Copyright © Louise Bostock 2007-2013. Please give credit where credit is due.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Ecco Mathilda!

Today Mathilda is burning!

Now before you get any strange ideas about autumn burnings of Catholic effigies in thinly-veiled pagan rituals, let me explain that Mathilda is a wood-fired oven. The nearest thing to central heating we have. Having said that, the first time we light Mathilda each year does perhaps amount to something of a pagan ritual, ushering in the colder months with much careful preparation of cut firewood and kindling, much organisation of firelighters and matches out of reach of little hands. Much oohing and aahing over the creeping warmth.


When we first came to Carmine Superiore, the house was in fact two houses. It had been owned by two sides of the same family, the last inhabitants being Luigi Zaccheo and Ezio Geninazzi. There were two kitchens, and we decided to turn Ezio’s kitchen into a sitting room and Luigi’s kitchen was to remain in use as our kitchen.

The only heating equipment in the place (apart from two open hearths) was an ancient 1930s-brown Zoppas wood-fired stove. It stood in one corner of Luigi’s kitchen, and its exhaust pipe crossed the entire room lengthwise before being stuffed into a hole hacked into the front of the otherwise stately chimney breast. It smoked from all its joints, gave little heat and ate up all the oxygen in the room.

Evidently, something had to change.

Summers at the Lake are mostly hot, and the house acts like an old church, chilling the warm air as it passes the three-foot stone walls, making life, especially in torrid July, bearable. But winters can be unhappy. While they say that Lake Maggiore and its immediate environs can be thought of as the northernmost tip of Africa, and while all around one sees various species of palm and cactus thriving among the firs and the chestnuts, winter in a stone house without heating really isn’t a laughing matter. When we first stayed in Carmine in winter (not in this house, but renting a neighbour’s), the water in the lavatory froze. Our first winter in our own house, a shirt of mine famously froze five minutes after hanging it to dry in the makeshift shower we’d rigged in the lean-to lavatory. I had showered there only 10 minutes before.

Our first decision was, for the time being, not to heat the bedrooms. We were supplied with four bed-flasks – flat oval, copper flasks to fill with hot water and put in the bed – and that was that. Speed dressing and undressing became a necessity and then a sport accompanied by hysterical giggling when the going got really tough. Unhappily, some of our visitors didn’t find it so funny, and one or two of them haven’t spoken to us since they experienced a Carmine winter first hand.

Our next decision was not to rely on electricity. In line with the thinking that we should try to build in low running costs, electricity for heating seemed too expensive. Gas was not an option – we didn’t fancy lugging 50-kg gas bottles (gaily termed bombolline) up the hill more than once a year – and despite the contunuing rumours, it seemed as if the gas company was unlikely to go to the expense of connecting us to the municipal gas supply until the end of the next century. Four years and one village petition on and the gas company is still curiously silent on the subject. I can’t imagine why.

Our solution was to use wood (of which there is an abundance right here on our doorstep, if you can be bothered to cut and dry it) as our main fuel. We started to look for wood-burning systems that would ideally use the wood efficiently, heat more than one room at a time and require as little tending as possible (my fire-tending pattern being erratic if I have something else to do and positively absent-minded at certain times of the month).

The stufa in maiolica was the best solution we lit upon. It’s essentially a wood-fired storage heater. Made of clay bricks, it’s built into or against an internal wall. About 2.5 metres tall, our stufa was inserted between Luigi’s and Ezio’s kitchens. On the side of Luigi’s kitchen, it is about 80 centimetres wide, making a tall, thin shape (suggesting, to me at least, the name Mathilda). On the side of Ezio’s kitchen, where it is the only heating aparatus apart from the fireplace, it expands to a width of 2 metres. On both sides, the edifice is topped with huge grey granite slabs (to match the roof, we thought). At the foot of the tower on the side of Luigi’s kitchen, a black ironwork door opens into the firebox.

The deal is to make a large and hot fire that rages for an hour or so, using about 12kg of wood chopped very finely. When the fire dies down, the door to the firebox is closed, and the hot air makes its way up the tower, through a labyrinth of flues, heating the many clay bricks as it goes. Over the next few hours, the oven walls become gradually hotter, radiating a gentle heat not unlike the warmth of the sun. Slowly, the tower cools down again, and after 12 or 24 hours, depending on the temperature, a new fire is laid, starting the process all over again. I like to think of it as Mathilda breathing.

Mathilda is designed to create a background glow, raising the base temperature of the room, so that it is closer to comfortable, further away from bloody freezing. It’s never stuffy, and there is little chance of poisoning from fumes, so the effect is better for the inhabitants. The other advantage is that you have to make the fire only once or twice a day, rather than having to constantly tend a wood-burning stove like a pot-belly or a furnace.

M. began researching maiolica ovens in the winter of 2002-3 when he moved into Carmine and realised exactly how cold it could be, even during a relatively mild winter, and especially without his compagna to keep him warm at night. He eventually found a supplier he was happy with. He liked the look of the preventivo, and liked the look of the man.

