The other day in the Grauniad, under the headline DON’T KNOCK FAST FOOD (I confess to having immediately thought: I shall knock fast food if I want), was an article by the journalist Kathryn Hughes. Fast food is an interesting subject, with its inevitable class war connotations – chavs eating junk food while the fragrant middle classes pickle their own herrings; but her argument was strange: the middle classes, for example Mrs Beaton, originally promoted slow cooking as a way of encouraging attributes – patience mainly – which would make them good entrepreneurs. And now people who eat fast food are similarly upholding the capitalist system, so they’re doing an equally useful job. Er… what? (And what a bizarre argument to find in the Grauniad of all newspapers.) According to Hughes, a large section of the population doesn’t even have the wherewithal to cook slow food (really?); they’re more likely to have a microwave oven than an Aga (well, yes).
For a time we lived in the village of Southwick, just outside Brighton. It had originally been next to the sea, but a large part had been bulldozed in the 50s to make way for a spanking new road which was never built. So it had a strange lopsided feeling, despite being arranged around a charming green where our dog Nell once won Best Bitch. We rented a beautiful Georgian rectory from local self-made man and Harley Davidson fanatic Dennis Clark, owner of several lucrative care homes.
The Old Rectory, tick, with an Aga, tick.
My relationship with this cast iron behemoth was – to borrow a phrase from Gandhi describing his relationship with the British government in India – not a happy one. Cooking on it was as easy as navigating using a sextant. It was good, as you might expect, for extremely slow cooking and extremely fast cooking, but anything between those extremes, i.e. almost everything, was fantastically difficult – unnecessarily difficult given the invention of that splendid gadget the cooker. Baking a cake or cooking a soufflé involved a complex process of oven swapping, inserting and removing plates which might or might not have been sprinkled with water etc. To an Aga afficionado this is all doubtless a piece of cake, but I never got the hang of it, partly due to the fact that it’s impossible to smell anything that’s cooking in an Aga oven, so it’s correspondingly easy to incinerate it. Consequently the hot oven was like an ancient blacksmith’s forge, caked in unidentifiable carbon-rich slurry.
In the winter the Aga admittedly warmed the house, lovely; in summer the kitchen was like the engine room of a ship. Before cooking one needed to throw the windows open and strip to the waist. But the main problem was that the damn thing kept breaking down. In principle the solution was to ring up a specialist company in Horsham or somewhere, but their call-out fee was about £10,000, so Dennis, who was both thrifty and a handyman, would come round and futz around for several hours with screwdrivers and thermostats. And the Aga would either work or not work. If it did work there was then a frustrating fallow period of several weeks (or maybe it was a few hours?) while it heated up again.
For Dennis these sessions were surprisingly fruitful – they gave him a chance to infiltrate his house and check that we were treating it properly. Actually we treated it much better than he did. He once tried to dig up the beautiful floor of the back passage because he needed some bricks, and we more or less had to lie down in the passage, like protesters on the site of a proposed motorway, to stop him desecrating his own house.
After the Aga had broken down for the nth time and Dennis had put in the mth new thermostat, unsuccessfully, he lent us a microwave oven as a substitute. This was surely a category error, like lending a hockey stick to someone whose cricket bat has broken, or a hamster to someone whose dog has died. We completely failed to come to terms with this mysterious machine. We obligingly went out and bought a Marks and Spencer take-away Chinese meal, but made a complete balls-up of heating it up. I think we were afraid of a mini-Hiroshima, so the food never made it to more than a couple of degrees above room temperature. It tasted absolutely dismal, and we were probably lucky it didn’t poison us. As enthusiastic cooks this was a staggering level of failure, on the scale of a research scientist not being able to change a plug. We didn’t use the microwave again, and gratefully returned to the warm embrace of the Aga when it was finally mended.
Since then I’ve discovered that there are many beautiful uses of a microwave oven:
- for heating milk
- for cooking vegetables without compromising their nutritional value
- for fusing together the broken crepe soles of shoes (have to be careful with the temperature here I’d imagine)
- for exploding eggs (I think our friend Boyd was trying to cook the egg)
- for storing cheese (my father-in-law, who like us never got the hang of his microwave, used it as a larder – odd, since a microwave has no ventilation, and, you could argue, is basically the opposite of a larder)
- as a percussion instrument – it works as a complete drum kit, and the bell is useful too.
Meanwhile we have moved house, and use a completely standard cooker. I’m extremely happy with it. And continue to knock fast food without compunction.
Pictured: Salt baked veg, cooked in an Aga
You can read more of Orlando’s culinary tales in his Recipe Journal.