Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Fire in the patio



At least until winter returns we have set up our breakfast headquarters in the front patio. It's a setting almost too pleasant if such a thing is possible.

When the house was built we had connections built in from the amplifier in the living room to  speakers in front patio and the back terrace, controlled by a cheapo selector box from Radio Shack. Until recently we also had a purple finch nest hidden in a trumpet flower vine that has completely covered the wall by the gate though it hasn't yet started to bloom. The chirping of the mother finch and the babies clamoring for food made any piped-in music unnecessary. That stopped about ten days ago when the chicks flew off.

The patio is also flooded with flowers and greenery, and literally dozens of hummingbirds constantly dive bombing a sugar-water feeder hanging from the big Japanese privet tree in the middle of the patio.

One unfinished piece in the patio was a fire pit for which we had installed a propane gas connection. It was supposed to be an easy-on, easy-off affair, controlled by a gas valve, just as seen in some garden magazines that also show elegant women in slinky dresses standing by, sipping champagne.

Our fire pit didn't exactly work out that way. It came out better and without the extra cost of champagne.

We asked our iron worker Gustavo--the indispensable herrero who has built furniture, light fixtures and countless other metal things--to create a fire pit roughly based on a picture we had seen in a magazine.

Don't tell anyone but Mexican herreros have an uncanny ability to reproduce any object you show them, including designs no doubt copyrighted in the U.S. and Europe, for a fraction of the cost. Like most other developing countries, Mexico is a hotbed of piracy and knock-offs, from movies and CDs to furniture.

Our fire pit was not a complete rip-off though. We changed it enough to give it a plausible claim to originality and us a measure of self-respect.

The design is supposed to evoke the shape of a tulip with three rounded petals. Gustavo made it with hammered metal which he gave a rusted, copper-like finish. It rests on a flat base that sits on the flagstone sidewalk around the garden. The finished product is about 18 inches in diameter and about the same in height.

Our design called from a grate on which we would put a layer of red volcanic rocks through which the festive flames from the gas burner would poke through. Visitors would say, "Ahh, isn't that nice!." Not exactly, as it turns out.

Problem is that a regular burner, of the type that Gustavo installed and which you find in a kitchen stove, doesn't work. Even when we adjusted the air intake to make the flames yellow instead of blue, there wasn't enough oomph to the flames to create much of a show.

For that you need a special fire pit burner with smaller orifices that forces the gas the flames higher. Mail-order from the U.S. those guys would cost about $100, plus S&H and Mexican customs, and we weren't sure they would work with propane. Gustavo had made the whole thing for about US$400 and an additional $150 for just a new burner didn't make any sense.

So on to Plan "B": Burn pieces of scrap lumber--we still have a pile of it left from the construction of the house--and use the burner just to light the wood.

The reconfigured pit has bigger flames and lets off a pleasant smell of burning wood. The metal of the pit gets quite hot and takes the morning chill off. The only drawback is that periodically we have to take it apart and scoop out the ashes at the bottom of the bowl, which we spread on the soil in the patio.

Our fire pit is a "Good Thing" would declare Martha Stewart, who is turning 70 and a grandmother at the end of the month. A very "Good Thing" indeed.

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