Viva!: Why people fall in love with their Aga cookers; Some say they are almost human,others see them as best friends. Diana Pulson finds out what all the fuss is about.
WHAT is it about the Aga cooker which has turned it not only into an icon of the kitchen but something about which Aga owners feel so emotional?
Invented 80 years ago by a Swedish scientist called Dr Gustav Dalen, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1912, people speak of it in reverential tones, referring to it as a Rolls Royce among cookers.
There are 750,000 Agaowners in the United Kingdom and anyone who is anyone (Jilly Cooper,Nigella Lawson etc) have installed them in their kitchens.
Made of cast iron and weighing 405 kilograms, theAga is seen by many as a romantic symbol of solid family life, with green wellies standing drying by its side and the smell of cakes baking coming from its ovens.
The very name has passed into the language -novels with countryside and village setting are referred to as Aga Sagas.
Dr Dalen originally made his name by reducing the lighting hazards on lighthouses and buoys. After winning the Nobel Prize for Physics he was seriously injured in an experiment involving acetylene cylinders.
Although he survived,he was blinded and it was while convalescing at home he realised the difficulties his wife had cooking on the kitchen range. Food needed constant attention so he turned his scientific knowledge to the design of a new cooker, relying on his wife and children to be his eyes and working in the family's kitchen.
The rest,as they say, is history. We talked to three North Wales Aga owners about their own passions for this particular kitchen friend.
COUNTRY DWELLERS As Vicky and Paul Batten live half way up a mountain on the outskirts of Snowdonia, which can be chilly to say the least,it's no surprise to hear that they went straight out and ordered an Aga for their house in Dinorwig, which they moved into three months ago. Like many country dwellers they feel an Aga is not only the most efficient way of cooking but for keeping a house warm too.
Not that they were strangers to living with an Aga; they'd had one for seven years at the house in Leicestershire where they lived before moving to North Wales.
``They really are unique,'' says Paul, who enjoys cooking himself.``And they do have the most extraordinary effect on people. When someone comes in the house and enters the kitchen for the first time, they almost always say: `Oh, you have an Aga'.Then they go up to it and place their hand on the rail almost as if it were an altar.''
Looking at Paul and Vicky, they do seem classic Aga folk. They have three dogs, three ducks and a cat and shortly Vicky plans to start keeping chickens.
``But it isn't as if we are chasing some sort of rural idyll,'' she says.``Its just that somehow an Aga in the kitchen becomes a sort of friend. We had a tiny argument about the colour of this one.
Paul wanted pillar box red,but I thought it would clash with the fridge we brought from Leicestershire which is a sort of cyclamen. So we compromised on cream.''
All the family cook on the Aga.Paul's speciality is the Sunday morning fry up and Vicky's roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
To date the most ambitious meal she has cooked on this Aga was a three course meal for 18 and -joy of joys - when Vicky heard there was a job going at the Aga shop in Bangor, she applied,and got it. Now she works there part time. LIFELONG FAN An Aga has been part of MargaretSmith's life for the last 24 years. As her husband John works for an international paint company, which has meant him moving around a lot, there has been more than one Aga in her life. These days she lives in Llanbedroch on Anglesey and, sureenough, there is an Aga in the kitchen. This one is cream and has two ovens, though Margaret does yearn for the four oven variety. ``Though that would be a bit of an indulgence and anyway the kitchen is not really big enough,'' shelaments.
``The first one we had was at the house we had in Craster in Northumbria.
Then we moved to Hexham and got another. I could not imagine life without an Aga in the kitchen.It's like a friend who welcomes you every time you come in. ``It's not just the way of cooking that appeals to people but all the other uses it has. You can dry and air sheets from a pulley up above,dry tea towels, wet socks and shoes. ``There is something almost human about an Aga and when people are staying they tend to gravitate to the kitchen and stand round it while they talk. Though I know some people do switch off their Agas in summer and use a conventional oven,I don't.It's such a mate,I could not do that.
``There is a sort of camaraderie among Aga owners. We all meet regularly at the local Aga shop, where there are cookery demonstrations. We swap recipes and Aga experiences.It'slike talking about a dearly loved member of the family.''
NEW CONVERT Sheila Francis is a very new Aga owner. She aquired hers only recently though she says she always wanted to instal one in the 16th century farmhouse in Conwy where she has lived with her husband Jonathon for 20 years.
They chose a four oven silver grey model and are thrilled with it, though Sheila says that,like all new Aga owners, she had to learn to cook in a different way. But she has completely adapted and would not go back to the conventional stove she used before.
Her Aga takes pride of place in the house's roomy kitchen and stands where previously there was a wood burning stove. Like other people's Agas it has a variety of uses apart from cooking and Sheila says she fully understands how people become emotionally attached to their Agas. ``There is something so warm, friendly and almost human about them,'' she says.``There is no doubt people relate to them. My son Jeremy is a good cook is very enthusiastic about it. He makes some wonderful curries. ``In fact the only one who has not welcomed our Aga is the tortoise who used to hibernate behind the old wood-burning stove but can't do so behind the Aga because it takes up too much space.''
Clockwise from above: Aga fans Margaret Smith, Vicky Batten and Sheila Francis