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?