ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast – Cowper.
Across Tuscany the dreaded draught came racing in on the back of the fearsome Tramontana, and you knew at once that at last the soft glow of Autumn had finally gone, having lingered fitfully for a last moment before the duffle coat was given a shake and the pockets searched for gloves. For those who thought that Tuscany was all sun and serenity, I have news for you.
Hypothermia and chattering teeth are just about par for the course in such a tourist abandoned place. Of course, all this having nothing to do with COVID19 that is blamed for everything else, despite the similarity of people strategically huddling behind closed doors hoping for the best in a winter ‘lockdown’. No. The wind has left the thermometer’s ethanol almost as depressed as the shivering souls indoors. It has been calculated that the beast rears its head in Russia, blasting east to storm the Himalaya’s which prove too steep, forcing it to double back, now super charged with glacial puff, to clear the midget Alps and collect a few icicles before settling down on us. The locals say the wind will last one, three, five, or seven days, though I don’t recall ever experiencing the latter, thank heavens. Whatever, the icy touch lasts for rather longer than one would wish. Once idle chimneys have given a lazy exploratory puff before finally becoming a full-time phenomenon. Yes. You’ll know winter is here.
There are, of course, a multitude of ways of keeping yourself warm if not always snug – the latter being possible if it wasn’t for that wind. Doors and windows are always the devil itself in attempting to bar a temperature drop – ‘dogs’ at the bottom of the door and solid shutters help, but draughts are as slippery as an eel. So, it’s all about fighting ‘fire with fire’, turn up the heat and let it do its damnedest. Even that gives you the shivers. The government, having shackled Enel Energia, to the ‘Free Market’ will certainly be doing nothing to help this incandescence along, having skewered the market so no one knows one bargain from another. I think Italy may have invented the concept of ‘small print’! It has the ring of a Papal initiative.
But Tuscans are a canny lot and have an answer to this hard sell, proceeding with a plot as old as the Medici themselves who bought elegant stoves made of terracotta and appropriated forests of timber to fire them. Not up to the Russian standard for such things perhaps, who have a lumber yard the size of Australia, nor the Lombardian and the Trentino north where economically they historically built their beds over what happens to be a chimney outlet for a stove fed from the corridor outside the bedroom. Sounds odd, but I bet they’re snug.
That brings me back to wood burning stoves of the Tuscan sort, a glory of ancient technology that functions superbly even in modern times, and serves for more than just keeping the thermals in place round the hearth. Not that the European Union Gestapo would have it so, of which more anon.
On moving to Italy, we found we had a chimney with nothing attached to it save a hole in the ceiling, a factor that the lady of the house found illogical, deciding that something had to be done. Discussions with the builder, and sundry ‘specialists’, intimated that the problem indicated the hole was in the wrong place for such an adventure, where it had been contrived in days of yore for a ‘sit up and beg’ standard iron cylinder furnace. Something like a black paint pot with a window in it. No. Definitely not the sort of thing to bring a touch of class to a modern attempt at the historical mode, let alone any heat to combat a ninety mile an hour wind that sends the temperature all the way down to teeth chattering hypothermia. What we urgently needed was some sort of an idea, the merest manifestation of a possibility to shake up the grey cells in the hope that life really is a learning curve, one where if you opened your eyes all would be resolved.
And so, it was. When you’re new to a society, someone local will always be willing to show you round interesting aspects of the community and thus, in a the very grand local old folks’ home, we came across what, in good old Blighty might be called by certain tyre kicking friends of mine, “the business”. A stove it certainly was, seven feet tall in classical post Renaissance mode that one might almost refer to as architectural. We hopefully enquired if they made a slightly smaller version. This is old Italy – so it was a done thing. Especially for you. Tailor made to your very requirements, and that hole in the ceiling. This opening of eyes was provided by FELICI FELICIANO of Prato, a family firm that had once made stoves for the Medici, besides all the Casentino nobles with draughty castles and two-kilometre square rooms. Later they excelled in that ottocento euphoria among the new rich for neoclassical motifs creating what might be referred to as ‘domestic architectural effects’. In more modern times the company had expanded to construct sundry kilns, pizza ovens and handmade bricks all in terracotta, besides enamelling the classical stoves in various pastoral hues. The material for all this labour is a stiff viscous earth consisting mostly of aluminium silicate that with a touch of water can be moulded and baked into amongst other things, pottery stoves. No problem then. Don’t you believe it. Its consistency is critical, with classical formulae built up through the centuries depending on where the clay came from. There’s the rub. The archives of this great company were plundered during the last World War by German soldiers who, in an effort to survive the bitterness of winter, burnt priceless precious documents and drawings. When the dust of war had settled there was just one elderly local workman left with memories of what had once been a facet of the traditional way of life. Its resurrection presented the company with a long hill to climb, experimenting from quite different sources, including the UK, with clays capable of withstanding considerable heat. An exasperating and time-consuming undertaking.
