The Aga saga

For 95 years, it’s been so much more than a cooker. Julie Hard­ing lifts the hot plate on the heart-warm­ing kitchen fea­ture no coun­try house should be with­out

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Richard Can­non

For 95 years, it’s been so much more than a cooker. Julie Hard­ing lifts the hot plate on the heart-warm­ing kitchen fea­ture no coun­try house should be with­out

It’s the heart of the kitchen,’ de­clares Mary Berry, prob­a­bly Bri­tain’s most fa­mous Aga owner. ‘I love the warmth and the won­der­ful wel­come. If I had to live with­out one, I’d loathe it.’ Re­as­sur­ingly tra­di­tional yet el­e­gantly fash­ion­able, the en­dur­ing cast-iron Aga has be­come a do­mes­tic icon in the 95 years since its in­ven­tion by swedish physi­cist Gustaf Dalen.

Pe­cu­liarly British, like the sun­day roasts and crumbly scones it pro­duces, peo­ple who own one ap­pre­ci­ate the shiny, in­stantly recog­nis­able ex­te­rior that’s barely changed in a cen­tury, the con­sis­tent heat that em­anates from its solid frame, the ex­cep­tional taste of the com­fort­ing de­lights that emerge from its cav­ernous ovens and the fact that it can be leaned against. ‘An Aga be­comes a part of the fam­ily. I can’t think of any other home ap­pli­ance that sparks that kind of love. It’s ut­ter pas­sion,’ con­firms com­pany spokes­woman Laura James.

For­mer Great British Bake Off judge Mary’s fond­ness for the Aga be­gan decades ago when she was in­vited to her Lon­don flat­mate Penny tet­ley’s Lit­tle Gad­des­den home. ‘I learnt the the­ory of cook­ing from [Penny’s mother] Ma Block. I loved the way her Aga cooked,’ she dis­closes, be­fore re­call­ing an early culi­nary dis­as­ter. ‘I made a meringue layer on but­ter pa­pers, but omit­ted to re­move the

‘An Aga be­comes part of the fam­ily. It sparks ut­ter pas­sion and love’

pa­pers dur­ing the as­sem­bly, which Ma Block found as she cut into it at sup­per.’

Mary has cooked on vir­tu­ally ev­ery kind of Aga and, at the Buckinghamshire home she shares with her hus­band, Paul Hun­nings, she has a fiveoven, dual-con­trol model in duck-egg­blue, with gas-fu­elled ovens and elec­tric-pow­ered tops. ‘Some­times, I’m test­ing recipes and hav­ing peo­ple round, but a lot of the time, there are only two of us, so I can turn off parts of the cooker, which re­ally suits me,’ she ex­plains.

The TV cook also re­li­giously places the beds of her dogs—labrador Mil­lie and work­ing cocker Darcey—at its base each night. Soggy gloves and dog tow­els are put on the top to dry out, as are her tree-sur­geon son Tom’s ropes.

‘An Aga has so many uses,’ says Mary, who utilises ev­ery cook­ing func­tion, from the boil­ing plate for toast­ing crum­pets, the roast­ing oven with the solid shelf placed near the top for a Vic­to­ria sand­wich, the base of the sim­mer­ing oven (bot­tom right) for pas­try—as this ‘avoids a soggy bot­tom’—and the en­tire cooker at Christ­mas when roast­ing a turkey and all the trim­mings.

‘I can cater for any num­ber with the Aga,’ she as­serts. ‘One trick [if you lack oven space] is to cook your roast po­ta­toes, parsnips and stuff­ings the day be­fore, then just pop them in on the day to heat up.’

In fact, Mary prefers to pre­pare meals ahead through­out the year and rec­om­mends one-dish recipes, such as fish pie, shep­herd’s pie or roasted veg­eta­bles with sausages. ‘To­day, ev­ery­one wants slow roasts—pulled pork, pork belly, lamb—be­cause it doesn’t mat­ter if they’re left in for half an hour too long. Any casse­role done beau­ti­fully slowly is lovely, too.’

