Recipe of the day – household cleaner and degreaser

For many years, I’ve made my own household cleaners, mainly because I don’t want a toxic soup of harmful and unnecessary chemicals in the house. While most things can be cleaned adequately with bicarb, vinegar and water, mixes made up in this way tend to clog up the sprayer.

Recently, however, in a book about cleaning (yes, I’m that sad), I came across this recipe and it’s a marvel – it works to clean sinks, surfaces, bathroom fittings, small electrical appliances, etc, and two tablespoons in a bucket of water is enough to clean floors, though you can use more if you wish. It’s phenomenal for cutting grease, maybe because it’s not thinned with water, and it’s as cheap as chips.

You’ll need white vinegar (usually about 8% acidity), lemon juice (I used the type in 500ml bottles – Pulco is a common brand in France) and plain old washing-up liquid.

In a roomy jug, mix 1 part washing-up liquid, two parts white vinegar and 1 part lemon juice. Stir to mix (don’t shake, as it foams), and decant into a spray bottle. Add essential oils if you like.

Remember not to shake the bottle to mix, as you work, because it will foam.

For exterior work, I have made up a stronger version with household vinegar (14%), lemon juice and liquid black soap.

The white house

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This house used to be full of colour. No more. After a stay in a beautiful gite in Brittany, which made me feel utterly calm, I redid much of our house two years ago (it is even simpler now than in these pictures).

It took me a while to analyse what it was about that gite that I loved. I took photographs of every room to remind me. The walls were white, the sofas were black leather, the bedding was grey, the lampshades were wicker. There was a smattering of good antiques, lots of natural wood, enormous windows that overlooked the sea. Gradually I came to realise that the atmosphere was calming and spa-like: all the photos and paintings were natural – bamboo groves, water, lilies. Every small detail echoed the natural world – the trays were wooden, the shower was lined with pebble tiles, on the landing there was a huge glass jar full of seashells. The colours echoed the sea and dunes that were right outside

And above all, it was tonal. The only colours were white, black, grey and the naturals browns of woods. There was no colour to distract or jar the senses. I mean, I love colour but I don’t want to be surrounded by it all the time – a few years ago, I redid the house in chintz and then found I couldn’t live with so much pattern either.

When I came home, I set about reducing the tonality in the house, starting with the living room, and since the house is dark, with small medieval windows, I settled on a palette of white, cream and beige. There were certain elements that I couldn’t change, such as the much-loathed terracotta floor, the exposed grey granite and the leather furniture in black and brown.

I replaced all our old velvet curtains, in shades of peach, pink and green, with cheap cream cotton curtains from Amazon, and the pink and green tiebacks with plain cream rope ones, which gave a coastal air. I painted almost all of the exposed granite white, which made a huge difference, especially around the windows, and painted virtually all the wooden furniture white (the last two remaining pieces will be done very soon).

I bought four cheap floor-standing lamps from Ikea and placed them on top of furniture in the four corners of the room, where they reach quite close to the ceiling – this creates an all-over light that feels like being outdoors. I made cushion covers from scraps of fabric in creams, oatmeals and a soft, coastal turquoise and threw cream throws over the black leather chair. And I painted white everything I could find, from bread crocks to lampshade bases, picture mounts, picture frames…

The DH cut down an old marble washstand for me and made a new wooden top, which I painted white. This is now my desk, placed directly in front of our largest window, with spotlights on the beam behind me and a daylight SAD lamp in the window recess. All this white bounces back the light to create an open, sunny space even on the darkest winter day and has totally eliminated my winter depression.

We invested what money we could in two large pieces of cream and grey vinyl flooring with a driftwood plank design, which not only brightened the room but also proved a magnet for all the animals, unused to the comfort of padded floors. Our dining table is now covered with beige oilcloth with cream polka dots, which is pretty but easy to maintain. Pictures of nature and the sea have replaced our old images, a row of seabirds decorates the mantel and much of the clutter has been eliminated from the room, along with several pieces of furniture.

All of this wasn’t accomplished overnight, of course. On and off, it’s taken a couple of years and there is still work to be done. But it gave me a few basic rules that I now follow. One is that whatever I buy, I buy the white one, whether it’s the dinner plates I picked up for 1 euro each at Noz, or the white earthenware mugs with a slip glaze that now hang in a row from hooks on the kitchen mantel, or the photograph my husband took on a blindingly bright day at Mont St Michel and we had blown up to giant size.

If I can’t get it in white or cream, then soft neutrals like beige, stone or pale grey come next, and very occasionally I buy something in my favourite colour, turquoise the colour of Egyptian faience.

Perhaps surprisingly, all this white hasn’t resulted in a stark or unwelcoming look – the soft textures of nubbly cotton, rope, furry fleece, chenille, embroidery and jacquard lend softness and comfort, while the painted stone and rough plaster create a play of light on the walls.

Nor is all this white especially difficult to keep clean. Pale surfaces don’t show the dust near as much as dark ones and the oilcloth on the table is wipe-clean. The curtains just go in the washing machine a couple of times a year, as do the cushion covers, and the broken surfaces and light patterns cover a multitude of sins.

I feel massively happier in this pale white house and if I want to create a pop of colour, it’s easily done with a single cushion cover, a throw or a vase of flowers.

Tip of the day – sugar cubes

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Keep empty tins and jars fresh by popping a sugar cube inside before sealing. This is an old antique-dealer’s trick and works on all manner of sealed containers in glass, ceramic and metal, including biscuit barrels and decanters. In the biscuit barrel, it also has the advantage of keeping your biscuits crisp.

Sugar is a biocide, so nothing can grow on it, and it absorbs moisture and prevents bacteria build-up. Make sure the object is dry before you add the sugar, but if the worst happens, you can just rinse out the liquified sugar with warm water.

Task of the day – bring spring into the house

It’s mid-March and nature is beginning to wake up, for all that it’s cold and blowy. Celebrate the feel of the season by going outside and bringing something natural inside – a sprig of pussy willow, a daffodil stem, a single blossom of primrose that you can float in an eggcup on your desk.

If you don’t have access to a garden, just prop up a picture from nature to remind yourself that winter isn’t endless.

Tip of the day – cat litter freshener

Cat litter freshener makes a great freshener for carpets and hard floors. Sprinkle it, leave for 10-15 minutes and vacuum up. I recently found Christmas Spice cat litter fresh at our local discount store – smells fabulous.

You can also sprinkle a layer at the bottom of your bin bag, or add to empty yoghurt pots and use as a moth repellent in the wardrobe.

Product of the day: Puressentiel purifying 41 spray

This is a fabulous product that you can use as an air freshener to get rid of nasty smells, as an air purifier in case of sickness or to prevent sickness, on your clothes or your pillow if you’re having trouble breathing due to a cold, or as a disinfectant on wounds. It also smells fantastic.

I’ve used it for a couple of years now and nothing else does the business for making the house smell wonderful – it’s expensive, so I sometimes lose faith, but I always end up gritting my teeth and paying the price. It lasts absolutely ages, too, and you don’t need much. Whenever I spray it, people compliment the smell in the house, which is quite medicinal but also fragrant and clean – think rosemary, eucalyptus, lavender and lemon.

I had a go at reproducing the scent, but it didn’t work, so now I just buy the real thing. Available in 200ml and 500ml sizes from French chemists and also Boots in the UK.