We realised that we would require helicopter services to transport the materials, and so timed the building of Mathilda to coincide with the building of the roof, in October.

In September, Oreste Ferrari, our most dedicated builder, swung his sledge hammer and his by then familiar “Madonna!” cry rang out. After no more than a few swipes at the wall, his face appeared, covered in plaster-dust, grinning.

“Ho fatto disastro!” A favourite saying of his. Our Oreste, not so much a builder as a one-man demolition squad, even with a brutal hangover, which was often.

Our very first, very game guests, Ilse and Jan, leant us their elbow-grease to carry away the rubble. After that, we lived with a hole in the wall for several weeks. It’s interesting how unsettling it can be to live on one side of a hole, where everything is hunky-dory and fairly civilized, but to be able to look over your companion's shoulder at supper, through the hole in the wall and to discern in the half-light piles of old concrete, discarded buckets, and a layer of builder’s grime everywhere. It’s rather like looking through a mirror into some insane world where the ghosts of all the unpaid builders in history (starting with the builders of the pyramids) are able to take revenge. Eventually we covered up this dreadful vision of hell with an old curtain (70s trendy, a donation from our neighbour Gunhilt, and while being mighty useful, was itself a vision of textile design hell). When the weather started to turn colder, and the wind started whipping across the supper table, we plugged the gap with the enormous cardboard box in which Edna, our wood-fired cooking stove had arrived (another item with many uses and very much worth preserving, all renovators take note).

Eventually, everything came together. The helicopter scythed over the ridge behind Carmine, the fumistas puffed up the hill, the materials landed in a storm of rotor blades, and soon we were the proud owners of an elegant stufa in maiolica, plastered white in rustico style (as the Italians commented, disdainfully – like many cultures, they seem to have abandoned knobbly-wobbly walls when breeze blocks were invented).

At this moment, surveying the new heart of our home, we are delighted.

Two problems.

We are deflated.

Mathilda is wet. When new, stufe in maiolica contain some 150 litres of water, we are informed. We would need to wait at least two weeks for it to dry before lighting it.

And she is also what you might call sottosviluppata - under-developed. She has a flue, but it isn’t connected to a chimney, because we as yet have no roof. So we wait. Because as soon as the old roof is torn off (that in itself a fortnight’s work), the heavens open and it starts to rain.We wait through the workdays with dreadful weather and the weekend days when the sun shines with ironic abandon. Eventually, as the roof is completed, the flue is connected to a lovely copper pipe and we feel the excitement rising.

We survey the work again. There is now a very smart matt black tubo exiting the granite slab on top of Mathilda, penetrating the kitchen ceiling and making a somewhat startling appearance through the floor of the bedroom above. 70s clunk meets millennium city warehouse sleek. From there it continues upwards, through the ceiling, narrowly missing a major beam, and through the floor of the sottotetto, the attic. Here it does a dog-leg to avoid the main beam of the new roof, and at the same time joins the tubo for the Zoppas – our lovely ancient brown Zoppas, miraculously ascended to the heights for use in some glorious future when we get around to populating the upper rooms.

This is where it all goes wrong.

There is no dog-leg.

Signor Cattaneo, our diabolical plumber (diabolical because he reminds me of no-one more than Robert de Niro as Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987), has ordered one from the local fabbro, and it won’t be here until the very last minute, you can lay bets on it. Still, he has rigged a stop-gap ensemble resembling one of those flexi-tubes that come with some tumble-dryers – the things that are used to conduct the moisture-laden air out of the nearest window, and that, we are told, should do the trick. Instead of being happily reassured I find myself wondering what hapless housewife will find herself with a new tumble dryer frustratingly minus its flexi-tube, having borne it home from Cattaneo’s shop full of jubilant expectation.

The man who installed Mathilda is a square nice-looking fellow by the name of Ferro. For a week he dropped his kids off at school and then made the 90-minute journey from Oleggio to Carmine Superiore to build our stufa. In comparison to our butch, burly roofers and muratori, Ferro and his nameless colleague, in their pink-and-turquoise fleeces, gilt half-moon spectacles and hush puppies, appeared almost housewifely. Together they spent all day every day bickering over the design and building of Mathilda. The foundation looked like tiramisu; the curved corner bricks were the texture of ice-cream-cones, coloured pink; the smell of the water-cooled brick-cutter, similar to the acrid smell of burning metal, pervaded the whole house, and got about in the village a bit, too.

At the end of the week, Ferro left us with a prescription for Mathilda’s first days, which resembled nothing more than a plan for weaning a child.

Or a formula for raising evil spirits. You know the kind of thing: take the eyes of two frogs, pickle them and bury them for five years under your neighbour’s compost heap…

Which one you perceive it to be depends on your outlook on life.

Or on how cold the weather has turned and how cynical you have become.

