Installing an open fireplace was one of the first tasks we tackled in this house. A hearth is the heart of any living space, a belief reinforced by the obsessive nature with which my parents would light the stove at any opportunity. I remember the heat that would belt out from that stove (the same ornate number as found at The Ethicurean) as it warmed my face, the creak of the doors opening, the little tool used to open the vents. The television was on a table to the left of the stove and our cheeks would redden on one side only.
But most of all, I remember the ritual of laying the fire, one I now follow in our house, with our fireplace, using the same black iron tongs and brass poker inherited from my parents. It's taken me a while to perfect a roaring fire, but I think I've finally managed it.
To lay the perfect fire, you will need (aside from the obvious hardware):
Kindling, and plenty of it
Fuel suitable for the kind of 'zone' in which you live; we use logs of varying sizes and smokeless coal
If you're unlucky: firelighters
Sweep out the ashes of any previous fire.
Fold a sheet of newspaper in half along the diagonal. Fold up from the fold about 5cm and keep folding until you can fold no more; you should have a long, thin strip.
Wind the strip around your hand and tuck in the end, leaving you with a neat coil of paper.
Bundle as many of these coils into the grate as will easily fit.
Begin stacking up kindling sticks along the back of the grate. I think this was a mistake I used to make, skimping on the kindling. You need a good, thick layer.
Carefully light the newspaper coils, as many as you safely can reach with a lighter or matches.
While the kindling is lit, find your coal and begin to place smaller pieces on top of the burning paper, making a thin layer over the top. If the kindling dies out, hold a sheet of newspaper (broadsheet) across as much of the grate opening as possible. It should whoosh back to life. If things are really not working, resort to a couple of firelighters, placed at the back alongside the kindling.
Once everything's burning and glowing nicely, select a couple of small logs to place front-to-back, leaving a little room between logs and coal if you can. Bundle more coal into the grate.
Monitor constantly. Fiddle about if things aren't looking too promising: move the good patches around, redistributing heat/flames to neglected areas.
When your fire is established, keep a close eye on it, adding more fuel all the time.
I should probably add some kind of disclaimer here about not being responsible if you don't have the right kind of fireplace or haven't had your chimney swept. I hope it goes without saying that fire is dangerous and that fires should be covered with appropriate guards, not left unattended, and fully extinguished before you go to bed.
But what I want to write is how mesmerising a fire can be, how restorative, how magical (particularly on a blowy/rainy/stormy, dark night - perfect for my Month of Light series). As a child, I had a 1950s book that featured a poem or story about flames. I can't recall much of it, I'm sad to say, but I do remember the illustration of flames with little faces and words describing their lick, unpredictability, and total attraction. One of winter's very finest rituals, perhaps with a crumpet or marshmallow toasting gently on the flames (I'm well and truly sold on RE's range of toasting forks).
If you have a tip or trick to ensure the perfect fire, leave it in the comments below.