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Our Aga Saga

Our first sight of an Aga cooker
It all began back in 1993 when we bought a virtually derelict house in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England. It was a mess and needed everything doing to it. In the kitchen was this cold, dirty and slightly imposing Aga with a label attached to it saying "needs new water seal, do not use". Oh great, we thought, what's one of those, where can we get one, and where does it go? On the front of the Aga was a door which had an embossed warning message on it:

KEEP TIGHTLY CLOSED

Keep tightly closed

This was not the kind of cooking appliance we were used to. User friendly was not the first thing that came to mind to a couple of green and conventional types like ourselves.

The next few months were spent making the house as comfortable as we could, within the budget that we had, and given that the Aga was the only means that we had of cooking and generating hot water it was one of the first things on the list.

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The water seal that caused so much concern early on was just a rubber washer that needed to be fitted to the Aga's water drainage valve and behind that ominous door was an oil burner supplied and fitted by, apparently, Don Engineering when the Aga was converted from solid fuel to Oil fired.

We cleaned the whole thing up using soda crystals and a great deal of elbow grease and eventually got the thing looking, not only like it might run, but like we might want to cook in it.

Lighting up our Aga for the first time

The day soon came when we decided it was time to start the Aga up. We had great misgivings because we knew little about the history of the thing. We did know that it was manufactured around 1940 and that it was originally situated in the house next door to us, the old grounds of which our house was now situated in. Its previous owner had it moved to its new location for reasons known only to him.

We had the original instructions that came with the fitted Oil conversion kit so we did know what we were supposed to be doing and had little excuse not to try it ourselves rather than calling in and paying for a service engineer.

We set the burner up as per the instructions, allowing the oil to work its way through the unit and then poked a long lit match through the little door in the burner's base; we watched as the whick caught. After waiting for the specified time for the burner to get hot enough to vaporize the oil we turned the oil pump up to full. Gradually the burner's flame turned from a mucky yellow to a searing hot blue. Eventually, over a period of about 18 hours, the aga came up to full temperature, was heating our water, warming the kitchen and ready to cook on.

This is where the first real advantage of having an Aga became apparent. The house seemed to be transformed into, well it's hard to describe; I suppose the house seemed to gain a heart. A centre. I guess this is why Aga owners talk about it becoming the focal point of the house.

Learning how to use our Aga

Learning to use our Aga cooker effectively was a great deal easier than we thought it would be although it did involve a change in priority in the way we cooked. Previously, with a conventional cooker, we found that the majority of our cooking was done on the hob (ie not the ovens). We were advised that to use an Aga effectively the ovens should be the primary facility. This is because:

1. Cooking on the hotplates results in a greater loss of stored heat across the whole of the cooker. Apparently this is because a lids up Aga looses significantly more heat than a lids down one.

2. The performance of the ovens on the Aga is the primary advantage (in terms of cooking) that Agas have over conventional cookers. Why? We asked the same question. Apparently the ovens cook more evenly and with less of a tendency to dry out the food being cooked.

Point 1 above tickled us a bit because, almost without fail, whenever we saw an Aga cooker on television it had its lids open, frequently even when there was nothing on the hot plates. I guess the producers thought it looked better that way.

So whenever we could we cooked in the ovens. Even my mother's fantastic red pasta sauce, which needs to cook for a good two hours (and often much longer) was started off on the boiling plate and then transferred to the bottom of the top oven for the duration.

Not everything we cooked was in the ovens however; I mean some things just can't be done that way. For instance toast. Or even better, haloumi cheese placed directly onto the simmering plate; without a doubt, we have never (ever) tasted this done better using any other method.

What we found to be the most frustrating thing about our Aga

After a while it soon became apparent to us what the worst thing about owning an Aga cooker was, and it had nothing to do with the cooker itself. That thing was Servicing.

Now, we didn't have a problem with the fact that it needed regular servicing (about every four months for our old converted oil fired model). The problem was with how inconvenient the whole process was. It was inconvenient for two reasons:

1. The Aga needed to be cold for servicing to take place. This meant that we had to turn it off midday the day before the engineer was due to call. We soon had a new immersion heater fitted in our hot water tank and bought a small portable cooker unit just so that we could have hot food and water during the service periods. We could easily forgive this though due to the real benefits owning an Aga gave us. It's the next point that was the shocker.

2. We never managed to arrange a service on the weekends. Now, we both worked so there was never anyone in during the working day. We had to take days off work to have our Aga serviced! We may just have been unlucky with our servicing agents so this may not be a general problem with Aga ownership. Then again....

What's that burning smell?

Once we were comfortable in our new home and about half of the renovations had been done we decided to go on holiday for a couple of weeks. We had two choices with the aga; we could turn it down to tick over which basically meant that it would remain alight but at no where near cooking temperature, or we could turn it off completely. We decided to turn it off. This, we think, was the right choice but did mean that we would have to go through the re-lighting procedure for our oil fired model once we got back. No problem, you might think, and indeed for anyone with the ability to read and take note of instructions this would have been the case; not for us though.....

When we got back from holiday turning the aga back on was high on the list of priorities. It fell to the man of the house to do this (bzzzzt, mistake). Now, for one reason or another the first attempt to light the burner failed. It went out after about an hour or so, perhaps because we turned the oil pump to full too early. This happened to us before and is no big deal as all you need to do is to wait for the burner to cool down and start again. What happens if you don't wait for the burner to cool down? I'll tell you.

Once the wick in the burner is lit and the burner gets up to the necessary temperature it's hot enough to vapourise the oil. This is the point when the oil pump should be turned up to its normal running setting. I tried to re-light the wick when the burner was still hot enough to vaporise any oil that it received. My hand, with a lit match was inside the aga and my head was at a low enough level so that I could see what I was doing. As the naked flame reached the burner access flap the oil vapour caught light and a ball of flame came shooting out, engulfing my hand and, for a brief moment, my face. I don't think that I've ever moved so fast. Luckily the only injuries were to my hair and my pride but it just goes to show that you should always follow the relighting instructions fully.

Farewell to an old friend

Soon after we had finished renovating our house we had a baby boy. This meant that we were significantly worse off financially as we both decided that it would be best if Lynn stayed at home to raise him, which meant virtually halving our household income. It soon became apparent that things were too tight for us to maintain the excessive lifestyle that we were used to which led us to make the decision to up-sticks and move to another home. This meant leaving our beloved Aga behind.

The new place is great except for one thing. Yep, you've guessed it; we're back to using a conventional cooker again. Bad for us, good for you as it gives us fresh insight into what living with an Aga is really like. This is what we have realized.

1. Conventional ovens, the ones that are not self cleaning, need a lot more cleaning than aga ovens. Aga ovens essentially carbonise any spillage's and only require brushing out on rare occasions, usually when the Aga has been turned off for servicing.

2. Our tumble drier is used more often. This is not only as a result of having another member of the family but is also because we no longer have an Aga to dry our clothes on.

3. We get through a lot more kitchen cloths. When we had the Aga we used to place the cloths on top of one of the lids to dry them. This, essentially, sterilized them, keeping them smelling fresh and clean. We now have to throw the cloths away on a regular basis (amazing how annoying this is).

4. The house doesn't have that constant ambient temperature that an Aga cooker generates. When it's cold outside and the central heating is off the kitchen is decidedly chilly.

5. We have to be a lot more careful when cooking in the ovens to make sure that the food is not overcooked. It tends to dry out quicker.

We do aspire to owning another Aga eventually but what with one thing and another we know that we are going to have to wait until the time is right. If you're thinking about buying one but are not yet sure all we can say is that we miss it.

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