First, we were instructed to leave the door to the firebox open for several weeks, so that the clay inside would dry. Not something we did religiously, I am bound to admit.

We were to acquire a supply of good quality wood, dried for 18 months out of doors under a protective cover and for a further 6 months indoors.

Luckily, M., (who would have made a good Blue Peter boy had he been English) had some he had prepared earlier. About 10 years earlier.

The wood must be hewn and chopped to a suitable length, and stacked in a square formation inside the firebox, with the kindling leaning against it in a half-teepee shape.

(It quickly became clear to me that I was going to have to learn the near-culinary skill of producing wood suitable for Mathilda, and, after having completely screwed up my right elbow by trying to wield an axe that was too heavy and too dull, I found something more suitable for a woman of five-foot-nothing and became pretty good at turning majestic acacia trees into julienne strips. And now find this heinously destructive activity a serious relationship-saver. Try it, girls – it works.)

In addition, we were to acquire environmentally-friendly, odour-free, pressed-wood firelighters. Not paraffin firelighters. And we must definitely never use newspaper, or junk mail or proof copies of M’s doctoral thesis, incendiary though some have called it.

The first eight accensione (twice-daily doses, morning and evening, before meals) were to be effected with only half the regular amount of wood – some 5-6kg, a basketful – and leaving the door open to aid drying. For the next eight accensione, we were to step up to the full amount of wood, still leaving the door open. Finally, on the ninth day, the full 12-kg fire would be lit, and when the inferno had passed its zenith, the hermetic door was to be closed and sealed, preserving all that lovely heat.

Thursday night in mid-december. The ambient temperature is hovering around freezing. We have pelted back from Milan, narrowly missing a railway-workers' sciopero, due to start at seven o’clock. Even so, we are affected by what seems like a rather spiteful preliminary action – the train carriages are without light and heat the entire journey. M. conducts what is to my medieval mind a miraculous transatlantic telephone call from the dark of his train seat. Eventually, after a chilly stop-start journey we arrive home feeling fairly miserable, and we make one of those snap decisions - to inaugurate Mathilda.

The fumista has laid the first fire, and I insert the duly-acquired firelighters. I light them just as M. pops a bottle of méthode champenoise. All appears well for a couple of minutes, the flame leaps from the firelighters to the kindling. We sip our wine and sit back in self-congratulatory manner.

And then Mathilda begins to belch. She belches and farts. She coughs and splutters.

Smoke.

Great yellow clouds of poisonous, disgusting woodsmoke. She vomits a stain all across her beautiful, white rustico front.

What to do? We summon up our best chimney-physics. On the assumption that extra oxygen arriving at the mouth of the firebox should encourage the smoke to rise through Mathilda’s internal labyrinth, we open the window. (It also helps us to breathe.)

Still she belches.

M. removes the panel that seals the main chimney, across the room, to provide more oxygen.

Still she vomits.

I open two of the three doors leading out of the kitchen – a cardinal sin in a house where every iota of warm air has been bought with much sweat and occasionally some blood. And still she coughs, splutters, farts and retches. She dribbles streaks of water onto the ironwork of the firebox. She’s still wet.

M. gets on the phone to Ferro. I head upstairs in search of my turbo-charged Italian hairdryer in the hope of being able to at least clear the air a bit – the pall of smoke now has a cloud base of about a metre.

Ferro, he of the hush puppies, informs us that this disgusting behaviour of Mathilda’s is normal for the first accensione. Thanks for telling us, dude.

“The clay’s still wet, and until the stufa is dry, it won’t draw properly.”

“But you said it would take only a fortnight to dry, and it’s been drying now for two months!”
Si,” he replies patiently, “but don’t you remember that three-week spell when it rained non-stop and you couldn’t see the lake for fog?”

“Oh, yes, that three weeks when the laundry wouldn’t dry – like a monsoon but without the mould…”

“If your washing won’t dry, it stands to reason that your stufa isn’t going to dry. Oh, and by the way, the fetching tumble-drier ensemble in your sottotetto may also have something to do with it…Ciao!”

M.’s face is like thunder. His brows are knit and his jaw juts in what I’ve come to know and fear as his angry face. Then, as we gaze at each other through the haze, I see his angry face become what I’ve come to know and fear as his I-have-a-plan-face.

Then I realise he’s eyeing my hairdryer.

I am evicted from the room. “Take your wine outside!” Lying on his side so that he is below the cloud-base, he begins to dry the stufa’s hair – he aims the hairdryer at the smouldering wood in an effort to bring the fire back to life, bellows-style. I flash in and out from time to time, a wet rag over my mouth, trying to protect what’s left of my lungs after 25 years as a wholehearted smoker, but my eyes are streaming as if I had just peeled and chopped a dozen onions, and rubbed my eyes with chillie-fingers to boot.

“Darling, get out!” Such endearments.