On the back of history then, we went into the queue for a stove that apparently took three months to fabricate, given that it took as many months to cure outside. It came in kit form – fourteen parts as seen in the photograph – being assembled in situ with a non-permanent silicone, though in earlier times they used dampened clay, and even latterly, with plasticine! It’s a ‘bolt on job’, just adding tier upon tier of chambers until you bump against the ceiling. So, with a little trepidation I collected the parts, bubble wrapped, in the back of the car, putting it together with some burly friends in an afternoon. Believe it or not the whole thing stands, without any bonding, on the four small feet you can see at the bottom. Despite this, the stove feels as stable as a four-poster bed.
How long you keep the stove lit will depend on your energy feeding logs into the not so large fire door at the bottom. You will also need patience in feeding the stove a daily breakfast of twiggy woods to kindle her waning embers every morning. The bonus from all this activity will be 24 hours of premium heat! Fuel, not being anaemic pellets or sundry twigs, will be a diverse diameter of nice dry wood. The most combustible I’m told is Corbezzolo, a rare wood found in the Mediterranean macchia, but on the whole annual wood supplies are acquired from the Legna da Ardere (Firewood) suppliers, and fine hard-working experts they are too, as from them you can also have the logs ‘tailor made’ to size. For efficiency and expense, it is politic to purchase an annual requirement in one session, even if it is delivered in a number of loads, and house this in a dry capanna or shed.
How much wood? That depends on how you mean to use it. Yours truly gets the stove going, and leaves it thus for the whole winter, which tends to be five plus long months. That represents a consumption of 80 quintali, or 8 tons. Yes, a lot of wood, and you’ll need a lot of space to store it, therefore, in this sense, might only be a project for a country house. The cost of such a mammoth quantity of wood may sound expensive, but at about 13 Euros a quintali works out at a pinch over 1000 Euros, or in real money, 910 pounds Sterling. If it sounds a lot, you try keeping 100 square metres of space warm through the winter for less on gas or electricity! But that’s not its only asset. The two spaces between the upper and lower casettes form very convenient ovens which represents considerable saving on cooking costs, while the top provides an ideal area for heating saucepans and kettles of water so bringing them to the boil on a gas stove takes only a few minutes. What more could a rural domestic want?
Despite its efficiency, like any prima donna the lady has her moments. Mostly these can be surmounted by an annual service taking place before the winter months descend, something that luckily for us can still be overseen by the craftsman who made her – not something that comes along with contemporary gas or electric stoves. Sadly, the original company of Felici Feliciano is no more as the modern world has developed sleek, soulless appliances designed for sleek, soulless apartments, all glass and stainless steel, infrared and fake flames, remote control and enough heat to warm your toes along with all the appearance of a pastiche work of art. Salesmen will tell you the latest ceramic stoves are elegant, light and efficient without mentioning that such designs have to heat up power assisted circulating air as their thin surface area of ceramic material cannot so effectively recycle radiant heat as those very thick old stoves. Such might seem the norm given that the modern state has folded to the Global Warming agenda or while governments deliberate on how they will ban ‘wet’ wood, alongside mutterings from the E.U. of any domestic burning of wood, bringing in clean air acts with all sorts of codes and practices, without considering how the technical needs of the manufacturer or the less well-off, will pay for all their mischief. One questions the strange bureaucratic concept of their analysis. Civilians, are already generally very aware that burning ‘wet’ wood would cause serious condensation problems, alongside the peril of Carbon Monoxide poisoning! After all, man has been burning wood for well over one million years, so has had plenty of time to learn how to manage the problems.
But back in the present, you can’t keep good men down. Carlo Felici, descendant of the ancient original company, an architect, has taken the opportunity as well as his passion, imagination and inventiveness to create a specialized atelier where the improvement and design of these hand-built creations have now been improved to accommodate the latest Eco-friendly legislation for the domestic market. Apparently, these recent models, in traditional deigns, are even more efficient and economical to maintain than those of old. In addition, they also restore what are, in effect, valuable antiques of today and tomorrow. This small trio of experts can be found at https://www.heliosterrecotte.it/ if you have a fancy for the genuine article.
For the moment however, one of the experts, Emilio Micillo, the original craftsmen who built our stove, keeps a friendly eye on her health while working with his colleagues to create and preserve individual creations like our Prima Donna, even if they have to bend to technology and the ever-invasive legislation fashioned out of the false premise that man can alter nature and actually fine tune the world we live in.
Glaziers can melt, and volcanoes get into a strop. Electricity is not a given, nor is gas and oil. We live in a world that is dependent on finite materials and the wrath of the gods. Wood on the other hand is not one of them, being a renewable source as old as the world itself, and when the lights go out people will turn once again to those ghosts of the past. You can burn a forest down, but nature has judged this will grow again without the faintest help of man. If you cuddle up to the concept, you may even dodge the Tramontana.