Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Time For A Break

Ugh. That little extension reeked of cat pee and had a concrete floor with cat scratches all over it

I'm full of blog thoughts at the minute but seem to have no time to write them all down. Situation normal, really. Life is just so hectic and to be honest, it's really wearing. Before I met Matt I had a much more sedate life. I lived on my own so there was only myself and Jessie to worry about and look after. I had a small house, so I cleaned it once a week and it took about an hour and a half. I had a busy job but it suited me - I worked mostly from home and I enjoyed the solitude. Friday nights were for takeaways and movies with my best friend, who conveniently lived only a couple of doors away from me (I say convenient but it was a definite factor in my buying that house, to be fair!) Weekends were spent pottering, taking long walks with Jessie, the occasional night out and a trip into town to visit my family. Life was simple. There was never anything pressing on my time. I never had to feel guilty for doing something because I 'ought' to be doing something else. I never had to account to anyone for where I was or what I had/hadn't done that day.

Then I met Matt and entered his whirlwind. He was busy. Really busy. All the time. He had his own business and only a very few staff, so he spent nearly all his time working to keep up with his vast workload. He'd just bought his business premises and was expanding and improving the building. He had a house and lodgers and he'd just bought another house, a renovation project, which he spent every weekend working on. Every time he texted me in those early days it was gone 10pm and I was already asleep in bed as he was finishing off his day's work. It was a novelty at first, I'd never met anyone so driven and ambitious. He'd already done so much with his life and had such big plans for the future. I'd been pretty pleased with my life - I'd bought my own house at the age of 25, I had a good, secure job which I enjoyed and a happy little life with no need for anyone else to join me in it.

I embraced the change though, Matt moved in with me pretty much immediately after our first date. He loved spending time at my house, stepping into my life after the havoc of his. He said it was like a relaxing little haven. But it didn't stay that way for long. After a couple of false starts we decided, a month or so in, that we wanted to build a life together and as his house was bigger than mine then that would be the place to do it. We kicked out his lodgers and started to renovate his cottage for us to live in together. A full rewire. A new kitchen. New reclaimed doors, doorways moved, walls repainted throughout, new carpets. Six months of hard work, 2am finishes (something VERY new to me!) and we moved into our new house. 

Late night work on the doorway into the cottage extension. If the new owners ever take it down, my name's still there!

But the work didn't stop there. The business premises were still being done, we decided to add an extension to our house and the other house rumbled away in the background, with planning permission being refused again and again. There were appeals to be written, parish council meetings to be attended, plans to be altered and resubmitted. A roof and a second floor to be taken down.

'ok, imagine I'm a wall...'

As planning permission was finally agreed and the work got underway on the other house, we realised that we were going to end up living there. Matt was spending so much time and money on it and enjoying building it - it had become a hobby rather than a project. It was becoming much too 'high end' a build to sell and make serious money on and Matt was putting too many personal touches into it. I wasn't keen on the idea at first - I'd fallen head over heels in love with our cottage - but as the other house began to take shape and we spent late nights sitting at the table together, drawing plans and drinking Jack Daniels and coke, I started to get excited. We could make this the house of our dreams. 

'let's have a fireplace in the kitchen. I'll build it EXACTLY like the one at the cottage'

Painting our new windows at home before they were fitted at the new house. Much easier, I highly recommend it.

Starting the garage ...
Finishing the garage. Before the house. You can imagine my delight.

I'd been clear with Matt right from the off - I wasn't a 'children' sort of person. I wouldn't want children. I had a career that meant a lot to me, that I'd worked hard to attain. I wasn't prepared to make the sacrifices that children required - my time, my body, my financial independence. Matt was fine with that, he wasn't that type either. But as he was building the house he started to realise that what he was building was a family home. It was big. Too big for two people, really. He rang me one day and told me that he kept imagining children running down the stairs. Our children. Luckily I had started to feel the same way - I still didn't really like the idea of having a baby but I knew I wanted older children in our future. I'd just had a bit of a scare, it had looked like I was heading for an early menopause and that would equal no children for us. I'd started to feel a sense of loss, a sense that the choice of whether or not to have children was being taken away from me. I would see women with babies and get a bit tearful. 'If we get through this', Matt had said, 'we ought to start a family straight away'. We did get through it and still we dawdled. 'Maybe when the house is done', we said. 'We haven't got time just now', we said. When the realisation dawned that the house was going to take years and we would never have the time, we decided to start trying anyway. It probably wouldn't happen for ages, we were both already in our thirties and time was ticking away.

Oh. Shit.

And then I fell pregnant. Immediately. It was scary and wonderful all at the same time. The first thing Matt said when I handed him the positive pregnancy test (well almost the first thing) was 'Right. I'd better get that house finished'.

You want scaffolding? We got it.

Utility room being built

Three weeks later 

You can't see but he was balancing four cups of tea on a tray on that little dumper. It was 7am, I was in bed.