The wrestling match goes first one way and then the other. The fire takes hold, and M. emerges onto the terrazzino with his glass in his hand. Then another gob of smoke bubbles out, and the fire is all but extinguished, and M. is forced to resume drying.

Eventually, eventually, Mathilda starts to warm up, and then the fire takes and holds.

“She goes!” I hear through the distressing pall, and for once I ignore the grammatical infelicity.

We look for any remaining wine with which to celebrate – there isn’t any.

I look for my hairdryer, but find only a white plastic thing, sadly wilted. Melted in the line of duty.

I’d like to say that this is the end of this particular episode. But it isn’t. We lit Mathilda regularly for four or five days as instructed. Like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forrid, some days she was, good, and then she was very, very good. Hardly any smoke at all. And some days she smoked and then she was truly horrid. In fact, she smoked more often than not, and my hairdryer was pressed back into service and we became rather tired of having to open all the doors and windows, and of worrying about whether our clothes were starting to smell like smoked haddock.


So.

Despite really quite liking the background heat that was starting to build up, we screwed up our courage against the cold and resolved not to light Mathilda again until Signor Cattaneo had finished the chimney.

M. called him. When could he come? Tomorrow. Tomorrow came, but it appeared to have left Cattaneo at home. The next day, and the next day. Still no Cattaneo. The days lurched closer and closer to Christmas and Cattaneo’s definite domani’s become provo’s. Christmas is a deadline in anyone’s book, even an Italian plumber’s, believe me, and it seemed that everyone in the neighbourhood wanted their pipework completed before the merriment began. As foreigners, seemingly at the end of every queue, it looked for a while that we would be without Mathilda for the festive season.

Then, on the eve of Christmas Eve, Cattaneo’s wonderful jackrabbit assistant, Ivo, arrived, panting, carrying pipework, short and stocky copper tubes with conical hats on them (reminding me instantly and rather unexpectedly of the Flower-Pot Men), a bucket-load of tools and, oh joy of joys, the dog-leg. He grinned, forced out a quick “ciao” between pants and, as I had come to expect, disappeared onto the roof through the nearest upper-storey window. About an hour later our Lucifer himself arrives, inspects the work and spins off back down the hill. His final words: “There’s nothing more I can do. Light the damn stufa – if it doesn’t work, you must call the fumista! Buone Feste!”

With trembling hands, we build a pile in Mathilda’s firebox, following all the instructions we can remember. We light it and are momentarily jubilant when the fire seems to take first time. But with by-now tedious inevitability the belching soon starts again, and we are truly, heart-breakingly disappointed.

No Mathilda for Christmas.

No Mathilda for Christmas?

M. won’t accept it. He is on the phone to the fumista. For a while. I sidle up, listening. I admire what to me sounds like fluently cutting Italian. Then I realise he's begging.

Christmas Eve, they arrive. Both of our hush-puppied fumistas with their pink-and-turquoise fleeces. They leave their poor families at home during the festive season to answer our plea - I'm impressed. They spend two hours trudging around our house, insulating everything in sight, it seems. Smocked tubes of white fleecy stuff appear wherever there was once a super-cool matt-black iron tubo. So much for style.

We stand in our coats in Luigi’s kitchen, looking up, knowing which room they are in by the bickering, now louder, now softer, now nearer, now further away. Next, Ferro appears in Luigi’s kitchen, and dons a rather worrying pair of surgical gloves. He gets to his knees in front of Mathilda in what at first sight seems like an act of prayer. In one hand is a mirror, in the other a small pair of pliers. No, an act of dentistry. Then, in a trice, he is up to his shoulder in our Mathilda in what can only be an act of veterinary proctology.

A valve, he explains over his shoulder, to be adjusted.

At last, the necessary adjustments complete, I lead the fumistas in procession to the wood shed, where they select the finest julienne strips my axe could produce. In an atmosphere of growing religious awe, they build the pile. Between minor skirmishes between themselves they impart to Michael in rapid and fervent Italian many of the Mysteries of the Maiolica, speaking both at once in their zeal, gesticulating wildly, eyes flashing with the erudition of their chimney-physics.


We hold our breath as Mathilda lights. A small amount of smoke billows out. Uncharitably and over-hastily, I think, “There! I told you so!” But the flame catches and holds, then grows, and my cynicism is overcome by hope and then joy.

Like the three kings, Giacomo, Franco and Wolfram mooch in at that moment, hands in pockets, to behold the miracle, and it’s caffè and grappa all round.

Piano, piano over the next few days and weeks, we light Mathilda, tend her solicitously and gradually she dries. In return she stoically provides a gentle radiant heat, making us more often comfortable and less often bloody freezing.


Heartily recommended : Lino Ferro, details here.
More information : Italy's national association for people who make you feel warm, ASSOCOSMA.



Copyright © Louise Bostock 2007, 2008. All rights reserved. Please ask first.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday L from all of us in the sunny UK!

Anonymous said...

VERY funny story. Are there more?

Vanessa said...

What a hilarious post! Loved it!

