The Aga cooker (catalogue image)
In the centre of the picture is a modern Aga cooker, presented to look its best in a sales catalogue. The cooker has changed very little since it was designed by the Swedish inventor, world-renowned physicist, and Nobel Prize laureate Gustaf Dalen in 1924-29. That is why, in the world of kitchen appliances and stylish living, the Aga cooker has become a design classic.
The Aga has been especially popular in England for nearly 75 years and has come to represent both a style of cooking and a style of living, to the point where most owners believe their Aga, like roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding, is quintessentially English. Production did move to England and the Aga is now recognised as a British icon despite its Swedish origins.
Giving off continuous warmth, the Aga appears better suited to cool damp countries whose residents enjoy food that takes a long time to cook – like roast meat and steamed puddings – and to seaside hotels and country homes that have solid foundations and large ground floor kitchens with quarry-tiled floors and space for muddy wellington boots.
Dr Gustaf Dalen, inventor of the Aga cooker
Gustaf Dalen had a gift for mechanics, and was admitted to the Chalmers Institute in Gothenburg in 1892 at the age of 23. He graduated as an engineer in 1896 and in 1906 became Chief Engineer at the Gas Accumulator Company. When the company was reorganized as Svenska Aktiebolaget Gasaccumulator (AGA) in 1909 Dalen became Managing Director.
Dalen was a natural inventor. The Dalen Mixer was a 'sun-valve' which improved the light emission from lighthouse lamps and caused them to switch on and off automatically at dusk and dawn. His work frequently involved the use of acetylene gas and he lost his eyesight in an accidental explosion in 1912, but continued to develop the company and its products – Aga was was awarded the contract for lighting the Panama Canal. In the same year, Dalen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his gas regulator controlled sea-buoys.
An interest in thermal mechanics led to his invention of the Aga cooker. Early models were fuelled with coke. It burned slowly and efficiently, storing heat in heavy iron castings for transfer to the cooker's ovens and hot plates on a continual round-the-clock basis. The upper oven was hot and the lower one warm. Similarly the left hand hot plate was hot for boiling and the right one less so, for simmering. In this way the Aga was a very flexible cooker, especially as the top cooking surfaces were large and allowed several pans to be positioned to achieve the optimal cooking temperature.
The Aga's ovens – two or four – worked on the principle of radiant heat rather than heating by air, and food tended to retain its moisture and flavour. It also allowed the whole of the oven volume to be filled with food, and because the cooker was always hot there was virtually no need for oven cleaning. The ovens were vented via the cooker's flue, making it possible to cook different foods at the same time without any cross-contamination of flavours, and it eliminated cooking smells within the kitchen.
By the mid-1930s the Aga cooker was being exported throughout the world. 100,000 had been sold by 1948 and today an estimated 750,000 units have been manufactured in total, burning a range of fuels including coke, oil, gas, and electricity. Despite his blindness Gustaf Dalen continued to manage the Aga company until 1937, the year of his death.
Lifestyle, ritual, and the Aga
The Aga is often referred to as "the heart of the home" and a friend to snuggle up to. Its constant warm presence day and night is cosy and reassuring, almost giving off a vague sense of being a living thing, giving soul to the kitchen. Because it can't be turned on and off at the flick of a switch (or perhaps it can but this is not the way to use an Aga), it is more suited to a home which is continually occupied rather than empty during the day.
It certainly doesn't suit every lifestyle. Once the Aga is switched off (for servicing or when the house is empty for a while) it can't be used for cooking for a day or so until warm again after being switched back on. The ovens have no temperature control or self-timer, and the cooker's temperature drops significantly during a heavy cooking session. And the absence of cooking smells from the oven does not suit everyone in an age where gathering to prepare and anticipate a meal is social entertainment in its own right.
I was brought up in a house with an Aga cooker – cream coloured as in the catalogue picture. It was in a large kitchen in the centre of the house, which had a scullery as well as a pantry. There was also a coal store and an extra metal dustbin purely for the ash from the Aga. My daily alarm clock was the noise my father made first thing in the morning when he 'riddled' the Aga to collect the previous 24 hours' burnt ash and then tipped fresh coke into the hole in the centre of the left hand hot plate. Once the coke was in he used a special metal rod hooked into a recess in the hole's iron lid and scraped the lid a few times round the hot plate to work any stray pieces of coke into the hole. All very noisy but part of the Aga ritual.
Above the Aga was a traditional English clothes-drying rack hoisted up and down on pulleys with a waxed rope. The Aga also heated the water for the house, though an immersion heater was needed to heat enough water for baths. On the left side of the cooker there was a small and constantly warm linen cupboard. The wall of the living room was also kept warm by the Aga where the kitchen backed against it, providing a sort of central heating which was felt upstairs as well.
As far as cooking was concerned the Aga must have performed well. Every Christmas day my mother cooked a large and delicious three-course Christmas dinner for eight people. The rest of the time she cooked mostly for six, often different meals for different family members at different times of the day. The Aga made good toast, using a hinged rack put between the hot plates and their insulated lids (as long as it was remembered to turn it over). And I can confirm that leaning against the Aga's front rail in cold weather was a very pleasant experience, as was warming your frozen hands on the tops of the lids.
So, it could fairly be said that our Aga was the heart of the home.
[ First published March 27th, 2006 ]