Letter from London: Aga Saga
The contraption was first invented in Sweden, but sensibly the Swedes gave up on it and the company was bought by a Brit who saw a market among his eccentric countrymen. Sure enough, it has found a home among a certain batty sub-section of the rural population whose life literally revolves around the Aga
When moving to a new home, a new city and a new country, one looks for familiar objects. In my case, as I spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen, a cooking range is important. Having spent years cooking on a normal gas or electric range (and often barbecuing on charcoal), I had stopped even considering other possibilities. This is when an Aga entered my life, and thus began a period of considerable frustration, irritation and occasional satisfaction.
For the uninitiated — and believe me, they are in the vast majority — an Aga is large metal contraption which is always on. The advantage, of course, is that you don’t have to fumble with matches or knobs to get it going, or wait for the oven to heat up. The two flat cooking surfaces on top are covered with heavily insulated hinged metal lids, and are ready for instant use as soon as you lift the covers. Similarly, the roasting, baking and simmering ovens are set at different constant temperatures; all you have to do is open the door of the one you want to use and pop the dish in.
The downside to the Aga being always on is that there are no controls on the heat. Consider the implications of this unnatural state of affairs: the cook cannot increase or decrease the temperature at which he is cooking at will. The most you can do is slide the pot or pan from one hot surface to another, less hot one, or move from one oven to the other. Experienced Aga cooks can move the pan off centre by a few inches, thus reducing the heat by a few degrees. To somebody like me, this haphazard approach is very hit-or-miss, and is a far cry from my precision cooking, or at least that’s how I like to think of it. Imagine the recipe calling for cooking at Gas Mark 6 for 45 minutes while you guess what this means in an Aga.
The contraption was first invented in Sweden, but sensibly the Swedes gave up on it and the company was bought by a Brit who saw a market among his eccentric countrymen. Sure enough, it has found a home among a certain batty sub-section of the rural population whose life literally revolves around the Aga. As it is always on, its warmth attracts pets and owners alike: indeed, newly born lambs, puppies or chicks are often placed in the oven designed for warming plates. Here they can recover from the trauma of birth in a pleasant, secure spot. Wet clothes, shoes and towels are often dried on top of the Aga while family members cluster around with drinks in their hands. An entire genre of popular fiction, set in the country, is referred to as “Aga Saga”.
Although the Aga is normally found only in country homes, my wife, having grown up with one, has perversely gone to the trouble of acquiring a second hand one when moving from Wiltshire to London six years ago. When I went to the Aga Shop in Knightsbridge to buy a toasting rack, I was horrified to discover that a top-of-the-line Aga went for £16,000 which is more than what the average new car costs. Actually, being built out of cast iron, it probably weighs more than the average car.
One drawback is that after you have been cooking in one of the ovens for some time, the temperature falls perceptibly, and your next dish may well be undercooked unless you can wait for the heat to build up again. And while we do have a normal gas cooking range standing in one corner of our large kitchen, it hardly ever gets used as it seems wasteful to run two devices simultaneously. Despite my initial reluctance to use the Aga, I must confess I have become used to it and can turn out pretty passable fare. The one thing you can’t do on an Aga is stir-fry as the wok has a rounded bottom and cooking ware has to have an absolutely flat bottom to be used on the Aga’s cooking surfaces. The constant heat along the entire surface is ideal for making very good, soft omelettes, for instance. It is also excellent for risottos.
The other day I made coq au vin for 16 people. This is an ideal dish for the autumn, hearty and filling. The problem about cooking it in Pakistan, of course, is that it calls for an unreasonable quantity of red wine. But eaten with good French bread, it is worth every drop of wine poured into the pot. Let me hasten to reassure the religious minded that after wine has been heated, the alcohol in it evaporates at a temperature far below the boiling point for water. So you can tuck in without visions of hellfire.
My confidence in the infernal machine boosted, I tried my hand at my mother’s recipe for Mughlai chicken. As almost all the 12 guests were goras, I went easy on the hot stuff, and to my shame, I compromised and cut the red chillies to a third of the quantity called for in the recipe. While everybody raved about the end result, I was glad my friends from home weren’t around to sneer at the blandness of the dish; although in my own defence, let me say that this was the first time I noticed the depth of flavour of the dish: in the absence of an overdose of chillies, I could make out all the other spices.
In her introduction to “The Aga Cookbook”, Mary Berry says: “Until I owned an Aga, I never quite understood how Aga owners could be so ecstatic about a cooker. Now I totally understand and am devoted to mine. I have withdrawal symptoms when, once a year, I turn it off for servicing”.
While I haven’t reached this point yet, I can see how it can happen.
The writer is a freelance columnist