the blind stop and the addition of Gamblin cold wax painting medium (basically beeswax petroleum distillate) courtesy of S's studio. With the parting strips and the upper sashes in place, the strips needed to be painted. S and I took turns, it was tedious: First the lower part of the strips were primed, then we had to wait for primer to dry, lower the sashes, prime the top, wait, raise, now paint, wait, lower, paint, wait...second coat... All for 4 little strips of wood. When the paint was fully dry, I finished assembling the windows. The lower sashes were put into place and then the interior stops reinstalled and secured with finishing nails (in my case I used 1 1/4" brad nails from a pnuematic brad nailer). The newly reassembled windows work great (probably as well as they did in 1890 -- I think removing 100 years of paint is mostly responsible for the like new operation). Finally the original trim was reinstalled with finishing nails and here is the result:

The newly restored, refinished, and reassembled original window

On the south wall of the bathroom we had a brand new double hung window installed (*cough* over a year and half ago). Trimming this window has been a bit of a challenge. First there were the jamb extensions. New windows aren't designed to be installed in 12 inch thick double brick walls. So S's Dad and I fabricated new jamb extensions using 5/4 clear pine. The new window was already made of pine, so it didn't make sense to try to use fancier hardwood like the original windows. The next challenge was the sill. Luckily one of my neighbours is a woodworker and had a piece of red elm which he milled into a new sill. The edge profile was difficult to match, the closest matching router bit we found at Lee Valley tools.

With the sill pre-cut to specification, assembling and installing the trim for the new window was pretty-straightforward. One piece of trim wouldn't sit flat against the wall so I used a power planer to gouge out the center of the trim piece before nailing it in place.

The new window (detail)

The refurbished window showing accurate daylight colour and the original trim profile for comparison with above

The final problem: filling the nail holes. I bought a number of coloured wax pencils from MinWax., none of which matched closely but strangely enough the No 1., which I though was way too yellow, seemed to disappear.

Our next trim dilemma will be the door. The inside of the door will need to be stripped and refinished to match the trim, but the other side should match the rooms beyond. So should we keep all the rooms outside dark, or strip and stain to match the bathroom. The strip and stain with white stain method we have employed is a nice compromise between the typical male, "don't paint the trim, keep the natural wood" and the female, "paint the trim and brighten the house".

Daytime shot of the trimmed out bathroom window

Friday, June 20, 2008

Garlic Scapes in the Landscape

Our harvest of garlic scapes

Last year we started to despair that all of the garlic in our local grocery stores was imported from overseas, which seems outrageous since garlic grows so beautifully here in southern Ontario. So during the months of August, September, and October we bought dozens of garlic bulbs from the local farmers' market and directly from some farms we visited. We ate most of our local garlic stash, but kept a dozen or so bulbs, to separate and plant in our own garden. We don’t have an assigned vegetable garden yet, so I planted both hard and soft neck varieties anywhere I could shoehorn them in around our other plants. This year our young garlic is thriving and blocking out some other plants, notably our new yellow roses bushes (which are extra small after being eaten down to the ground by rabbits). Garlic is not quite as inconspicuous in the landscape as I’d thought it might be. Next year I will designate a garlic growing area.

Bling scape

Today we harvested the first fruits of our garlic crop: the scapes. A garlic scape is the flower stalk of the garlic plant. As the flower stalk grows, its stem coils, making it very easy to distinguish from the rest of the plant. A farmer we’d spoken to said that removing the scape encourages a bigger bulb below ground. This necessary harvest is a delicious early harbinger of the garlic crop to come. We’d noticed the appearance of the developing flower stalks a couple of weeks ago, and today they seemed at the perfect degree of curliness to be harvested. As I snipped the pale green stems, I discovered that the cut scapes can be conveniently worn as bracelets--allowing me to keep both hands free. The smell of the freshly cut garlic scapes is delicious, like garlic, only milder, and with an underlying bright fresh green scent. The scapes I’ve bought from farmer’s markets before have been fairly tough, but these freshly harvested ones are crisp, tender, and easily bitten.

Today for lunch, we had garlic scape pesto over linguine, a recipe which a quick Internet search reveals in many variations. Essentially, garlic scape pesto is one in which the scapes take on the dual role of the traditional basil and garlic.

Garlic Scape Pesto

Our Garlic Scape Pesto recipe included:

  • Garlic Scapes (about 40 with the tougher flower end removed)
  • Olive oil (several tablespoons)
  • Parmagiano reggiano (a generous grating—maybe ½ cup)
  • Pine nuts (about a ½ cup)
  • Salt to taste (less than a teaspoon)
  • Lemon juice (of half a lemon)

I made the pesto, not in the food processor, which I was too lazy to haul out of the cupboard, but in our new two-speed Osterizer blender (which we bought to replace the Kitchen Aid after I broke the blender jug. We kept the base of the Kitchen Aid and will replace the glass part if we come across one, but we are delighted with the handsome new Osterizer so far).

