Bacon In the Aga

October 23rd, 2011 / Comments 0

My friend Char sent a letter along with a couple of photos from her home in Baltimore. I wanted to share it with you.

The unusually wet and humid September brought extraordinary fungal inhabitants to my garden — none of them edible. Most prolific were the freakish, foul-smelling, dog stinkhorns, good only as subjects for a photo or two before they withered. Not that I would trust myself to eat any mushroom that might poke up amongst the yellowing hostas and rambling morning glories. I’m no mycologist, nor have I been schooled in the ways of forest foraging like my friends in Eastern Europe.About ten years ago, I began what would turn out to be perennial work with an old Soviet era film studio in Vilnius, Lithuania. The former propaganda mill had been retooled to serve the needs of low-budget Hollywood movies and TV shows like the ones we were making for The History Channel. Whether filming re-creations of Viking battles or an enactment of Attila the Hun entertaining Pope Leo I, many of our locations were in pine forests. In autumn, mushrooms sprang up everywhere. At lunchtime, all of the Lithuanians on the film crew disappeared into the woods to forage for wild mushrooms. They returned with bags of boletes, chanterelles and other, more unfamiliar beauties. Everyone was completely confident in their mushroom identification skills that had been passed down for generations.

chantarells Bacon In the Aga

Still, my husband Rob insisted that I not take any mushrooms to cook for dinner. He changed his mind when we saw fresh chanterelles being sold for few Litas a pound  at the city farmers’ market. I prepared them in the local way – sauteed with onion and bacon. They were delicious.

Before we left Lithunaia to return to Baltimore, I stopped at a market stall for a string of dried mushrooms of an undetermined kind. I hung it as a decoration, next to antique baskets on a rack above my green Aga stove. All winter, their distinctive forest fragrance lingered in the kitchen as a reminder of Lithuania.

The following spring, two Lithuanians who had worked on our film crew called to take us up on our offer of a place to stay should they visit  the U.S. We had become especially fond of this young couple whose comical banter could have been the genesis for the characters Latka and Simca on the old TV series, Taxi.

While I roasted a chicken with potatoes and carrots for dinner, our young guests, let’s call them Latka and Simca, sat at the kitchen table sipping wine and entertaining us with their first impressions of America as seen from the windows of the Greyhound bus that had brought them from Newark airport to Baltimore. Suddenly, Latka looked around as if he had just realized that he was no longer on the bus. How surprising, he exclaimed, to see in our American kitchen a woodstove so like the one his grandmother had.

“It’s not a woodstove and it’s not even American,” I laughed. I had owned the Aga for less than a year — its novelty hadn’t worn off and it didn’t take much to get me boasting about its unique features – it was always on and there are no controls to adjust. To hear me tell it, the great cast iron Aga was an all but a human presence in my kitchen, producing the finest meals imaginable and requiring absolutely no effort on my part. “Why,” I went on, “it cooks bacon perfectly. I just throw it into the roasting oven. There are no messy splatters to clean up!”  Simca noticed the string of dried mushrooms and asked why we hadn’t eaten them.

aga Bacon In the Aga

During dinner, we reminisced about shooting battle scenes with Huns and Romans in the cold and mud of the previous autumn. We told our guests that we had to attend a meeting early the next morning and I showed them where to find bread, cereal, milk and jam and they assured us they’d be fine until our return. I offered to show Simca how to use the special Aga toaster but she assured me that she would have no need to cook anything.

bacon Bacon In the Aga

Lithuanian Bacon

When we returned from the meeting, the smell of bacon wafted from the house. Our guests, who were watching television, jumped up as we came in. We knew by their long faces that something unfortunate had happened. “Latka is very sorry, Char, for the destroy of your fine stove,” whimpered Simca.  As we headed for the kitchen, I couldn’t imagine anything that would really damage the Aga. Then Latka began a dramatic reenactment, complete with hand motions, of what had happened.

It had begun with the discovery of his favorite food, bacon, in the refrigerator. Recalling my comments from the night before, he had thrown the entire pound of it onto the cast iron floor of the roasting oven. Then he went to help Simca with the TV remote. When he returned to the kitchen, bacon fat was flowing like a river down the front of the Aga and across the floor.  He managed to remove the bacon, consume some of it, (very tasty he said), and clean up the fat that had oozed out of the Aga. He paused before he nervously opened the roasting oven door and showed me a huge greasy, black stain. He said, “Is very bad, no?” I reassured him that it would burn off eventually even though I wasn’t sure that it would.

I remembered their visit on a rainy Saturday a few weeks ago as I was cleaning the pantry, organizing drawers and preparing the kitchen for autumn cooking.  I used the wire brush that came with the Aga to sweep out the roasting oven. The grease was gone – it had taken a few months but it finally did disappear. I removed all the utensils from the rack above the stove and loaded them into the dishwasher. Then I gave the rack a good scrubbing. After re-arranging my collection of old biscuit tins and dusting the antique baskets, I took down the equally dusty decade-old string of dried mushrooms and gave it a quick swish in warm water. Restored to pride of place, they again filled the kitchen with the dusky scent of the forest. All is in readiness for my favorite cooking season.

If you should be lucky enough to have some chanterelles, here is how they are prepared in Lithuania and on my lovely green Aga.

For one pound of mushrooms: gently wash and dry them and  trim the ends and remove any soft spots. Drop them into boiling salted water and cook for twelve minutes. Dice three ounces of bacon and fry it. Add a diced, medium yellow onion to the pan. Drain the mushrooms and add them to the bacon and onion along with a pinch of salt and a grind of pepper. Cover the frying pan and continue cooking over low heat for seven minutes, stirring several times. Serve for lunch with hot potatoes.

Char sent me this timely link from Saturday’s New York Times.

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