Construction and confection

Cake making is something I know a fair amount about. Not a lot. Not in comparison with Berry or Hollywood, but I have a reasonable grasp of the subject. Enough to use it for illustrative purposes in every day life…

…well, when I say ‘every day life’, I mean life on a construction site. Specifically, the small patch of French land a group of dysfunctional wannabe builders like to refer to as Chateau Duffy.

I’ve made the analogy before, but I think only in retrospect. On this trip, it genuinely became the logical way for me to pass on the knowledge I’d been given regarding cement mixing in a cement mixer.

The beauty of cake making is that it’s a shared knowledge. Most people understand the principles of icing, mixing in dry ingredients, ensuring everything is combined etc – thanking you GBBO. Will, a professional builder, taught me everything I needed to know about cement mixing (which I handily filmed on my phone for future reference – do shout if you have pointing needs), but it was then up to me to ensure that anyone the task was delegated to knew the ropes too. And this was where the universal language of cake making proved its worth…

For a start, there’s not a lot of difference between a cement mixer and a Kenwood. Well, aside from the 63.5 litre difference in mix capacity. And the fact that one requires you to shovel the ingredients into it, while the other needs only a delicate spoon or a shaking of packet. Plus the important issue of cement mix not being edible (it really, really isn’t – trust me). Also, unless you have an allergy to icing sugar, I don’t think you’d need to wear a face mask to prevent the inhalation of dangerous components. But there are similarities, trust me!

Mixing

You need to regularly pause the machine in order to scrape the dry ingredients away from the sides of the bowl and into the wet mix. As is the case with icing, it’s important to not add too much water. Doing it gradually, in between the addition of bucketfuls of sand, helps ensure that the mixture isn’t overly wet. As in the world of baking, working with overly wet cement is a flipping nightmare – won’t stay where it’s meant to, runs off your implements, dribbles down the sides. Dreadful calamity. You also have to make sure the bowl’s at the right angle so that the batter/cement doesn’t splatter the kitchen or your face. Like this: 

Splattered FaceAs with kitchen mixers, it can be tricky to clean a cement mixer. Ever tried to remove firmly set royal icing from the blades of a mixer? Dried cement is very similar in consistency and adherence. The difference? I’m pretty sure Mary Berry would throttle me if I attempted to clean a Kenwood using large rocks. (Although, it is an interesting principle – that the action of the rocks hitting the bowl, with some water added, helps to break down the dried on stuff. I am wondering what could be used in a domestic context…) Oh, and as with washing up a mixer, beware splatters – again!

Splattered. Again. The front of my t-shirt reads ‘time to play dirt or tan’ – it’s my 2014 Chateau Duffy themed shirt – and was a very apt choice for that day! 

However, do you know where baking analogies fall down? When you’re trying to educate teenage boys in the ways of cement mixing.

Men MixingAs observed from atop of a scaffold. 

And the point of all this cement? Pointing. Obviously.

We did good. In fact, we did very good. What had taken our builder friend Will a couple of weeks to do on a similar project took us about three days. It helps when you have an enthusiastic team! We’ve done some pointing before on previous trips, but some of it wasn’t quite up to scratch and had to be gone over; other parts hadn’t been touched at all. By the day we left, the whole of the front of the house is now re-pointed (the less said about the back, the better) and honestly, it looks like somewhere you might actually want to live!

Before:

Chateau Duffy 2007Very much ‘before’. This was 4 years before our first trip.

After:

Re-pointed, 2014Doesn’t it look lovely? (Just imagine that dismantled scaffold rig isn’t there. And that the window was back to being a window. And you didn’t need to wear a hard hat indoors…)

It should also be mentioned that a second mezzanine level has (partly) been constructed inside the house and the level that was built last year now has permanent support. Plus, the bathrooms have started to take shape, which is a massive deal. All of a sudden there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel!

Departing Chateau Duffy, 2014Departing Chateau Duffy. [NB: that un-pointed bit at the top of the house is deliberate – there’s going to be a window there too.] 

Progress at Chateau Duffy

The blogging silence of late was the result of trip number 5 to the fabulous Chateau Duffy – the building site on which I’ve learned many surprising skills – not least my love of and ability to build scaffolding. I have returned with my 2014 tan kicked off, a whole host of bruises and a renewed appreciation of French cuisine.

I’m simultaneously blogging about the trip here and on the Matryoshka Haus blog, so I may do some duplicate entries. But, for those of you who are mystified as to why I’d spend five weeks (so far) of my life renovating a French house, here’s a brief explanation and a demonstration of our progress so far.