It was a lonely pregnancy. A miserable pregnancy, truth be told. I was ill and in pain and under pressure. At work I was single handedly manning a department which should have had 4-6 staff in it. At home I was single handedly running our home and trying to do as much work as I could contribute on the new house. There were more late nights. Whole weeks where I saw Matt for a total of a couple of hours as he gulped down his dinner and went straight back to work at the house. Nights where I'd wake at midnight and find myself alone, Matt on the roof in the rain at the other house, trying desperately to get it watertight. There was the time he cut through the power cables with the mini digger and took out the power of the whole of our new street. The time I was at a meeting in Bournemouth and received a call to tell me that the whole back wall of the house had fallen down because a contractor hadn't propped it properly. The time, a week before we had to be out of the cottage when I ended up rushing Matt to A&E in the wee small hours with a kidney stone, and had to take over the build and all the deliveries myself.

This is how Matt looked when I did see him.

We finally moved in, less than a month before my due date. I'd managed to let our cottage, with all the paperwork that entailed, pack up our home, co ordinate the landlord checks and roped in all my family to help make it happen. You'd think it would stop there, but no. Plumbers, builders, electricians, joiners were all in and out of the house all day, every day. I had to be up, dressed and have the kettle on by 7.30am to keep everyone happy, traipse into town to buy plumbing supplies and paint, when all I wanted to do was curl up with a boxset and enjoy my last couple of weeks without a newborn. We had no bath. No heating. It was October. 

20th September 2013

20th October 2013 - 4 days before my due date!

Then Forrest arrived and, predictably, the madness continued. Matt took a week off work then his life carried on as normal - work, work, work - while I coped with a newborn, tried desperately to establish breastfeeding, dealt with the soul-destroying tiredness that babies inevitably bring and still continued my role as cleaner, cook, fetcher, carrier and deputy project manager. What I needed to do was to stay in my pyjamas, take to my bed, have hours of skin to skin contact with my baby and sort out breastfeeding properly. But that was out of the question. I didn't have time. I had to support Matt while he carried on working his ridiculous hours and spent whole weekends building. There was always someone here working who would need to be kept fed and watered too.

I wish he would lie still in bed with me these days!

Life since then has been much the same. I gave up my career to spend as much time as I could with Forrest and although I miss it sometimes, I don't regret it. Matt has bought more business premises, which he is renovating at the minute along with his usual workload. The house project has continued in the same vein and, to be honest, it has sapped the life out of me. I hardly care about it anymore. It's just a great big, never-ending burden. I hate it when people ask me about it because I have nothing positive to say about it at all. Yes it's still ongoing, yes it's coming along slowly, yes it will be worth it in the end. Yes, I wish we'd never started it. No, we will never do another.

We've had one holiday in the last six years - we escaped to Goa in 2010. It was wonderful, magical, and it was the only time I've seen Matt truly relax. Switch off his phone, forget about work and be carefree for a while. 

Aah. Look how young we were!

We stayed in a beautiful villa on a complex owned by one of Matt's friends and he showed us around, took us to amazing restaurants and shared his love of the place with us. We had the complex to ourselves - we swam, drank, ate, all in glorious solitude. 

At a Goa beach club. I got taken out by a wave, had a nosebleed and flashed everyone. It was great day!

We had a maid to tidy up after us, a driver if we wanted to go anywhere. He took Matt fishing one morning, organised motorbike hire for us and told us where the best beaches were, where to get the best cocktails and which places to avoid. 

He lived in a small house with his wife and children, his brother, sister in law and their children and his wife and sister in law's parents. His life was a world away from ours - he was shocked and a little embarrassed that we lived together alone and weren't married. The difference between Goa and home made it a surreal experience but in a way it was all the more relaxing because it really was a true break from the norm.

Five years is a long time to go without a break when you work as hard as we have and we are more than ready for another. This weekend we will be flying to France to take Forrest on his first holiday and I am so excited! We've found a beautiful house and I'm really hoping that this holiday will be like a second Goa for us. Matt isn't even taking his phone with him.

photo from Vintage Travel

I'll be away for a week and have lots of posts planned for my return. I'll just need to find the time to write them. Back to normal, then. But next week I won't be thinking about anything at all except sunbathing, swimming with Forrest and where my next croissant is coming from. 

And it's about bloomin' time.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Living With An Aga Part 1 - How does it work?

Last week I asked on Twitter if anyone would be interested in a post on Aga cooking and there were a few tentative cries of 'yes please'. I need little encouragement to wax lyrical about one of my favourite subjects so here is the first in a two part series about living with an Aga.

I remember when we started planning the kitchen at the 'new house' (though it's obviously not new now) and we first looked at Agas. I knew little about them, other than that they featured heavily in horsey books from my childhood and later in life, my Jilly Cooper favourites, and they seemed to be used to impart a feeling of warmth, solidity and cosiness. This appealed to me A LOT, as you can imagine.

I started to do my research and was immediately captivated. Aga cooking is a completely new way of cooking, I read, an Aga makes a house a home, once you've had one, you'll never want to be without one. I also found lots of videos like the one below which romanticised the notion somewhat further and before I knew it, owning an Aga became my new obsession.