Friday, 16 November 2007

Ecco Mathilda!

Today Mathilda is burning!

Now before you get any strange ideas about autumn burnings of Catholic effigies in thinly-veiled pagan rituals, let me explain that Mathilda is a wood-fired oven. The nearest thing to central heating we have. Having said that, the first time we light Mathilda each year does perhaps amount to something of a pagan ritual, ushering in the colder months with much careful preparation of cut firewood and kindling, much organisation of firelighters and matches out of reach of little hands. Much oohing and aahing over the creeping warmth.


When we first came to Carmine Superiore, the house was in fact two houses. It had been owned by two sides of the same family, the last inhabitants being Luigi Zaccheo and Ezio Geninazzi. There were two kitchens, and we decided to turn Ezio’s kitchen into a sitting room and Luigi’s kitchen was to remain in use as our kitchen.

The only heating equipment in the place (apart from two open hearths) was an ancient 1930s-brown Zoppas wood-fired stove. It stood in one corner of Luigi’s kitchen, and its exhaust pipe crossed the entire room lengthwise before being stuffed into a hole hacked into the front of the otherwise stately chimney breast. It smoked from all its joints, gave little heat and ate up all the oxygen in the room.

Evidently, something had to change.

Summers at the Lake are mostly hot, and the house acts like an old church, chilling the warm air as it passes the three-foot stone walls, making life, especially in torrid July, bearable. But winters can be unhappy. While they say that Lake Maggiore and its immediate environs can be thought of as the northernmost tip of Africa, and while all around one sees various species of palm and cactus thriving among the firs and the chestnuts, winter in a stone house without heating really isn’t a laughing matter. When we first stayed in Carmine in winter (not in this house, but renting a neighbour’s), the water in the lavatory froze. Our first winter in our own house, a shirt of mine famously froze five minutes after hanging it to dry in the makeshift shower we’d rigged in the lean-to lavatory. I had showered there only 10 minutes before.

Our first decision was, for the time being, not to heat the bedrooms. We were supplied with four bed-flasks – flat oval, copper flasks to fill with hot water and put in the bed – and that was that. Speed dressing and undressing became a necessity and then a sport accompanied by hysterical giggling when the going got really tough. Unhappily, some of our visitors didn’t find it so funny, and one or two of them haven’t spoken to us since they experienced a Carmine winter first hand.

Our next decision was not to rely on electricity. In line with the thinking that we should try to build in low running costs, electricity for heating seemed too expensive. Gas was not an option – we didn’t fancy lugging 50-kg gas bottles (gaily termed bombolline) up the hill more than once a year – and despite the contunuing rumours, it seemed as if the gas company was unlikely to go to the expense of connecting us to the municipal gas supply until the end of the next century. Four years and one village petition on and the gas company is still curiously silent on the subject. I can’t imagine why.

Our solution was to use wood (of which there is an abundance right here on our doorstep, if you can be bothered to cut and dry it) as our main fuel. We started to look for wood-burning systems that would ideally use the wood efficiently, heat more than one room at a time and require as little tending as possible (my fire-tending pattern being erratic if I have something else to do and positively absent-minded at certain times of the month).

The stufa in maiolica was the best solution we lit upon. It’s essentially a wood-fired storage heater. Made of clay bricks, it’s built into or against an internal wall. About 2.5 metres tall, our stufa was inserted between Luigi’s and Ezio’s kitchens. On the side of Luigi’s kitchen, it is about 80 centimetres wide, making a tall, thin shape (suggesting, to me at least, the name Mathilda). On the side of Ezio’s kitchen, where it is the only heating aparatus apart from the fireplace, it expands to a width of 2 metres. On both sides, the edifice is topped with huge grey granite slabs (to match the roof, we thought). At the foot of the tower on the side of Luigi’s kitchen, a black ironwork door opens into the firebox.

The deal is to make a large and hot fire that rages for an hour or so, using about 12kg of wood chopped very finely. When the fire dies down, the door to the firebox is closed, and the hot air makes its way up the tower, through a labyrinth of flues, heating the many clay bricks as it goes. Over the next few hours, the oven walls become gradually hotter, radiating a gentle heat not unlike the warmth of the sun. Slowly, the tower cools down again, and after 12 or 24 hours, depending on the temperature, a new fire is laid, starting the process all over again. I like to think of it as Mathilda breathing.

Mathilda is designed to create a background glow, raising the base temperature of the room, so that it is closer to comfortable, further away from bloody freezing. It’s never stuffy, and there is little chance of poisoning from fumes, so the effect is better for the inhabitants. The other advantage is that you have to make the fire only once or twice a day, rather than having to constantly tend a wood-burning stove like a pot-belly or a furnace.

M. began researching maiolica ovens in the winter of 2002-3 when he moved into Carmine and realised exactly how cold it could be, even during a relatively mild winter, and especially without his compagna to keep him warm at night. He eventually found a supplier he was happy with. He liked the look of the preventivo, and liked the look of the man.

