It’s Not An Aga Saga

Living in England we had solid fuel stoves, some of which also heated the house. I have never had an Aga, that mark of middle class respectability, but gather they must be sturdy beasts as Leo as a small boy watched his mother heat one up until the top was glowing dull red and then throw buckets of water over it. He was entranced as the water rose to the ceiling in bubbles….but the Aga survived.

I had a Rayburn for years….two ovens, a warming drawer and a solid top on which to slide the pans to achieve the level of heat desired while heating the house….. and then, in a larger house, a FrancoBelge which kept the house toasty on minimal fuel in winter though making the kitchen feel like the Black Hole of Calcutta in the chancy weather of spring and autumn.

In France we had a Godin….beautiful, but only good for top heat….and thus relied on an electric oven. I cannot say that it was a success.

It was top of the range at the time which in effect, meant that its technology was ahead of reality. One thunderstorm and the blighter packed up, thus requiring a visit from the installer and a large bill.

Surge plugs? It sneered at them.

I can tell you, watching your souffle sinking before your eyes is not a good experience.

The climax came when it packed up again when our supper, a hotpot, was just ready. The door would not open. Pressing this, that and possibly the other made no difference. The thing was giving the equivalent of the French shrug. It had our supper and what were we going to do about it….

Well, Leo might be Belgian but given conflict he follows the counsel of Henry V at the siege of Honfleur………

Imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage….

So he went for the oven with a screwdriver, liberated his supper, and the blighter gave no more problems.

Moving to Costa Rica we found things in the oven line to be decidedly old hat….an oven was the thing under the burners….if you had gas burners you had a gas oven below, if electric, electric.

I have never been a fan of low level ovens…..crouching down to see what’s going on, being assailed by a blast of hot air to the eyes when opening the brute…..and once town gas was replaced by natural gas you could not even end it all by lying down with your head in the thing.

Further, one thing living in France had taught us was that you must not be dependent totally on electricity….not if you like hot food….so we needed a gas hob and an electric oven. The first was easy. The second, more of a problem.

The only suppliers at that time were high end kitchen providers, at prices in the stratosphere, so it was off to the small ads to find something secondhand. Of course, as these ovens were not common, the search took quite a time, but eventually we unearthed one, took it home and it worked for years. Until it didn’t.

Off to the workshop of the Cubano, local miracle worker with anything electrical, who warned that , as it was ‘foreign’, there might be a problem obtaining the parts…..

Panicking at the thought of oven deprivation, Leo found another one…new in the box, an unwanted present sold by a young lady whose relationship had broken down, partly, it seemed, because the gentleman concerned expected her to want to cook, whereas her view was that that was why restaurants existed. It was as well that Leo did look around as we finally received the repaired oven one year later.

More modern, lighter…it never cooked as well as old faithful and we were glad to put it in storage and restore the latter to its rightful place.

All went well until the day that it had to be moved to place its ventilation under the new extended kitchen extractor. It still worked…but it gave me an electric shock every time I touched it. No one else…just me.

Well, you can get used to anything, so I became adept at using a tea towel to open and close the door, and developed the necessary gymnastic skills to insert and remove items without touching the racks, while not burning myself. And all was well until our baker packed up.

Local taste in bread demands a touch of sweetness, which we intensely dislike, and this man made proper bread….we had been his customers for years, traveling to San Jose to buy in bulk for the freezer, but the Covid restrictions had made it impossible for him to maintain enough clients to service his bills, so, approaching retirement, he took it.

Sweet bread? No way! We — for whch read me ….would make it ourselves!

Fine…I had not made bread for years, as it was next to impossible to get strong flour in France, but I knew how to do it and once into practice it was not too bad and getting better until Leo enquired why I was baking the bread under a large cooking pot, which entailed sharp work in removing the oven rack, loaf and pot in order to remove the latter once the loaf had risen sufficiently and whack the two former back inside.

I explained that at the heat required to cook the loaf, a hard crust would form, thus reducing the amount by which the dough could rise. You could put a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven too, but, given the electric shock problem, I did not feel up to that experiment. Then, stupidly, I added that professional ovens had steam injection to give a moist atmosphere…….

The Cubano was summoned to rectify the electric shock problem – due, by what I understood of the language used, to the idiots who had moved the thing….and all continued on its diurnal round.

Until a week later when Higher Authority emerged from his office to announce that he had the solution.

A proper bread oven.

