I’m told that Agas are making a glorious comeback. It is not surprising. People may sneer and make them figures of fictional fun. The older models, or even the newer ones, may not be designed — like most of Britain — to cope with heatwaves, but global warming hasn’t yet banished the long, bleak, damp and depressing winter months, and Agas are as cosy as a good spouse to come home to. The relationship between owner and Aga is powerful, passionate and built to last.
They may have had a bad patch and been out of favour and fashion, but that can happen to any good solid reliable product — think of the Conservative party. A little re-branding, streamlining and modernising … and then the quality and history of long experience can be appreciated anew.
The cost of an Aga is fairly horrendous, about the equivalent of a small runabout car. We inherited ours with the house, but still didn’t come out financially unscathed, and nor did our insurance company. Our house was built in 1921 and the Aga can’t have come much later. It took solid fuel and its thermostat had long stopped functioning: when we removed a seedy kitchen unit beside it, wanting to make a door to the garden, the ingrained gunge was so unsightly that a paintbrush was whipped out. Now it’s an antiquated cream-coloured Aga with one trendy burgundy-red side.
Converting it to oil was where the money came in. It cost the equivalent of three electric cookers and the old thing bitterly resented change. We suffered the smells, the smoke; as instructed we kept it up unnaturally high. Then suddenly overnight it erupted, like an extreme case of gastroenteritis, the whole house was covered in thick cloying oily black grime. But we persevered — see how hooked you get? A change of oil (to a more expensive mix), sympathy and coaxing — we hacked it and now get along fine.
Since my Aga hot oven has no thermostat and burns most things to a cinder, any cooking tips of mine might be unreliable. I’d have fewer frazzled disasters if the oven doors weren’t so solid and I could smell the food cooking, but on the upside it halves the time a recipe or packet thinks is needed and provides a cast-iron excuse not to bake cakes.
I can offer tips about socks, though. They dry wonderfully on the Aga’s stout towel rail. They don’t shrink and they look very sweet and homely, all lined up in front of the bubbling pots. I iron hankies by pressing them on the hot smooth silver covers; rooms are heated, cold hands are warmed, on chilly nights bottoms too; wet Wellingtons can be dried, dogs can be cosy in their baskets — think of the environmental savings of all that multi-tasking.
Then there are the wonders of the slow oven. It can double up as a hostess trolley. And even mine, which is probably warmer than most, allows me to salvage something when I’ve shoved in a stew and forgotten about it for the rest of the day. It reminds me of a sweet story I heard on a recent trip to Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands. There is a whole population of homeless dogs that do no one any harm, scrounge scraps and take life as it comes. They are called the Pot-dogs. Not because they’re cooked up in a pot, but from the islanders’ habit of leaving their supper stewing while they are out at work all day. The burnt scrapings of rice at the bottom of the pot that are chucked away caused the dogs to proliferate and gave them their name.
One last thought. Agas do need very regular servicing and it’s important to build up a close relationship with your Aga man. It’s a job for a specialist and there could be times when you might need to charm him into calling at unsociable hours. I do know about those: our Aga’s got form. Forget the milkman, this is the new friend you’ll need. Reading that bit, my dear husband said, ‘Steady on,’ but it’s true. Our Aga man is a star. He does good charitable works in the constituency, he has turned out on a Sunday for us; I know his passions — he cares deeply about the preservation of gorillas and would love to go to Uganda and see them in their native land. He cares about our Aga too. Fortunately for us, it’s much closer to home.
Sandra Howard is a columnist on the Sunday Telegraph and her new novel Glass Houses is published by Simon & Schuster on 4 September, £10.