I have to say that I've been through periods of being completely and utterly in love with my Aga (winter mornings, winter evenings, Christmas catering etc) and times when I'm a little less enamoured (when we get an energy bill, hot summer days) but on the whole I am definitely a convert. It still feels like a treat to own such a classic, unique addition to the kitchen even 18 months down the line. I never tire of the all-encompassing warmth that envelops me when I open the kitchen door and I just love its silent, ever-present comfort, not to mention the gravitational pull that attracts my bottom every time I have a cup in my hand. I feel like I'm letting it down by not having the cupboards on either side oiled, the granite worktops not fitted, the back not tiled and no beautiful surround in situ. All in good time, my beauty!

Let's not beat about the bush - they're not cheap. To buy or to run. They're not fantastically friendly to the environment either. So they do come with an element of financial burden and guilt attached, I'm afraid. That said, they are made from 70% recycled cast iron and an Aga is 90% recyclable so, you know, there's that.

I plumped for a 4 oven electric Aga in Pewter - choosing the colour was one of the hardest decisions, I must admit, just look at the range available! Pewter is gorgeous and classy but given my choice again, I'd be seriously drawn to the duck egg blue, despite the fact that it wouldn't match anything in my kitchen. I'm told by Aga engineers that cream and black are the most common but it's a statement piece after all, why not be bold?

How does it work?

The traditional Aga is on ALL of the time. Newer models are programmable to be on and off when you want them and are even controlled by an iPhone app. Older models can be run on oil, gas or solid fuel, though I believe these are tear-inducingly expensive to run, as well as needing to be switched off and serviced twice a year (perish the thought)

There are no knobs or dials to adjust the temperature, just a single thermostat which you set up and forget about. There is a temperature gauge above the Roasting Oven with three ranges - the mid range means that you are able to cook and when the mercury sits on the black line, you are at optimum temperature. You can cook within the range, above or below, but expect it to take more or less time than it should.

The Aga is essentially a huge lump of cast iron. This is why they arrive in pieces and are assembled in your kitchen by Aga engineers - they are impossible to move. Cast iron holds heat incredibly well and, therefore, the Aga cooks with radiant, indirect heat. Electric ovens have an element on either side and perhaps a fan at the back, gas ovens have a single row of flames at the back. But the Aga radiates heat from the cast iron sides, top, bottom and back of each oven, so the heat comes from every direction. The cast iron also means that it takes a long time to heat up and a long time to cool down, which is worth bearing in mind. Hot air rises, so each oven is hotter at the top than the bottom and also slightly hotter on the side which is nearest the heat source (bang in the middle)

Apologies for the terrible picture, it was the best I could do with a huge kitchen island in the way!

All Agas have two hotplates -

The Boiling Plate
The hottest domestic heat source known to humankind - quite simply, it boils. Very quickly. This is where you boil your kettle, make toast, sear steaks etc.

The Simmering Plate
About half the temperature of the Boiling Plate - it simmers. If you put something on here cold, it will cook gently, so it's perfect for making sauces, scrambled eggs etc. If you start something off on the Boiling Plate and transfer it to the Simmering Plate, it will continue to boil (albeit less rapidly) You can also make toasted sandwiches by placing the sandwich directly onto the plate, on top of a piece of specially shaped Bake-O-Glide (more on which in Part 2) and fat free fried eggs the same way. Welsh cakes, American style pancakes and popcorn are also cooked here.

The Warming Plate
On the far left is this useful area, a flat, hot surface which is used for keeping food and dishes warm, amongst other things (more on which later)

There are four ovens, which from the outside look rather small but are actually cavernous within - capable of holding a 28lb turkey in fact. These are;

The Roasting Oven (all Aga models)
The hottest oven, this runs at roughly 240-260 degrees. As you might have guessed, this is where you roast. You can also cook pizzas in here (on the oven floor if crispy bases are your thing) and ready meals (on the bottom set of runners) which is handy to know when you are 8 months pregnant and have just started, rather nervously, using your first Aga. Agas don't have a grill, so the top (ceiling) of the roasting oven is your grill, the floor can be used for frying

The Baking Oven (3 or 4 oven models)
Roughly three-quarters of the temperature of the Roasting Oven. Hotter at the top (so bake biscuits and sponges here) and slightly cooler lower down

The Roasting and Baking Ovens have runners down each side that you hang either your grid shelf on or your Aga roasting/baking trays. I need to sweep this oven out, clearly

The Simmering Oven (all Aga models)
My most used oven and the reason I knew an Aga was perfect for me. Basically it's an integral slow cooker, running at about 115-135 degrees. I use it for soups, stews and casseroles as well as slow roasting (starting with half an hour in the Roasting Oven and transferring) pot roasting, cooking rice and root veg and making rice puddings

The Warming Oven (4 oven models)
This oven is below boiling point, about 70-90 degrees, so it doesn't actively cook - this is why you hear stories about farmers reviving sick lambs in it! Hot food can be kept warm in here until you are ready for it (including takeaway food) and it also comes in handy for things like drying your sheepskin slippers after they've been through the wash

That's it for Part 1, I hope it was interesting. Part 2 will go into a bit more detail about the imprecise art of Aga cooking and the other uses for the Aga.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...