He had found it on offer from the onlne store of one of the major white goods firms. We would buy it. It would produce good bread.

Duly bought, the oven arrived at our local store

However, on unpacking it there were two problems.

A. The plug was not compatible with the local system….even my international plug adapter did not recognise it.

B. There were no instructions.

In respect of A, customer services told us that an appropiate wall switch could be obtained at any hardware store.

No way Jose. Not even at the most specialst of outlets.

In respect of B they sent us hordes of links.. none of which were appropriate for this oven.

We contacted the importers.

The receptionist said that as we were not wholesalers the firm could not help us.

After a brief and expressive outburst she put us in contact with the sales manager.

Yes, we could chop off the plug and replace it with the local variety. This would not affect the guarantee.

Here comes the Costa Rican version of Jarndyce v Jarndyce……

He would send the instruction booklet.

He did.

It was vague in the extreme, but all went well until testing the steam supply. The hose was connected, water turned on, but on pressing the steam button jets of water worthy of Niagara Falls leapt out…covering the floor in a realistic re enactment of Noah’s Fludde.

While the cleaner mopped up the results Danilo was on the ‘phone to the sales manager…..

It appeared that you had to have the oven engaged before geting up steam…….

So today I baked bread. On putting the loaves into the oven I pressed the steam button and was aware of the sudden absence of men….normally underfoot.

Steam rose dramatically, like the steam locomotives of my youth.

No water covered the floor.

The bread was a success.


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32 thoughts on “It’s Not An Aga Saga”

  1. Ahghhhha! I’m pretty sure that word will appear in several oven directories, as issued by rivals.
    NB Not to be confused with ah-hahh, which is more often used in the English vernacular for”Bloody brilliant! Can you yo do it again?”

  2. Reminds me rather of my late father when we lived in the Outer Hebrides and the house had some sort of enormous AGA/Rayburn-esque stove for cooking and heating – he would feed it great lumps of peat (which we cut and dried ourselves from a cut that the locals gave us) until the temperature gauge was kicking far into the “Red” “Awoogah!” “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” sector of the dial.

    My bread making remains inconsistent – I can aim for flatbread and bake a fluffy sandwich loaf, and verse vica. Every loaf a fresh adventure. I have learned just to accept and be pleased with the results. My next task, should I choose to accept it (and I do), in “rocketing back to the Stone Age England”, is to grok the noble art – somehow, needs must – of baking bread in a Dutch Oven over an open fire… I confidently expect… trial and tribulation before success.

    1. Leo is of the view that his mother did not have an instruction booklet for the AGA…judging by the oddities that emerged, like pressure cooked tomato soup hitting the ceiling.
      I hadn’t made bread for years so the first few were a bit iffy – and the use of the huge cooking pot to help the loaves rise needed the swift and sure hand which I do not have….
      Good luck with the Dutch oven and the open fire….just wait until you are told you are indulging in cultural appropriation.

  3. Well, congratulations all round! Here, up at the cabin, we have ‘kuizine’ – a room heating oven. We tried using the oven once which requires getting the beast into wildfire mode! As the cabin is double skinned with rock-wool insulation between all external walls, under the floor and in the roof to counter the -20C winter temperatures the result was akin to Death Valley on a good/bad day. We decided that, whilst the wood-burning stove/oven looks very ‘folksy’, we’d buy our bread whilst up here. Down near sea level where we spend the winter we have an oldish electric oven, held together by layers of burnt-on crust (or ‘flavour blur’) that bakes J’s bread to perfection. At no time has either ‘machine’ needed replacement or repair. If they ever do need repair then Turkiye is blessed with a veritable army of superb ‘tamircis’/repairers who will fix just about anything that exists on earth or in heaven! Enjoy your hard earned ‘staff of life’.

    1. Oh for a Turkish repairman! The Turks we knew in France could fix anything, but it is a different story here. Bodgers to a man…except the Cubano, who, as his nickname indicates, is from Cuba and can fix anything electrical…in time.

  4. That looks fabulous! And OH knows just what you mean about not being able to make good bread in France because of the challenge of finding strong flour, which he finds very frustrating as he made lovely bread in the UK. Enjoy your new “toy” and may it give you many years of uncomplicated service.

    1. After all the shenanigans of installing it I am really chuffed by the results, even if the explosion of steam was enough to make me step back a pace or two.I hope to be able to just make regular household bread for a while…but hear mutterings of ‘baguette’ and ‘wholemeal’ in the background.
      I still cannot comment on your blog, even changing browsers doesn’t do it and would have wished to express sympathy just lately.