Chateau Duffy belongs to Chris Duffy (of Duffy London furniture – check out his amazing swing table) – can you see how the name came about?? We’re a creative bunch! At one point he was thinking of selling the property because things hadn’t worked out, but having shared its story with the legendary Shannon ‘vortex’ Hopkins, she concocted a plan to renovate it through community. Cue builders and an architect from Texas getting involved and various Londoners lured to France with a promise of great food and endless wine. I naively said yes, with very little clue as to what I’d got myself into – my family wondered what on earth I could offer to a building project!

Turns out I bring a lot to the table. Strength, fearless (well, semi-fearless) scaling of scaffolding rigs, a willingness to get stuck into most things, a persistence in demonstrating that women *do* have a place on the building… I love scaffolding. I love that it terrifies me at moments. I love that I can see the result of my work. I love that, this year, we had a whole rig built solely by women. I love that at the end of the day, my body aches – but that at the end of the week, I can see the massive impact this group of people has had upon the site.

Now that we’ve completed trip number 5, there’s a huge amount of progress to reflect upon – especially when you compare it with where we started. Chateau Duffy has come a long way since our first venture in August 2011…

Chateau Duffy 2007The Chateau before it acquired its name – the earliest photo I’ve found, from when it was on sale in 2007.

The first three trips centred around the roof of the barn (on the right). See that dip on the far right of the ridgeline? Not a good look for a roof. So, all the tiles had to come down (to be saved for later) – that was the whole of the first trip and a bit of the second. Then the ridge needed replacing, along with any beams that were rotten. That, as well as the lining of the roof, completed trip number two – as this collage demonstrated:

April 2012 - Roof DevelopmentRoof progress, April 2012.

With the roof safely refurbished, summer 2012 was all about the tiling. On a roof in direct sunlight. In August. You can imagine what the heat was like!

Developing roof, Aug 2012August 2012

The roof’s probably the most dramatic transformation. Our last two trips involved pouring concrete floors, which make a very visible difference to the earth and rocks that was inside the building, but it’s a bit harder to demonstrate with just photos. But, in creating the floor of the barn, big changes had to happen. A hay loft had to come down and the walls of the chicken coop below it had to be demolished. On this trip, the transformation of this space from grotty, smelly animal pen to beautiful new bathroom, kitchen and bedroom began.

CD Barn developmentTransformation in progress.

How good does the new mezzanine look??

Mezzanine, April 2014

I could also talk about pointing, but I won’t. It’s been a long, painful, circular process that’s continued while the roof’s been fixed, and while floors have been poured. We may now be at a point where all the old cement has been chipped away by scores of dedicated workers, and is ready to be filled by a willing local.

This trip marked a transition in the project, I think. We moved away from destroying things and are now in the world of creating. Of making Carl’s plans for the buildings come to life. As the mezzanine went up, I was reminded of the first time I met Carl, on a hot August day in 2011. I had been sweeping away dirt, cobwebs and snake skins while he talked over his plans with Duffy. True, the plans have had many incarnations since then – but as of last week, we have begun to see them in reality. It’s terribly rewarding and makes it actually seem possible that we WILL finish, one day…

Chateau Duffy, April 26thUntil next time, dear Chateau. 

Pretty (and safe) in pink.

It says a lot about life at the moment that I’m aware of exactly how long it is until my next holiday – our 5th trip to Chateau Duffy. It’s 2 months and ten days, which is a long time, especially when I think of the deadlines that have to be passed in order to get there.

However, it’s never too soon to plan and this morning’s sermon from the vicar got me thinking about something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. He used a hard-hat as a visual aid, which reminded me that I’ve been meaning to buy my own for ages, but hadn’t quite got round to it before last year’s trip.

When one is working with a tumble-down house, one does not want bits of it tumbling down upon an unprotected head, so hard-hats are essential Chateau Duffy work gear. We have many (though never quite enough) and I get particularly particular about which ones I want to wear – usually because once you’ve got one that you’ve fitted to your head (and hairstyle of the day) it’s annoying to lose it to someone else. So, what I need is my own, personalised in some way to make it clear that it’s mine – I’m thinking stickers, or a particular colour, or both…

Girls in pink hatsPretty in pink, Chateau Duffy 2011.

