Aga cookers are about as British as it gets. They’re right up there with cricket, warm beer, Marmite, pubs, Wimbledon, the weather and driving on the wrong side of the road. It’s a ticklish business, being British and hating Agas, a bit like living in Switzerland and being a reluctant skier (which I’ve also done).
An Aga, for the benefit of those who don’t currently own one and did not grow up toasting their frozen toes beside one, is a great brute of a kitchen stove. Made of cast iron with a gleaming enamel finish, it runs the full length of the wall of many an English country kitchen. It comes with either three or four ovens, depending on the size of the beast, plus two hobs on the top, each equipped with a shiny, hinged, heatproof lid.
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Some Aga stoves combine cooking capabilities with central heating and hot water functions, though there is a theory that Agas (like many of us) can’t pat their head and rub their belly at the same time, and that to ask them to combine the two activities — particularly if the wind is in the west — is doomed for failure.
If we’re talking cooking, the top left-hand oven on the four-door model is a bit hot for warming plates without exploding them, but barely hot enough to cook anything. The bottom left is fine for plate warming but not much else (except, as Aga owners will assure you, for drying out newborn lambs).
The top right is a positive furnace, great for baking bread, or roasting legs of those little lambs if they ever get to grow up. The heat down in the bottom right oven is not enough for cakes, but a bit more than you need for a gentle braise. (Aga cooks are recognizable by the burns on the undersides of their forearms; they spend a lot of time shunting stuff about from one oven to another.)
And you can boil a kettle or a saucepan (or three) on the top, no bother, but if the tops are left open too long (in other words if you use them), the temperature of the whole thing sinks, along with your soufflé or cake.
There’s no broiler, and you need another oven in reserve for the times when the Aga goes out. This is usually at Thanksgiving or on Christmas Day, and always in summer when, as can happen even in England, the weather is warm and you need to switch it off, otherwise it’s not only the cook who gets hot flashes. In addition, you need a battery of loud and insistent timers, as Aga oven doors are so airtight that there’s no sound or smell of incinerated chocolate cake, roast meat or peach cobbler.
Aga cookers have evolved over time
I was raised at the foot of an Aga. In those days, they ran on solid fuel, which meant you had to feed them with some kind of dusty greasy pat-a-cakes that came in grubby sacks. Our faithful Mr. Hunt shuffled in daily, opened one of the doors, jiggled things about, removed something mysterious and dangerous called “clinker” and retreated to dispose of it, who knew where.
The kitchen was cloaked in a fine film of greasy dust. To get to the stove, you had to pick your way over a carpet of greatly loved and exceedingly smelly sleeping dogs, which sprawled, snoring, on a brightly patterned rag rug reminiscent of Joseph’s Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Nowadays, Agas have moved on: They’re oil-, gas- or even electric-fired, so the clinker is a thing of the past. But how techy are they really?
The basic design has barely changed since 1922. This is the date on which Gustaf Dalen, a Swedish physicist and Nobel Prize winner, dreamt up and patented the idea. Originally made and marketed by Svenska Aktiebolaget Gas Accumulator, the stoves never really took off in Sweden (funny, that). It was in England that they flourished, thanks to a company named Bell’s Asbestos and Engineering Supplies Ltd., which imported the technology and manufactured the ovens locally.
The Deluxe Aga cooker was introduced in 1934 and cost £62 ( about $99) while the more modest New Standard model cost a mere £42 and 10 shillings (about $68). Nowadays, they retail at several thousand pounds/dollars apiece, depending on the model. By 1948, 50,000 British families owned an Aga, and a Royal Appointment to His Majesty King George VI had been granted.
Many of my friends and most of my family are inveterate Aga-philes. All cite the wonderful warmth that the stoves radiate, and I have to concede that this is a distinct advantage in most English houses. (Whereas the rest of the world trembles and shrinks from drafts, the British celebrate the joys of what they persist in calling fresh air.) They also swear by Agas for drying clothes (or dogs) after wet walks, or for airing the ironing. At least one of my sisters-in-law reckons that you can’t make properly billowy meringues, light as a whisper and gooey in the middle, without the help of an Aga.
A Scottish friend has found a brilliant use for the cool oven: After squeezing her oranges for juice she puts the shells in the oven. She retrieves them days later, done to a crisp, and uses them as gloriously fragrant firelighters.
I leave the last word to a faithful (but clear-eyed) Aga owner who, like the stove itself, has the benefit of both a Swedish and a British background. “Agas,” she observes, “are a bit like husbands: Warm and cozy and nice to have around, but expensive — and they tend to go out just when you need them most.”
Photo: An Aga cooker. Credit: Aga Rangemaster