American playwright David Mamet once described the Aga as "the best of things British," and, together with the old Rolex Explorer and the Land Rover, as among those things that are "perfect-of-their-kind." This may seem extravagant praise for a cast-iron stove that has not changed in appearance since it was designed 70 years ago. But Aga owners, who number some 500,000 worldwide, tend to even greater eulogies when it comes to their "stove-oven-cooktop-heater," as Mamet styled it. "The Aga is part of the family. It's the heart of my home," says Joy Hanauer of Chiddingfold, a village 70 km southwest of London. "It's a way of life."
A way of life? A stove? For those uninitiated in the Aga experience, the temptation is to say, "Puh-leeze." But as Mamet's description implies, the Aga is more than just a stove. For one thing, it is never turned off. Fueled by wood or coal in the past, but now powered by oil, gas or electricity, the 500-kg Aga remains permanently hot, ready to roast a turkey, boil a kettle or bake a cake, day or night. Its brightly colored enamel surface also emanates a constant gentle warmth which, like any hearth, tends to draw people to it. Some owners feel such affection for their Aga that they give it a name.
The stove is British in that it is manufactured solely in Shropshire, in western England, by the Aga-Rayburn company (www.aga-rayburn.co.uk), now a part of the larger Aga Foodservice Group. However, the Aga was invented not in Britain but in Sweden in the 1920s.
Gustaf Dalén, a Nobel prize-winning physicist who revolutionized lighthouse technology, turned his attention to the science of cooking while convalescing at home after being blinded during an experiment with pressurized gases. Traditional kitchen ranges then were temperamental, depending on the manipulation of hot gases through flues. Dalén came up instead with a well-insulated, cast-iron stove that stored warmth efficiently and demanded only a small heat source. The radiant heat also proved successful in cooking food without drying it out, and he named the stove after his company, Svenska Aktiebolaget Gas Accumulator.
With two ovens and two huge hot plates protected by the hallmark round insulated covers, the Aga has outwardly remained unchanged from Dalén's original design. However, there is now a four-oven version, and an add-on module with two conventional ovens. The castings for the Aga, first imported into Britain in 1929, are supplied by the historic Coalbrookdale foundry in Shropshire, where in 1709 iron was first smelted with coke rather than charcoal, thus helping to usher in the industrial age. Hand-finished right through to its glossy enameled surface, the Aga does not come cheap. At between $7,000 and $15,000, the Aga is at home in big country kitchens full of damp dogs and drying riding gear. But the stove has also become a fashion accessory. "I've sold second-hand Agas to people whose excuse in buying one is that it will be a back-up in case of a power cut," says Tom Harland, an architectural salvage dealer in Devon, in southwest England.
Flick through the pages of celebrity magazines like Hello! and OK!, and there'll often be an Aga somewhere behind all that lip gloss. Its cachet is gold-plated: royal country houses are equipped with Agas, Mel Gibson is a fan, and Tony Blair used to have an Aga before moving to No. 10 Downing Street. The stove has even given its name to a genre of contemporary fiction: "Aga sagas" are about modern families whose lives ebb and flow through Aga-centered kitchens.
The adroitly marketed Aga lifestyle comes complete with dedicated cookery books, special cast- iron kitchenware in some of the cooker's eight standard colors, expensive training courses given by chefs and cooks around the country, and even a quarterly magazine with proud owners' photographs of Agas in the bosom of their families.
Despite this wholesome picture of Aga life, the stove is a daunting prospect for a first-time user. The doors have no conventional handles they are lifted open and shut like gates. More worrying still, there are no temperature dials to adjust either the hotplates or ovens. So how on earth do you cook? Nervous novices get no comforting answer. Choose the appropriate oven and the correct level inside for positioning the food, they are told.
Such difficulties failed to deter 7,000 new owners last year, 80% of them in Britain. Aga-Rayburn's managing director Geoff Harrop wants to see a push for the American market, where some 10,000 Agas already have homes and around 400 are sold every year. France and the Netherlands are also ripe for expansion. "The Group has declared a target of an annual 10,000 sales within two years," he says. The passion for minimalist kitchens is peaking in Britain, according to Homes & Gardens editor Matthew Line. It's good news for the Aga, but whatever the fashion, the appeal of this big, friendly stove in an ever-more technological world seems assured.