Mary does, how­ever, have some words of warn­ing for those in­her­it­ing an old Aga. ‘You need to be aware that the sim­mer­ing oven is very slow and you’ll need to get used to it, so, if you’re cook­ing a casse­role, start it off in a quicker oven, then move it to the sim­mer­ing one. If you’re us­ing the ovens, keep the lids down to en­sure the heat stays in and the cooker runs more ef­fi­ciently.’

She also ad­vises new own­ers to in­vest in a timer so that the charred re­mains of last night’s sup­per be­come a thing of the past.

Fel­low devo­tee the Duke of Som­er­set also con­fesses to oc­ca­sional mem­ory lapses in­volv­ing cook­ing in the Aga

his par­ents in­stalled in Bradley House, Wilt­shire, in the 1950s. ‘I’ve for­got­ten things and found them burnt a few days later,’ he con­fesses with a smile.

Ev­ery morn­ing, the Duke makes toast on the left-hand hot plate (‘with­out us­ing the ten­nis-racket con­trap­tion’) of his royal-blue, four-oven oil Aga and is fond of pop­ping a snipe into the top-right oven to roast for 10 min­utes.

‘Al­though we don’t make cakes, my wife and I cook a range of main cour­ses, from fish on the top plate to game and meat in the oven. We also al­ways warm our plates in the bot­tom left.’

He re­mem­bers fetch­ing the coal that pow­ered the now-con­verted stove when he was a child. ‘I’ve grown up with the Aga and I grav­i­tate to­wards it when I’m cold,’ the Duke ad­mits. ‘We also use it for air­ing clothes. An Aga is a nice thing to have. It cooks things in a spe­cial way, with con­sis­tent heat that isn’t fierce al­though, if you’re new to one, you need to ex­per­i­ment, be­cause not ev­ery­thing will turn out right first time.’

The Duke has never worked out how much his cooker costs to run, but Ian O’brien of Som­er­set-based sup­plier and in­staller O’briens says oil-fired Agas gen­er­ally con­sume 40 litres (nine gal­lons) of fuel a week: ‘That may seem a lot, but it’s tem­pered by other ben­e­fits, such as not need­ing to use the tum­ble drier or elec­tric ket­tle, as well as less cen­tral heat­ing be­cause heat from it per­co­lates around the house.’

Over the years, the Aga’s place in our cul­ture has ex­tended from the kitchen to the book­shelf by be­com­ing im­mor­talised as a genre of ro­man­tic fic­tion— much to ‘Aga saga’ au­thor Joanna Trol­lope’s dis­gust. Real Agas reg­u­larly fea­ture in The Archers and have even in­spired a series of car­toons based around ‘Mrs Aga’.

Their creator, Bryn Parry, co-founder of the Help for He­roes char­ity with his wife, Emma, freely ad­mits that, if he didn’t own an Aga, he wouldn’t be mar­ried. ‘Emma be­gan mut­ter­ing in her late thir­ties that, if I didn’t buy her an Aga, I’d be his­tory,’ di­vulges the car­toon­ist. ‘She’d been brought up with one so, to her, it’s a sym­bol of home and hearth, but I hadn’t, so I didn’t get it.’

With a dark-blue, two-oven, gas­fired Aga in­stalled as per a ‘pri­vate con­tract’ just days be­fore Emma’s 41st birth­day and his mar­riage se­cured, Bryn chal­lenged his wife to write a cook­book, which be­came

Home on the Range. ‘She came up with 150 recipes and I said I’d il­lus­trate it,’ he re­calls.

‘Emma said the car­toon Aga needed to have a wom­anly fig­ure, so I drew curvy, smi­ley, ma­ter­nal-look­ing mod­els through the night and, by dawn, I’d given birth to Mrs Aga.’

‘Mrs Aga’ creator Bryn Parry says he wouldn’t be mar­ried if he hadn’t agreed to buy his wife, Emma, one

Mary Berry (above) finds that there’s al­most noth­ing she can’t do on her Aga. Mrs Aga (far right) is quite the char­ac­ter

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