Aga Saga part one

My oven was giving me a headache. It was getting to the point where I was resisting turning it on, even though I had stuff to bake. The loaves were coming out gnarly like gargoyles on the outside, and with nasty doughy streaks inside. Sometimes the doughy parts ran along the bottom of the loaf. Sometimes they were scattered in the middle, surrounded by large holes.

I’ve been baking bread for over fifty years. It all started with a family holiday in Italy. I was fifteen years old and, aside from getting sunburn and having a horrible hotel bedroom with a hot chimney from the kitchen running through it and all the teenage angst of feeling ugly and alienated from everyone, I guess I had a good time. The highlight was going out one evening with our waiter and being taken to a streetside pizza place. I’d never heard of pizza, never mind eaten one or seen a pizza oven in action (this was the early nineteen sixties). It was amazing! I can still see the oven glowing in the dark evening. I didn’t get a second date with the waiter and we returned to England without further pizza experience.

There was a rather upmarket grocer in the Essex village where we lived, and I was excited to find on his shelves a box containing a “Pizza Kit”. The box contained a plastic bag of flour, a sachet of yeast, a tin of tomato puree, and a plastic bag of grated cheese of a Parmesan type. And some instructions. My first venture into baking with yeast – I can’t remember how the “pizza” tasted, but I bought more than one more box of Pizza Kit from that grocer.

Student life intervened. My signature dish was stuffed onions wrapped in pastry.

Some years on, stuffed onions well behind me, making bread had become my thing. You can’t really call a loaf of bread a signature dish, but to me it was mine. And still is. My bread bible has been Elizabeth David’s classic English Bread and Yeast Cookery. From that book I learnt to use not much yeast, plenty of salt, and to rise the dough very slowly, a technique well suited to a person out at work all day. Mix up the dough and knead it one evening, bake it the next evening. My signature loaves were made from a whole bag of Jordan’s flour and less than a teaspoon of dried yeast, mixed in a plastic washing up bowl.

I moved house four times in two years and learnt the ways of the four different ovens. Edible loaves were produced.

Many years on, children grown up and left home long since, I moved again and took my gas cooker with me. The signature loaf was now a white loaf made with supermarket flour but still slow risen, same quantities.

But the kitchen was tiny and falling apart. It was my chance for a brand new kitchen, one i could design myself. And the gas cooker was old so it had to be replaced too. I spent ages on the internet and in shops researching cookers. I chose a gas hob from IKEA and a gas oven from an internet appliance store.

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