Tuesday, 26 August 2014

A French country kitchen – in Hackney?

Tiles from Collioure
Television occasionally teaches you genuinely useful things – even when you don’t necessarily expect it to.

The limits of aspirational telly for The Other Half and myself is Grand Designs, the programme about people who build their home, under the watchful eye of the charming Kevin McCloud.

Mind, I say “aspirational”, but it never ceases to amaze how you can build a gorgeous home for considerably less than the going rate of a ready-made, small flat in London.

Perhaps that tells us something about ... something.

But if one thing is clear from regular viewing, it’s that, unless you have the expertise, don’t project manage the job yourself.

Two years ago, we had the bathroom done while we were away.

We moved into our home, a housing association new-build block of 12 flats, 19 years ago.

Being on low incomes, we were incredibly grateful to be able to escape escalating private rent – although at this point it’s only fair to say that our landlord never ripped us off, and was incredibly understanding when we had payment problems caused by erratic payment.

Since low incomes was a specific factor that housing associations were attempting to address, we were appreciative of having fitted wardrobes, carpets, a fitted kitchen and bathroom – and even a rack for drying laundry – when we moved in.

But with time, things wear out. Two years ago, we had cracked tiles, bath taps that had almost seized up with limescale, flaking ceiling plaster, a wobbly toilet and a plastic shower curtain that was beyond the merely manky.

Initially, we considered just getting these individual problems remedied. But it didn’t take long to realise that, given that the bath would have to be removed in order to replace the taps, we might as well get a new one.

From there, it was but a small leap to replacing the entire bathroom.

I had an ISA that, given interest rates, was doing nothing, so we funded it that way and spent a month or so pottering around – online and on foot – coming up with ideas and then sourcing and buying stuff.

Fortunately, thanks to a recommendation, we have a gem of a local tradesman who can do work for us.

Ian, a dour – on the surface of it – Scot, is a godsend, who we can trust with the flat and who, as an added bonus, loves cats, or “The Young Ones”, as he refers to our feline trio.

Indeed, a few months ago, he volunteered to come and feed them when we were away, even when he had no work to do.

We got through the bathroom business, but after that, we looked around and saw very clearly that other work needed doing too.

The kitchen, for instance, is slowly falling apart. Ian has done remedial work to keep cupboard doors in place, but it’s not just the doors – and drawer fronts – that are splitting apart and warping; the actual frames are too, with dowels visible in an increasing number of places.

At the same time, the fridge is doing a slow dance of death.

We knew all this last year and started planning 12 months ago, having a box of lovely features tiles shipped over to us from Collioure. They will form the splashback above the new cooker.

That cooker will be the indulgence. I have plumped for an all-electric (we have no gas feed) Rangemaster – and I am already relishing the idea of what a double oven, separate grill and fifth (ceramic) hob will allow me to do.

No more Einsteinian calculations for roast dinners; no more inability to do oven-roasted, crushed potatoes (with home-grown sage) together with something that’s grilled; no more having to wait to put a pudding in, in the cold, dark days of winter, until after the main course has finished cooking.

The boons, even for a household of two, will be enormous.

Being rather old-fashioned, we opened an extra savings account last year to fund it, along with removing yet another ISA that was mired in interest-rate slumber.

But even with finance sensibly in place, it didn’t take long before we realised that a repeat of the process for the bathroom was simply not possible.

It’s one thing to pick a bathroom suite and some tiles; it’s another entirely to sort out units for a kitchen, with all the measuring and so on that that entails. So we asked Ian to project manage.

He, knowing outlets other than B&Q, Homebase and Wickes, has measured, taken our list of ‘this is the sort of thing we’d like’, and come up with solutions that we now realise will revolutionise the kitchen.

And stereotypes exist for a reason. Ian hates to see clients spending any more than they need, and has sourced a number of things in a way that is cheaper than our own original ideas.

CGI of the new kitchen
The big issue was always going to be storage – and our current cupboards are a nightmare. Being a short arse hardly helps, but cleaning out what’s there has been decidedly difficult, even with a step ladder, simply because stuff gets stuck at the back or, worse, in impossible-to-reach corners.

As an example, I found three bottles of soy sauce on Saturday, when I expected only one.

And in one of the aforementioned corners was an ancient, opened box of cat biscuits, and a tin from prehistoric times containing the remains of a packet of cream crackers.

It is, then, the perfect opportunity for a major clear out. Given all those corners and high shelves, I had no idea just how many jars for preserving and stock I had – but it was enough to save some and still fill three bags for recycling.

We have timed this for when we’re away. There is no practical way you could have a kitchen – or a bathroom – done while you were in residence.

The contents of the freezer are gradually being used up – a pack of lamb kidneys on Sunday, my final jar of homemade chicken stock the day after, the blackcurrant sorbet on an indulgently regular basis.

To be honest, I didn’t realise just how much storage space we have got, but this will transform how we use it. At the moment, my small collection of best crockery is bubble-wrapped between uses, and sits on the top of a bookshelf in the bedroom: no cupboard can accommodate it.

Just working through this means we’re going to substantially rethink where and how we store what, to utilise spaces that are less easily accessible for things we don't need often.

Of course on a less practical side, there is pleasure in considering the look.

A few years ago, there was an advert for one of the big chains where they asked you to go in for a consultation, taking one item from your kitchen that most represented you. I’ve often wondered what I’d have taken – and often concluded that it might be an olive oil drizzler.

It probably wouldn’t have been possible to take the shelf/dresser unit that we bought some years ago on Tottenham Court Road, which turned out to be French, and is a lovely piece of proper, wooden furniture and now holds, as well as many cookery books, pretty pots from Collioure and a traditional, semi-glazed earthenware cassoulet pot from Carcassonne.

As I mentioned earlier, we have feature tiles from Collioure – together with matching cupboard and drawer knobs – so there was already a bit of a theme.

The unit fronts will be off-white, with a subtle look of planking. The awkwardness of the corner will be tackled by, above, double doors opening from the centre and, below, a carousel that will rotate out.

There will be a tall, narrow cupboard that will hold mops and brushes, and even a small, built-in wine rack.

The rest of the wall tiling will be an light ‘stone’ look, while there are quite pale terracotta tiles for the floor.

Paint colours I selected at the weekend: magnolia for the walls, white for the ceiling and an olive for the window sills and skirting, to give some depth. The cooker and hood will be cream, so a hint of solid colour should look good – and besides, olive green continues the developing theme.

The work surface – currently something mottled, grey and artificial, which somehow stains and is almost impossible to clean or dry properly – will instead be oak.

And then there’s the small matter of the sink.

I can’t say I ever expected to find myself spending hours thinking about sinks – let alone taps – but when the first computer-generated images were placed in front of us by Ian, with a bog standard, stainless steel sink and drainer combined, it started me mulling.

And after I lost four days of my life last month to exploring the vexed question of how to produced a pre-paid envelope for a reader survey, sinks and taps proved to be a pleasure.

The current draining board is a pain, since it doesn’t do the absolutely essential job of draining. So instead of repeating this, we’re plumping for a Belfast sink with slightly retro taps – both of which, thanks to Ian’s canny eye, will be cheaper than we had initially thought possible.

It won’t just look good, though: given the amount of slow cooking I do, it’ll be a great deal easier to soak and wash my big pots, without having to twist them to even get them in the sink at all.

It will also, though, be entirely in keeping with a room that, it is becoming increasingly clear, is about to become little other than a French country kitchen in the heart of Hackney.

What a thing that should be to welcome us home in late September.

I shall hang strings of garlic and Roscoff onions from the dresser once more and dive into an autumn of daubes and cassoulets and gardianes.

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