We realised that we would require helicopter services to transport the materials, and so timed the building of Mathilda to coincide with the building of the roof, in October.

In September, Oreste Ferrari, our most dedicated builder, swung his sledge hammer and his by then familiar “Madonna!” cry rang out. After no more than a few swipes at the wall, his face appeared, covered in plaster-dust, grinning.

“Ho fatto disastro!” A favourite saying of his. Our Oreste, not so much a builder as a one-man demolition squad, even with a brutal hangover, which was often.

Our very first, very game guests, Ilse and Jan, leant us their elbow-grease to carry away the rubble. After that, we lived with a hole in the wall for several weeks. It’s interesting how unsettling it can be to live on one side of a hole, where everything is hunky-dory and fairly civilized, but to be able to look over your companion's shoulder at supper, through the hole in the wall and to discern in the half-light piles of old concrete, discarded buckets, and a layer of builder’s grime everywhere. It’s rather like looking through a mirror into some insane world where the ghosts of all the unpaid builders in history (starting with the builders of the pyramids) are able to take revenge. Eventually we covered up this dreadful vision of hell with an old curtain (70s trendy, a donation from our neighbour Gunhilt, and while being mighty useful, was itself a vision of textile design hell). When the weather started to turn colder, and the wind started whipping across the supper table, we plugged the gap with the enormous cardboard box in which Edna, our wood-fired cooking stove had arrived (another item with many uses and very much worth preserving, all renovators take note).

Eventually, everything came together. The helicopter scythed over the ridge behind Carmine, the fumistas puffed up the hill, the materials landed in a storm of rotor blades, and soon we were the proud owners of an elegant stufa in maiolica, plastered white in rustico style (as the Italians commented, disdainfully – like many cultures, they seem to have abandoned knobbly-wobbly walls when breeze blocks were invented).

At this moment, surveying the new heart of our home, we are delighted.

Two problems.

We are deflated.

Mathilda is wet. When new, stufe in maiolica contain some 150 litres of water, we are informed. We would need to wait at least two weeks for it to dry before lighting it.

And she is also what you might call sottosviluppata - under-developed. She has a flue, but it isn’t connected to a chimney, because we as yet have no roof. So we wait. Because as soon as the old roof is torn off (that in itself a fortnight’s work), the heavens open and it starts to rain.We wait through the workdays with dreadful weather and the weekend days when the sun shines with ironic abandon. Eventually, as the roof is completed, the flue is connected to a lovely copper pipe and we feel the excitement rising.

We survey the work again. There is now a very smart matt black tubo exiting the granite slab on top of Mathilda, penetrating the kitchen ceiling and making a somewhat startling appearance through the floor of the bedroom above. 70s clunk meets millennium city warehouse sleek. From there it continues upwards, through the ceiling, narrowly missing a major beam, and through the floor of the sottotetto, the attic. Here it does a dog-leg to avoid the main beam of the new roof, and at the same time joins the tubo for the Zoppas – our lovely ancient brown Zoppas, miraculously ascended to the heights for use in some glorious future when we get around to populating the upper rooms.

This is where it all goes wrong.

There is no dog-leg.

Signor Cattaneo, our diabolical plumber (diabolical because he reminds me of no-one more than Robert de Niro as Louis Cyphre in Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987), has ordered one from the local fabbro, and it won’t be here until the very last minute, you can lay bets on it. Still, he has rigged a stop-gap ensemble resembling one of those flexi-tubes that come with some tumble-dryers – the things that are used to conduct the moisture-laden air out of the nearest window, and that, we are told, should do the trick. Instead of being happily reassured I find myself wondering what hapless housewife will find herself with a new tumble dryer frustratingly minus its flexi-tube, having borne it home from Cattaneo’s shop full of jubilant expectation.

The man who installed Mathilda is a square nice-looking fellow by the name of Ferro. For a week he dropped his kids off at school and then made the 90-minute journey from Oleggio to Carmine Superiore to build our stufa. In comparison to our butch, burly roofers and muratori, Ferro and his nameless colleague, in their pink-and-turquoise fleeces, gilt half-moon spectacles and hush puppies, appeared almost housewifely. Together they spent all day every day bickering over the design and building of Mathilda. The foundation looked like tiramisu; the curved corner bricks were the texture of ice-cream-cones, coloured pink; the smell of the water-cooled brick-cutter, similar to the acrid smell of burning metal, pervaded the whole house, and got about in the village a bit, too.

At the end of the week, Ferro left us with a prescription for Mathilda’s first days, which resembled nothing more than a plan for weaning a child.

Or a formula for raising evil spirits. You know the kind of thing: take the eyes of two frogs, pickle them and bury them for five years under your neighbour’s compost heap…

Which one you perceive it to be depends on your outlook on life.

Or on how cold the weather has turned and how cynical you have become.