On our very first foray into French house building, we had temporary possession of a bright pink hard-hat that became very popular amongst certain circles. Pink may be a bit of a gender stereotyped colour, but I figure that if you’re already breaking stereotypes by building scaffolding, scaling the scaffolding and pointing walls, you’re probably ok. Thus, this evening I’ve done a brief search of such hats and have found the following attractive item:

pinkhardhat

Available from here for quite a reasonable price.

I’m genuinely intending to purchase this item – I figure that a baby pink number should be fairly safe from several members of the team. But in my searching I also discovered two things that intrigued me:

1. You can also buy novelty pink hard-hats and hi-ves jackets for hen nights. I honestly didn’t know this was a thing. I’ve been to plenty of hen days/nights/weekends with pink sashes; fairy wings; and general humiliation – but never builder themed. Weird.

2. There is a whole range of pink-themed safety equipment out there. On the page for the above hard-hat, there were a series of links to other pink objects including (but not exclusive to): hi-vis vests; safety shoes & boots; safety gloves; ear plugs; and rose-tinted safety specs. We’ve joked in the past about ‘Chateau Duffy style’ but I think if a few of the women turned up in an entirely pink ensemble, we’d get laughed off the site!

The world is a strange place sometimes. Still, I’ll place an order for a hard-hat and source some normal, dull as dishwater gloves from elsewhere. And then I can proceed to decorate them as I see fit ready for April. Who says safe needs to be boring?

St Denis des Murs

Chateau Duffy is located in the centre of a small village – St Denis des Murs – which can be found around half an hour’s drive east of Limoges. Wikipedia lists it as having a population of just over 500, meaning that when the Chateua Duffy crew descends, we increase the local population by nearly 5%. For some reason, I’d never thought to work out the origin of the village’s name – until last week.

Gare. St Denis des Murs.La Gare. It’s actually a good 20mins walk from the main village, thanks to the hills… 

Towards the end of the trip, I had a sudden epiphany. ‘Murs’ meant ‘walls’ – how had I forgotten that?! After all, one of my GCSE French oral speeches was a description of my 15 year old self’s bedroom, which obviously included: “Mes murs des affiches de Blur et Keanu Reeves sur eux.” [“My walls have posters of Blur and Keanu Reeves on them.”] Why was the village named for St Denis and some walls? Wikipedia again came to my rescue. Turns out the Gauls built a large fortification in the region, and remains of the walls are thought to be near the village. And St Denis? He’s the patron saint of Paris, was beheaded on the hill that’s now Montmartre, and walked 10km holding his head in his hands…

Once all this had been figured out, it made perfect sense and became incredibly apt. What had I spent a considerable amount of time staring at last week? Walls. One wall – on the back of the house – specifically. In fact, even more specifically, the uppermost point of that wall. It was the seemingly never-ending mission to point it. We’re still not finished in fact.

The wallMy view for a considerable length of time. Words can barely describe the ache in my arms after a day of chipping mortar out from between those bricks.

I’d like to think that St Denis and his cut-off head was watching over us, ensuring that none of us lost our heads, or any other part of our anatomy for that matter. With every trip that passes, I’m growing more accustomed to scaling the heights of the scaffold, and this trip saw me spend the best part of three days atop of a 20 foot rig. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel safe enough to dance up there (unlike my scaffold building team-mate), but I was fairly happy once I’d donned a harness and tied myself on to a metal pole.

I'm on top of the world...On top of the world, safely attached to the scaffold. Incidentally, there’s no ladder to get up there. I’ve developed a incredible (given past life experiences) knack of scampering up the scaffold poles.

I think the locals are finally coming to terms with our sporadic visits. The next door neighbour is happier with our antics. The Mayor is very glad the historic house and barn are being repaired. We’ve even discovered a couple of ex-pat Brits. It’s a good job they like us, as I’m very much looking forward to the holidays I can have there once the building’s finally, finally finished. [In case you’re wondering, we reckon it’s only another 2 trips till the barn’s habitable. Then there’s just the house…]

Floored

We went. We dug. We moved some earth. We moved some rocks. We raked earth. We dug again. We played with string. We dug. We moved more earth. We raked earth. We installed pipes. We moved earth. We raked earth. We poured in wet concrete and waited for it to dry…

Measuring More rubble Wheelbarrows of earth Digger Digging trenches Pouring cement

…and now Chateau Duffy has a floor.

Chateau Duffy crew, April 2013

There is plenty more to say, but I’ll drag it out a bit. [I had a presentation deadline today, so the mass photo editing/uploading has had to wait.] The rather massive Flickr set is now uploaded, and I’m pleased to say that it features fewer backsides than in previous years. It was an interesting week in many ways…