Virginia Barton

22 February 2014: The cricket by the Aga

22 February 2014: The cricket by the Aga

 

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?

 

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.

 

10588079675_9bab030eed_oFor 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.

 

 

Comments

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  • Coal-Filled Wellies says on: February 23, 2014 at 7:44 am

     

    What a lovely Commonplace about a lovely thing – a very touching Aga saga! Thank you, Ginny.

    I totally sympathise with your loss, as my parents used also to have an Aga with a similarly central position in family life.

    I note from Wikipedia that the Aga Range Oven was invented by a Swedish physicist recently blinded by an accident, who, confined to his home, was appalled to discover how hard his wife had to work to cook their food. Surely his design was inspired by the wonderful masonry stoves so common in Scandinavia and Central/Eastern Europe, which I believe are considered very efficient as heaters – neolithic man thought so anyway.

    Did your excessive heating bills have more to do with low insulation, or visitors tramping in and out, perhaps?

    • Ginny says on: February 23, 2014 at 3:35 pm

       

      Glad that struck a chord, CFW. The expense was due, I think, to the fact that an Aga is either on or off; it runs day and night. Add to that a rather dodgy thermostat, sometimes the tap water was almost boiling. It spat and hissed out of the tap, causing a rush to the bath to “run off” the water, and sneak a scorching soak. You’re right, the insulation was poor.

      As to continental stoves they are often works of art aren’t they? In Russian Siberia, massive stoves provide can provide a sleeping place for entire families I’m told. The stoves are large and square and fired by wood.

      No way could you sleep on an Aga, though I know of a cat that did, inside — with sorry results… Gin

  • Jack L says on: February 23, 2014 at 2:01 pm

     

    Great story, Ginny! In Scotland we had a monster Aga, royal blue with 6 ovens. I remember it made the best toast using that wire mesh contraption hinged on one end. Does that device have a name?

    Do you know the Charles Dickens’ novella The Cricket on the Hearth? The chirping cricket acts as a kind of guardian angel for the family. Perhaps your crickets did, too….?

    • Ginny says on: February 23, 2014 at 3:37 pm

       

      Wow! SIX ovens, that is massive. You’d have to be cooking non-stop to justify that.

      You’re right about “the toasting machine”, as a dear German friend called it; the best crumpets and toast ever on the Aga, and all done in a trice.

      Our crickets were too short-lived to act as guardian angels, the poor creatures needed guardians of their own. Ginny

  • Jack L says on: February 23, 2014 at 3:44 pm

     

    The official Aga website calls the device the very practical “Toaster for AGA Cooker.”

    I much prefer what one baker has christened the device: “The Tennis Racquet Toaster.”

  • Doris says on: February 23, 2014 at 8:23 pm

     

    What a wonderful story, Virginia. You’ve filled me in completely on everything “Aga”.

    I don’t think we have the equivalent here in the U.S. The kitchen certainly is the focal point of the home, the gathering place for young and old, but I don’t think the oven gets much attention. Instead I would say it’s the kitchen table.

    Sadly, for many the room with the television has taken over as no one cooks anymore nor has much time for conversation. It’s sad that the television is now hung on the wall above the fireplace where once a beautiful painting or portrait would be hung with pride.

    Do I sound like a cranky person? I don’t mean too!

    • Ginny says on: February 26, 2014 at 2:38 pm

       

      Oh no, not cranky, Doris, nostalgic maybe. Everyone leads such topsy-turvy lives these days. No-one comes home at a regular time, family members have engagements at all hours; what with sport, hobbies and friendships, it’s difficult to gather in the same place at the same time on a regular basis. Many a child gets its own supper, and being alone, sits in front of the TV for company as much as anything else.

      One advantage I think, is that youngsters grow resilient and street-wise, which is probably a good thing. But the disadvantages surely outweigh the adantages, the biggest being the lack of talk — children, young people AND adults need the opportunity to exchange ideas, ask questions, express feelings, crack a joke and so on. The ordinary conversational stuff of the kitchen table.

      If the “family” hides away in it’s own room with its own TV, laptop or whatever is the latest gizmo; social skills are either never developed properly, or may become warped.

      Now who’s cranky, Doris? Cheers! ginny

  • Rosanne says on: February 24, 2014 at 1:49 am

     

    Dear Ginny,

    You’ve written a love story about an old friend…who just happens to have been a stove!
    I use an Aga when I visit London…but only to boil water for tea. I leave advanced cooking to those who understand its mysteries of timing and temperature.

    (I did, once, take a class in Colonial American hearth cooking — which is as close as I’ve come.)

    As for beloved ‘stuff’ that speaks of history and happy days, my home is filled with it. I was just saying to my daughter that even our few living houseplants have sentimental value — the gangly fig bought as a twig, the voluptuous jade plant from my late mother’s house, a homely decade-old cactus named Frank after the neighbor who bequeathed it to us when he moved….

    • Ginny says on: February 26, 2014 at 2:39 pm

       

      You must now explain “American hearth cooking,” Rosanne. Hot stones? Paper, twigs, small logs? Is it the origin of the BBQ? I bet the result was delicious. Who was it who said “Food always tastes much better out of doors?” Did it taste like that, even though cooked indoors?

      A ten year-old cactus is a miracle of longevity to me — houseplants hate me, it’s as simple as that. I was given a three-foot high glory of a Poinsettia one Christmas by a nun; came the morning and not one, BUT EVERY SINGLE ONE, of its “leaves” had fallen off!

      It’s been cut flowers round here ever since. Ginny

      • Rosanne says on: March 5, 2014 at 1:27 am

         

        Hi Ginny.

        Hearth cooking is, literally, done indoors on and in the hearth. Pre-stove, post-cavemen. Great fun — and I’d do it again but for one thing: no fireplace at home. Alas.

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