      1. Hello Helen, thank you. I miss your comments and it’s good to know you are still reading. Is there anything I can do with my blog to unblock you, do you know?

  5. Oh how I laughed!
    “On putting the loaves into the oven I pressed the steam button and was aware of the sudden absence of men….normally underfoot.”
    Tee Hee!
    How thoughtful of the boss to consider making his own bread.
    How thoughtful to search high and low to make your life easier.
    Tee Hee.
    Now I am hungry and must visist Tesco for bread!!!!

  6. Oh, that made my morning, Helen. I too have long experience of various solid fuel stoves, starting with the Rayburn of my Lancashire childhood, which was followed by the very smart Franco-Belge my mother installed in her long-awaited new kitchen. Our first married home had an ancient Esse which could never be persuaded to work properly and when we moved to our Welsh farmhouse we put in an amazing Franco-Belge range. Down in the valley we are all electric, except for a camping gas hob which is kept in the garage in case of emergency. Our bread, I have to admit, is made in my trusty old Breville breadmaker which is sadly approaching senility and a little erratic in its results nowadays, but they are thankfully always edible. 🙂

    1. I loved the Franco-Belge, though in spring and autumn I needed to keep the kitchen door open when it was in use and would have liked something similar in France, but the kitchen space in each house just did not permit it. No need to heat the house here, thank goodness, so hob and oven it is. I was seduced by the idea of a breadmaker, and might have got away with it had not a friend demonstrated hers to us both. Higher Authority’s opinion. ‘I want a loaf, not a polo’, so no breadmaker materialised.

  7. Good for you! Proofing bread requires such a knack…something I’ve clearly not demonstrated well. It either doesn’t raise appropriately or is so dense, slices seem more like plates than bread. Sigh. I do love a good rustic loaf but doggone if I can bake one myself. Yet. 😉

    1. I use the sponge method…all the liquid and yeast and half the flour. Leave to rise slowly, then add the rest of the flour and knead. When doubled in size, knock it back, divide into the number of loaves you require and then roll out each piece into a rectangle and fold top third over middle and bottom third on that, just like making puff pastry. This makes for an even and well risen crumb.Give it three turns and then place in the tin to rise again. When well risen, take a very sharp knife and cut the top of the loaf, either one long cut or several diagonal ones to allow the loaf to expand. Then cook the loaves under a cover for the initial rise or, if you glory in a steam injector oven, press the button!

  8. I’ve never understood why French processed bread almost always contains sugar. It makes a Marmite sandwich a thing of horror. Why do I sometimes buy French processed bread – because there are times when I crave a toasted cheese and onion sandwich. But I digress.

    Congratulations on your perseverance and conquering the oven. In those rare periods when I feel inclined to make bread, I cheat and use a breadmaker. It works pretty well. But then I’m very lazy.

    1. I am forced to make bread, given that our baker shut up shop, and it is not that much trouble as the process is split up into sections….but I hear worrying murmurs of ‘baguette’ and ‘wholemeal’, not to speak of ‘pistolei’…..

    1. Father used to quote something on the lines of ‘mine is a lofty ambition’. I have never t racked it down but it well describes Leo’s hopes for bred production.
      Sod’s Law being what it is, my long awaited second cataract op has manifested itself……..just when I have to avoid steam!

      1. Oh dear, what will you do? I don’t suppose Leo is up to making the bread himself while you are out of action?

        1. Bread in full production today and tomorow morning…..I have visions of Leo instructing Danilo in breadmaking – a possibility that I would give great deal to avoid witnessing.

          1. About a week, from last time. Panicking at the loss of mashed potatoes I was issued with building workers’ goggles. And no I did not take a selfie….

  9. I must say that it sounds as if you deserve good bread. I don’t understand why breadmaker recipes always specify sugar. I used to assume it was “to feed the yeast” but actually I have found a very nice recipe someone in a hippy commune gave me decades ago and it has no sugar in it – and it’s delicious. Mind you I have to make it in the oven which with gas prices and our rotten old oven, means that it’s cheaper to walk 100 yards to Waitrose and buy a loaf.

    1. The new oven makes producing a loaf a real pleasure….and as yet electricity prces have not gone up…there’s a cheap tariff for a certain level of use which rockets up once you exceed it…and the price of gas canisters is stable.
      I don’t use sugar – forgot to add it once and as all was well, did not use it again.

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