With the river roaring and bridges failing in Vermont, it was a treat to get a letter from my friend Char Gardner. Years ago we cooked together, taught nursery school together and owned a weaving and spinning shop together. She and her husband live in Baltimore and although we haven’t seen each other in years we have reconnected with the help of technology. Char has a wonderful story to tell about the technology in her kitchen – an Aga cooker that I am delighted to be able to share with each of you. From Char:
My Improv Partner in the Kitchen
I was well over fifty with a lifetime of cooking under my belt before I ever had the opportunity to choose a cooker from scratch. All those years accepting whatever stoves came my way, in sixteen moves to apartments and houses, city to country and back again, not counting temporary quarters in makeshift kitchens from the Middle East to the Baltic, I was never conscious of pining for any particular brand or model. But when finally faced with an irreparable stove, I surprised even myself by declaring that all I wanted was an Aga.
Had I been influenced by a constant diet of British novels? Iris Murdoch and Barbara Pym aside, I cannot deny that my ideal concept of hearth and home has been shaped by World of Interiors, glimpses into stone-floored cottages under thatch, with crockery cluttered kitchens inhabited by adorable Jack Russell pups napping next to the ubiquitous enameled Aga, its tea kettle steaming away on.
“Don’t worry”, I told my husband, while trying to explain how the nine hundred pound cast iron British behemoth functions with no controls while it’s on 24/7, “I don’t think you can get one in the States.” I should have known he’d see that as a challenge.
It was February in Baltimore. We were snowed in without a cooker. We didn’t even own a microwave — still don’t. By the next morning Rob had found an Aga dealer in North Carolina who would sell us a two-oven model that had been in a New Jersey warehouse long enough to merit a deep discount, assuming we had no problem with its discontinued color, Hunter Green. Walter, the authorized installation man, would drive from Charlotte, North Carolina to meet the truck with the disassembled Aga coming from Elizabeth, New Jersey. They’d arrive the following Monday, weather permitting, for the two-day job of constructing our new stove.
My husband spent the next five days without a hot meal making sure the kitchen floor would support the enormous load, having the gas tap moved several feet, and reading everything he could about this mysterious piece of engineering manufactured in England since the ’30s, invented by a blind Swedish Nobel physicist in 1922. I was reading too; cooking with the Aga was going to be different. I was shocked to find that cooking classes, or a demonstration at least, were recommended for new Aga owners. I had no intention of doing that — we were leaving for Istanbul in a matter of weeks, and the nearest Aga dealer was over four hundred miles away. I’d have to figure things out my own way.
My husband is a director of documentary films. My job, as the producer, is all about organization, planning and not going over budget. But no matter how careful the preparations, we’ve learned in the world’s far-flung places the value of flexibility. An affinity for improvisation and adaptation is essential to our work. I believe that goes for the rest of life too, especially in the kitchen. The Aga, seemingly an impetuous choice, was one sprung from deep intuition, like love at first sight. After a brief period of getting to know each other, she’s proved over time to be my faithful kitchen partner, never failing, generously forgiving even when I’ve failed her. She’s there to lean against, warm on cold winter mornings, boiling the tea kettle ever so fast, having cooked the Irish oatmeal overnight in the simmering oven (no stirring). She’s at home in any situation; toasting four fat slices of homemade bread at once, drying delicate herbs, baking a buttery tart crust to perfection or making pizza directly on the floor of the roasting oven. She handles a dinner party for eight with ease, making me look far more competent than I am. Her calm green presence encourages me to weather any storm.
Yesterday, waiting for Hurricane Irene to blast Baltimore with high winds and possible power outages, I filled a clay pot with Spanish Fabada beans and the water I had soaked them in the night before. I added sea salt, some good olive oil, a handful of fresh sage, a few cloves of new garlic, and popped it into the roasting oven where the radiant heat brought it to a swift boil. Then, (I don’t believe in skimming) covering it with a clay lid, I slid the crock into the lower (simmering) oven for the rest of the morning. When I’m using the hottest oven I loop a length of red ribbon over the Aga rail as a reminder. I’ve been known to forget that I’ve something in there. Lady Aga is capable of burning dinner to a crisp without a hint that it’s happening. Fumes are vented outside and there is no flame. Luckily, spills just burn away so cleaning is never a concern.
After lunch, the day grew darker and more humid but we still had hours to go before the storm reached us. In a power failure, the heat stored in the Aga remains up to thirty hours. Though fueled by natural gas, the vent motor is electric so that without electricity no more heat can be generated. If vented directly into the chimney, an Aga doesn’t require electricity.
When the beans were done, beautifully firm and creamy inside. I placed a skillet on the boiling plate and added a glug of olive oil, then chopped sweet red pepper, a small yellow onion, two very ripe heirloom tomatoes and a splash of balsamic vinegar. After a few minutes, I scooted it over to the simmering plate still stirring gently. A few more minutes and I had a lovely sauce, I threw a couple of basil leaves in and took it off the heat to begin layering the tomato mixture with beans scooped from the clay pot into a shallower clay vessel. I used a spoon to make a space for a hunk of leftover slow-cooked pork shoulder, set the dish to bake in the roasting oven for about a hour, long enough for the flavors to blend.
I refrigerated the remaining beans with their cooking broth in the big clay pot, the makings of a tasty soup. With two fresh loaves of olive bread in our fairly well stocked pantry I felt prepared, power outage or not, for the next couple of days.
Our candles and oil lamps stood by as it rained hard into the night. Strong winds whipped the trees but the storm, less damaging here than was predicted, left us unscathed. We woke to sun shining on a litter of leaves and branches distributed about the garden. Internet service is down. This day will be spent on the porch, reading the actual newspaper, counting our blessings, and eating well.