22 February 2014
Months ago, I promised Doris I would let her know what an “Aga” is…
The noise of crickets in Spain, or France is a familiar one. But in England? BH identified the penetrating chirrup, familiar to him from years in the Middle East when three of the little creatures appeared in my kitchen, scuttling round the bottom of the Aga. Their lives were sadly short, too many big feet clomping about.
I didn’t recognise the crickets (I thought they were cockroaches) – do you recognise an Aga?
It’s a redoubtable cast iron stove, invented in Sweden I believe, of considerable girth and monstrous weight. Websites are devoted to them, and a genre of novel is named after them – the “Aga Saga”. These tales concern the lives of middle-class people living in idyllic villages in the country. (Do we still refer to “classes” of people? Perhaps it should be “socio-economic group x” people. But the English do so cling to the class system…)
An Aga has style, let’s face it; it’s posh the way no other cooker is.
Nowadays you can get an Aga in fancy colours; it may be powered by a variety of fuels, and it has many imitators.
When we bought our family house in Oxford 35 years ago, an Aga was included in the deal. It was already at least 15 years old and crouched menacingly in the kitchen-cum-dining room. Oddly, we never gave it a nickname. It could have been Puff, Fafner, Kracken, or even Coca (the Portuguese call St George’s dragon Coca. Well! I bet you didn’t know that, and neither did I). But no, it was only ever called the Aga: with a long ‘a’ as in ‘far’. Although I daresay the Swedes pronounce it differently.
Ours was a shabby white, and ran on gas; masses of cubic metres of it to judge by the bills. It warmed up the kitchen, cooked, and heated enough water for 2 modest baths but not the central heating.
Being the “2 Oven Model”, it was either hot or cool; no moderate heat in either oven or hotplate. Dainty sponges were a no-no, but bread and casseroles a dream. If one foolishly left the hotplates open for too long, the whole stove lost heat at a rate of knots.
Cooking a Christmas lunch required the skills of a juggler and expert timekeeper. It was a stunning laundry drier — if draped round the kitchen when everyone had gone to bed, it was ready to put away by morning.
It also provided an instant comfort station to the insomniac; these poor souls, familiar to us all, leaned against it at all hours drinking endless mugs of tea. They talked earnestly about Pound and his relationship with Eliot, or their sad affairs with fellow-students. One practised his tap-dancing late into the night in melancholy loneliness; another cleaned everyone’s gym shoes, with a nail brush, under a thin trickle of cold water – in silence.
There was a deal of humanity round that Aga.
For myself, I had a love/hate relationship with it – it would not do as I told it. Many frustrating weeks were spent getting used to cooking on this monster. There was a knack to it and wits about one were an essential. Thanks to the close fit of the Aga’s oven doors and lids; when closed, no trace of a cooking smell escaped. Many a tuna mayo sandwich replaced the charred ruin of a dinner, forgotten for several hours in the hot oven.
The advantage of all that heat was that one never had to clean the ovens, merely brush them out at the annual service. I know for sure that I lost 3 chickens and a tray-load of buns, despite the piercing shrill of a timer. The garden led out of the kitchen and, once out there, dinner was forgotten.
Come high summer the Aga had to be turned off, or the kitchen/dining-room would have been a scorcher.
Did I mention it was in the basement where there was a door into the garden? Presumably the crickets had wandered in from there. A small electric cooker, known as Baby B, suitable for a student’s bedsit, sat on top of the cold, summertime Aga, with short cooks (self) perforce standing on a stool to fry, griddle or whatever.
The end of August came as a relief: Baby B was put away under the stairs and the Aga serviced and re-lit. As soon as it was hot enough, 24 hours, a celebratory minestrone was made and a motley collection of breads.
It cost a bomb but it gave succour, if only temporary, to crickets. It comforted the insomniac and the sufferer of an essay crisis. It was hopeless for teaching the little ones cooking. But it is the only piece of household equipment I have ever actually wept over when it died and was broken up and carted away for scrap.
Now I have a soulless ceramic hotplate that has to be cleaned at least once a day, and an oven attached to the wall with “runners” that catch me painfully every time I take a dish out. Yes I was frequently burned by the Aga, but they were honourable burns. Hey ho.