Our perfect, pungent lunch

The pesto was beautiful: bright pale green, and very, very pungent. The pesto had a fresh green taste with a strong undertone of garlic and quite a bit of heat after a few bites. The garlic taste is not nearly as intense as raw garlic, but unless you are a true garlic lover, this pesto won’t delight you. We we’re delighted. This pesto was wonderful on pasta, but tonight we might try it on a wild salmon fillet, which we plan to barbecue if the rain stays away. The garlic scape harvest will definitely be an anticipated yearly event for us (provided we remember to plant our garlic in the fall).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Our First Tag

We’ve been named for a game of question tag by Ramblings of a Renovating Couple. We’re flattered. Since we’re two, our answers may part ways.

1. What did you do 10 years ago?

This one I can answer for both of us. We were looking for our first house. The one we ended up buying was only three doors away and around the corner from the one where we rented a main floor flat, but we resisted looking at it at first. We were through with grad school and had been recently married and were starting to form an attachment to our leafy downtown neighbourhood and the easy walk to the library, art gallery, and local farmer’s market, not to mention a 5 minute commute to N’s office, and lunch times spent together. I was giving up my warehouse studio lease and preparing to move my small business home. We had no idea what we were getting into, but it was a time of big dreams and optimism.

2. Five items on your to-do list today:

S. This one makes me smile. I am a compulsive list maker, but seldom refer back to my lists once made. Every item on my list usually requires 10 or so prior steps before it can be accomplished.

So, looking at my most recent (non work-related) list, I read

  • Prune the boxwood hedge
  • Write letters to...(I like to think of myself as someone who writes timely notes, but although I compose them in my mind while working on other things, I seldom actually write)
  • Test the new paint colours on the house (which means first scraping, washing, priming, and possibly stripping/re-puttying the windows)
  • Roast a chicken on the barbecue
  • Begin laying/digging out the future parterre vegetable garden

N. I don’t make lists. My next todo is: Tear out the old plaster, flatten, and drywall the ceiling in the kitchen, without making any mess or disrupting its day-to-day use. (counts as > 5 items)

3. Snacks you enjoy:

S. This is so contingent on time and place. Is wine a snack? If so wine, wine and cheese. Wine, (artisanal) cheese, and dark chocolate…and, local fruit in season, but not necessarily together. I’m not really a big snacker, but I love to eat. I am a gourmand (somewhere in between the competing meanings of glutton and epicure).

N. Chocolate (preferably dark). Bananas. Any sort of baked good, bars, squares, cookies, cakes.

4. What would you do if you were a billionaire?

S. Oh you know, the usual—become a wonderful benefactor to friends and family, set up some kind of trust/bursary to allow creative people to take a year away from their workaday lives to wholeheartedly pursue a creative endeavour (this, inspired by a story from author Camilla Gibb whose career as a writer was enabled by a no-strings donation which allowed her six months of uninterrupted writing), collect art, buy a tract of farmland and a woodlot to be sustainably farmed and managed in perpetuity (or as long as climate change allows), indulge all of my current whims, but moreso: travel, dining, wine collecting, cooking, hiking in gorgeous places, gardening, reading, painting. Too bad money can’t buy more time in a day. Finally, I would have a house designed and built by a like-minded architect and be done with home renovations forever.

N. Build a carbon-neutral, zero-footprint, eco-friendly, computer-automated, fully-self sustaining, solar/wind powered compound/island to weather the coming apocalypse. S. says she probably wouldn’t want to live here.

5. Places you would live:

S. Of the places I have visited and could truly envision my life, I’d choose mostly cities: Toronto (which I still regard as my own), San Francisco (if I weren’t so attached to Canada), some parts of Montreal, or Halifax; if I were truly bilingual (and wealthy), Paris; if I needed a rural refuge, then the unfathomably beautiful south shore of the Saint Lawrence between Quebec City and Riviere du Loup, or the equally beautiful south shore of Nova Scotia, or someplace in southern France. I’d also love to live near a large body of water. But so much about where we live is circumstantial and, as others have mentioned, family keeps me from thinking of life too far afield. (I think if this question had come in January, my answers might have been different. I crave a longer spring, shorter winter, and more sun all the time.)

N. ditto (until the compound is completed)

6. Who will be next?

The blog authors I would like to tag are not necessarily readers of our blog, so I hope I won't make a tag etiquette error by notifying them by email of my choice to tag them. Also, I notice that many blogs have participated in other games of question tag and I don’t want to fatigue anyone. The blogs are Toronto Gardens, Ellis Hollow, 247Reno, The Krakow Files, and Are You Gonna Eat That?

We’d like to add bonus question of our own for anyone who’d care to answer: Why do you write a blog?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Farewell to a Beloved Aunt

It’s been difficult to know how to approach this resumption of our blog. If we use this semi-public forum to acknowledge the death of a family pet, how can we fail to mention the untimely death of an adored family member? N and I have made two trips to Ottawa in the past month, one, gratefully, for a final visit with his truly beloved aunt, and the next, heartbreakingly, to attend her wake and celebrate her life with her children, daughter and son in law, grandchildren, friends, devoted students, and extended family. She leaves a gaping hole in so many lives, but especially in those of her tightly knit family. She taught us some excellent lessons, by example, about how to live life well, to the fullest, and on one’s own terms. We will miss her so much.