First, we were instructed to leave the door to the firebox open for several weeks, so that the clay inside would dry. Not something we did religiously, I am bound to admit.

We were to acquire a supply of good quality wood, dried for 18 months out of doors under a protective cover and for a further 6 months indoors.

Luckily, M., (who would have made a good Blue Peter boy had he been English) had some he had prepared earlier. About 10 years earlier.

The wood must be hewn and chopped to a suitable length, and stacked in a square formation inside the firebox, with the kindling leaning against it in a half-teepee shape.

(It quickly became clear to me that I was going to have to learn the near-culinary skill of producing wood suitable for Mathilda, and, after having completely screwed up my right elbow by trying to wield an axe that was too heavy and too dull, I found something more suitable for a woman of five-foot-nothing and became pretty good at turning majestic acacia trees into julienne strips. And now find this heinously destructive activity a serious relationship-saver. Try it, girls – it works.)

In addition, we were to acquire environmentally-friendly, odour-free, pressed-wood firelighters. Not paraffin firelighters. And we must definitely never use newspaper, or junk mail or proof copies of M’s doctoral thesis, incendiary though some have called it.

The first eight accensione (twice-daily doses, morning and evening, before meals) were to be effected with only half the regular amount of wood – some 5-6kg, a basketful – and leaving the door open to aid drying. For the next eight accensione, we were to step up to the full amount of wood, still leaving the door open. Finally, on the ninth day, the full 12-kg fire would be lit, and when the inferno had passed its zenith, the hermetic door was to be closed and sealed, preserving all that lovely heat.

Thursday night in mid-december. The ambient temperature is hovering around freezing. We have pelted back from Milan, narrowly missing a railway-workers' sciopero, due to start at seven o’clock. Even so, we are affected by what seems like a rather spiteful preliminary action – the train carriages are without light and heat the entire journey. M. conducts what is to my medieval mind a miraculous transatlantic telephone call from the dark of his train seat. Eventually, after a chilly stop-start journey we arrive home feeling fairly miserable, and we make one of those snap decisions - to inaugurate Mathilda.

The fumista has laid the first fire, and I insert the duly-acquired firelighters. I light them just as M. pops a bottle of méthode champenoise. All appears well for a couple of minutes, the flame leaps from the firelighters to the kindling. We sip our wine and sit back in self-congratulatory manner.

And then Mathilda begins to belch. She belches and farts. She coughs and splutters.

Smoke.

Great yellow clouds of poisonous, disgusting woodsmoke. She vomits a stain all across her beautiful, white rustico front.

What to do? We summon up our best chimney-physics. On the assumption that extra oxygen arriving at the mouth of the firebox should encourage the smoke to rise through Mathilda’s internal labyrinth, we open the window. (It also helps us to breathe.)

Still she belches.

M. removes the panel that seals the main chimney, across the room, to provide more oxygen.

Still she vomits.

I open two of the three doors leading out of the kitchen – a cardinal sin in a house where every iota of warm air has been bought with much sweat and occasionally some blood. And still she coughs, splutters, farts and retches. She dribbles streaks of water onto the ironwork of the firebox. She’s still wet.

M. gets on the phone to Ferro. I head upstairs in search of my turbo-charged Italian hairdryer in the hope of being able to at least clear the air a bit – the pall of smoke now has a cloud base of about a metre.

Ferro, he of the hush puppies, informs us that this disgusting behaviour of Mathilda’s is normal for the first accensione. Thanks for telling us, dude.

“The clay’s still wet, and until the stufa is dry, it won’t draw properly.”

“But you said it would take only a fortnight to dry, and it’s been drying now for two months!”
Si,” he replies patiently, “but don’t you remember that three-week spell when it rained non-stop and you couldn’t see the lake for fog?”

“Oh, yes, that three weeks when the laundry wouldn’t dry – like a monsoon but without the mould…”

“If your washing won’t dry, it stands to reason that your stufa isn’t going to dry. Oh, and by the way, the fetching tumble-drier ensemble in your sottotetto may also have something to do with it…Ciao!”

M.’s face is like thunder. His brows are knit and his jaw juts in what I’ve come to know and fear as his angry face. Then, as we gaze at each other through the haze, I see his angry face become what I’ve come to know and fear as his I-have-a-plan-face.

Then I realise he’s eyeing my hairdryer.

I am evicted from the room. “Take your wine outside!” Lying on his side so that he is below the cloud-base, he begins to dry the stufa’s hair – he aims the hairdryer at the smouldering wood in an effort to bring the fire back to life, bellows-style. I flash in and out from time to time, a wet rag over my mouth, trying to protect what’s left of my lungs after 25 years as a wholehearted smoker, but my eyes are streaming as if I had just peeled and chopped a dozen onions, and rubbed my eyes with chillie-fingers to boot.

“Darling, get out!” Such endearments.

