A long term review from a traditional Aga range cooker user
The sun streams in from both sides of writer and antique dealer, Ros Byam Shaw’s wonderful Devon kitchen. It bounces off the buttermilk gloss paint walls, creates pretty patterns of light across the ancient flagstone floor and illuminates the enviable collection of beautiful china on the dresser, which stretches the length of the back wall. On the kitchen table are a colourful burst of home grown tulips, picked from the walled gardens surrounding the 16th century house. The scent of fresh bread fills the air as Ros takes a loaf out of the Aga range cooker, quick to point out her husband made the bread. This is a room I could sit in all day.
In winter, Ros doesn’t leave the kitchen either. She moves her desk and computer in, accompanied by Wellington, the friendly spaniel, who curls up on a cosy armchair tucked in the corner. From here, Ros has written many of her books includingPerfect English Farmhouse, Perfect French CountryandDecorating in Colouras well as being a regular contributor toWorld of InteriorsandHouse and Garden. A couple of years ago, she and her daughter Lizzie, founded an online antique business,Perfect English Stuff, the success of which has kept Ros busier than ever.
The kitchen is a hub of activity, in part due to the reassuring proximity of the four-oven cream range, which keeps the room warm, even on the coldest days. Ros inherited the cooker with the house when they moved in twenty-two years ago. It had been installed in the early 1940s and originally ran on solid fuel before being converted to gas in the 1980s.
“I had never cooked on an Aga range cooker before, although we did have one for a few years when I was growing up. We couldn’t afford to keep it on all the time, so my mother would light it every morning and it took all day to warm up. She always complained of having cold feet and would have a relay of slippers in the warming oven. Once she put a suede pair in and forgot about them. By the time they were discovered, they had shrunk to a pixie size and then disintegrated into a pile of ash.”
Ros laughs at the memory. As an adult, with two children of her own, Ros realised she needed to find her way around the range cooker and fast, so she bought a Mary Berry cookbook. Learning to cook on the stove was one thing, keeping it alight was another.
“Not only did the cooker use an inordinate amount of gas, if the wind was in a particular direction, the pilot light would go out. I had to lie on the floor, on my tummy, with a specially fashioned small piece of piping with a match poked into the end. I would light the match and gingerly insert the pipe while at the same time clicking the ignition switch. As I did this, my husband crouched by the gas level and turned it up very slowly. It could take twenty tries before we managed to reignite the pilot light which was incredibly tiresome.”
The gas guzzler’s days were numbered. Unpredictable pilot light aside, there were economic and environmental issues attached, yet Ros hesitated over the decision to convert the stove. Friends had taken the plunge and been disappointed with the results, so much so that they got rid of their cooker.
“Before I had one, I thought Aga range cookers were a bit silly, a country accessory along with the Labrador, but now I wouldn’t be without mine. I didn’t want to risk anything going wrong with it by fiddling around. And then I came across Blake & Bull and read lots of great reviews about the conversion service they were offering. I felt like I had found the right people at the right time.”
The operation took a couple of days. It was a messy job, but nothing a professional team and a lot of hoovering couldn’t sort out.
“When it was put back together it looked as it always had and its performance was very similar. All the things I liked about it stayed the same. The only slight change was the heat distribution which took a little while to get used to. Thankfully, the monthly energy cost went right down and four years on we haven’t had a single problem.”
Like many other range cooker owners, Ros praises her stove for its multi-purpose practicalities.
“It’s incredibly useful to have a constant source of heat, I would feel slightly lost without it. I fold damp laundry and lay it on the lids of the hot plates, which acts as a dryer and means I don’t need to use the iron. And the bottom oven is perfect for soggy trainers as long as I don’t forget about them like my mother did!”
Ros’s morning routine focuses around the stove, with a pan of oat milk porridge slowly puttering away as she makes filter coffee in a big enamel jug. Special porridge bowls and Spode cups wait on the warming plate. Ros says she is not a natural chef and relies on the Aga range cooker to do the hard work for her. It keeps meat moist and tender and produces delicious bakes and roasts with minimum fuss. Her Blake & Bull baking trays – which slide satisfyingly on the runners – get a lot of use. Signature dishes include Toad in the Hole, Sweet Potato Curry and Roast Chicken and Ros leaves food on the warming plate so people can help themselves.
“We don’t have a conventional oven here and I sometimes wonder what it would be like to cook on an induction or gas hob where you can have better control of the heat. My son-in-law, Charlie, is a fantastic cook and is just as happy using our Aga range cooker as he is his six-ring gas burner at home. Most recipes are adaptable.”
Ros slices the still warm wholemeal bread and pours me a large cup of steaming coffee and I wonder how long I can stay here before they begin to miss me at home.