As the iconic oven turns 100... The truth about Agas: They look better than they cook

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Ex-editorial for Good Housekeeping Lindsay Nicholson gives take on the AgaBoth Great British Bake Off Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have themBut the UK-based writer says the 'ornament' is not worth the four-figure sum

The house in rural Ireland I visited every year when my daughter was small had a range cooker which burned turf from peat bogs.

It must have been 50 years old even then, but provided all the heating and hot water for our traditional cottage.

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It was literally the heart of the home and there was even a nickname for anyone who huddled too close — they were called an ‘ashy pet’. My daughter — an ashy pet if ever there was one — grew up to become a chef and is, not surprisingly, a range-cooking aficionado.

She explained to me: ‘Agas really trap the moisture, so they are brilliant for roasts. You can put in a whole chicken with no oil or butter and it will come out perfectly cooked as well as giving you a jugful of pan juices for gravy.

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‘It’s good for cakes and bread baking, too, all the classic British dishes.’

She is not alone in her devotion to the Aga, which turns 100 this year. Paul Hollywood has one and Mary Berry wrote what is still the classic Aga cookbook.

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Dame Mary Berry wrote what is still the classic Aga cookbook in 1999, to keep Aga cookery 'up to date' so it 'need no longer be confined to stews and casserole'

 Dame Mary Berry wrote what is still the classic Aga cookbook in 1999, to keep Aga cookery ‘up to date’ so it ‘need no longer be confined to stews and casserole’

And for many more of us amateur cooks, it is the ultimate upper middle-class fantasy: the Aga in the farmhouse kitchen, bread baking and two labradors snoozing alongside. There are even best-selling novels — Aga Sagas — that celebrate the lifestyle. Surely no other kitchen appliance has inspired its own fiction genre?

And yet as editor of Good Housekeeping, I saw another side to the aspirational Aga dream.

We were besieged with questions from readers battling to make modern recipes work on this traditional appliance.

Meringues, of course, and cakes were the usual source of grief, Victoria sponges that went flat or fruit cakes that burned rock hard.

We told the readers to ignore all timings in the recipe and keep checking and testing as if they were a Great British Bake Off contestant.

The main drawback for me is the lack of an oven door window. I’ve woken in the night before now with the realisation that there’s a pound of sausages still cooking away to a cinder.

A blue Aga cooker in a modern kitchen. These ovens can set you back between £4,000 and £20,000 depending on the number of cookers and different fuel types

A blue Aga cooker in a modern kitchen. These ovens can set you back between £4,000 and £20,000 depending on the number of cookers and different fuel types

Then there were the evenings I sat hungrily in a North London kitchen while a flustered hostess tried to persuade the range cooker that took up half her kitchen (and cost as much as a small car) to boil some water for pasta at a dinner party.

I spoke to that friend this week and the demon cooker has chosen January to break down, so she was waiting for a fitter to come out, freezing cold and unable to cook.

Sadly we were unable to install an Aga at the Good Housekeeping Institute. The cast-iron frame made them too heavy for safety on our second-floor premises. We feared one would fall through to the floors below!

So, when we opened a new Institute in 2014, on the ground floor, I insisted we install a state-of-the-art Total Control Aga. It was an elegant pearl grey, ran on mains electricity and could be turned on and off from a mobile phone. It made the test kitchen beautifully warm and cosy when it was on but took hours, not minutes, to warm up — hence the need for remote control if you are out of the house for much of the day.

This long warm-up time is not energy efficient. A fan oven can reach 200c (392f) in just five minutes — that’s hot enough for oven chips. Everhot makes a cheaper and — it says — more energy-efficient alternative to the Aga or Rayburn, but its ranges can still take a couple of hours to warm up. We used our Aga to triple-test recipes, but its most-used function was as an elegant backdrop in photo and video shoots.

An 'Ideal Home Exhibition' in 1968, showing children playing in a kitchen containing an Aga cooker on show at the exhibition

An ‘Ideal Home Exhibition’ in 1968, showing children playing in a kitchen containing an Aga cooker on show at the exhibition

And therein lies the unspoken truth, which makes me wonder if Agas will still hold their place in Middle England’s heart for another 100 years.

You see, an Aga is simply not for me, nor for the life I lead. I am too realistic to spend a four-figure sum on what could turn out to be a kitchen ornament.

Yes, the manufacturer has made immense strides to bring its cookers into the 21st century — with options such as induction hobs and additional fan ovens — but the truth is that their main appeal is visual. For most of us, cooking in an Aga requires too much commitment. You can’t just pop a dish in the oven, set the timer and forget about it.

As my daughter says: ‘They can make the kitchen far too hot in the summer. You can’t see through the oven door and they are different every day — even the wind blowing outside makes a difference to the cooking temperature. It’s no good setting a timer and walking away, you have to learn to cook the proper way by smell, judging texture and colour.’

If you can do that, the results are amazing, but too few of us have the skills — or the time.

The Aga was invented by Swedish Nobel prize-winning physicist, Gustaf Dalen in 1922, after he had been blinded in an accident and, while convalescing at home, realised that traditional cooking ranges were dangerous and dirty

The Aga was invented by Swedish Nobel prize-winning physicist, Gustaf Dalen in 1922, after he had been blinded in an accident and, while convalescing at home, realised that traditional cooking ranges were dangerous and dirty

In 1922, the Aga was the epitome of modern convenience. It was invented by Swedish Nobel prize-winning physicist, Gustaf Dalen. He had been blinded in an accident and, while convalescing at home, realised that traditional cooking ranges were dangerous and dirty.

So he set about inventing a safe and reliable way to prepare family meals and heat the home: the Aga was born.

The first Agas arrived in the UK in 1929, where they proved immediately popular. They were perfectly suited to damp British country houses and, in 1957, production moved to Shropshire, where it remains today.

They have come a long way in 100 years — moving from using coal to models running on gas or electricity. But despite technological advances, Agas consume a lot more energy than a conventional oven — up to 38 times more, even for the smallest electric models. Not good in times of rising prices and climate change.

In what could be a scene from one of those ever-popular Aga Saga novels, I am writing this in the kitchen of my converted barn in the Chilterns.

Outside, it’s cold and wintry. Inside, we are warm and snug, there is a loaf of homemade bread left to rise and two dogs snooze at my feet.

There is one thing missing from this bucolic image . . . there is no Aga, just an energy-efficient German oven with 12 different settings — even one for proving bread dough.

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