The wrestling match goes first one way and then the other. The fire takes hold, and M. emerges onto the terrazzino with his glass in his hand. Then another gob of smoke bubbles out, and the fire is all but extinguished, and M. is forced to resume drying.

Eventually, eventually, Mathilda starts to warm up, and then the fire takes and holds.

“She goes!” I hear through the distressing pall, and for once I ignore the grammatical infelicity.

We look for any remaining wine with which to celebrate – there isn’t any.

I look for my hairdryer, but find only a white plastic thing, sadly wilted. Melted in the line of duty.

I’d like to say that this is the end of this particular episode. But it isn’t. We lit Mathilda regularly for four or five days as instructed. Like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forrid, some days she was, good, and then she was very, very good. Hardly any smoke at all. And some days she smoked and then she was truly horrid. In fact, she smoked more often than not, and my hairdryer was pressed back into service and we became rather tired of having to open all the doors and windows, and of worrying about whether our clothes were starting to smell like smoked haddock.


So.

Despite really quite liking the background heat that was starting to build up, we screwed up our courage against the cold and resolved not to light Mathilda again until Signor Cattaneo had finished the chimney.

M. called him. When could he come? Tomorrow. Tomorrow came, but it appeared to have left Cattaneo at home. The next day, and the next day. Still no Cattaneo. The days lurched closer and closer to Christmas and Cattaneo’s definite domani’s become provo’s. Christmas is a deadline in anyone’s book, even an Italian plumber’s, believe me, and it seemed that everyone in the neighbourhood wanted their pipework completed before the merriment began. As foreigners, seemingly at the end of every queue, it looked for a while that we would be without Mathilda for the festive season.

Then, on the eve of Christmas Eve, Cattaneo’s wonderful jackrabbit assistant, Ivo, arrived, panting, carrying pipework, short and stocky copper tubes with conical hats on them (reminding me instantly and rather unexpectedly of the Flower-Pot Men), a bucket-load of tools and, oh joy of joys, the dog-leg. He grinned, forced out a quick “ciao” between pants and, as I had come to expect, disappeared onto the roof through the nearest upper-storey window. About an hour later our Lucifer himself arrives, inspects the work and spins off back down the hill. His final words: “There’s nothing more I can do. Light the damn stufa – if it doesn’t work, you must call the fumista! Buone Feste!”

With trembling hands, we build a pile in Mathilda’s firebox, following all the instructions we can remember. We light it and are momentarily jubilant when the fire seems to take first time. But with by-now tedious inevitability the belching soon starts again, and we are truly, heart-breakingly disappointed.

No Mathilda for Christmas.

No Mathilda for Christmas?

M. won’t accept it. He is on the phone to the fumista. For a while. I sidle up, listening. I admire what to me sounds like fluently cutting Italian. Then I realise he's begging.

Christmas Eve, they arrive. Both of our hush-puppied fumistas with their pink-and-turquoise fleeces. They leave their poor families at home during the festive season to answer our plea - I'm impressed. They spend two hours trudging around our house, insulating everything in sight, it seems. Smocked tubes of white fleecy stuff appear wherever there was once a super-cool matt-black iron tubo. So much for style.

We stand in our coats in Luigi’s kitchen, looking up, knowing which room they are in by the bickering, now louder, now softer, now nearer, now further away. Next, Ferro appears in Luigi’s kitchen, and dons a rather worrying pair of surgical gloves. He gets to his knees in front of Mathilda in what at first sight seems like an act of prayer. In one hand is a mirror, in the other a small pair of pliers. No, an act of dentistry. Then, in a trice, he is up to his shoulder in our Mathilda in what can only be an act of veterinary proctology.

A valve, he explains over his shoulder, to be adjusted.

At last, the necessary adjustments complete, I lead the fumistas in procession to the wood shed, where they select the finest julienne strips my axe could produce. In an atmosphere of growing religious awe, they build the pile. Between minor skirmishes between themselves they impart to Michael in rapid and fervent Italian many of the Mysteries of the Maiolica, speaking both at once in their zeal, gesticulating wildly, eyes flashing with the erudition of their chimney-physics.


We hold our breath as Mathilda lights. A small amount of smoke billows out. Uncharitably and over-hastily, I think, “There! I told you so!” But the flame catches and holds, then grows, and my cynicism is overcome by hope and then joy.

Like the three kings, Giacomo, Franco and Wolfram mooch in at that moment, hands in pockets, to behold the miracle, and it’s caffè and grappa all round.

Piano, piano over the next few days and weeks, we light Mathilda, tend her solicitously and gradually she dries. In return she stoically provides a gentle radiant heat, making us more often comfortable and less often bloody freezing.


Heartily recommended : Lino Ferro, details here.
More information : Italy's national association for people who make you feel warm, ASSOCOSMA.



Copyright © Louise Bostock 2007, 2008. All rights reserved. Please ask first.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday L from all of us in the sunny UK!

Anonymous said...

VERY funny story. Are there more?

Vanessa said...

What a hilarious post! Loved it!