Aga Goodies

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It feels like this year is just galloping away from us! With my preggie brain, I am struggling to keep up with things and feel torn in a hundred different directions. In the next three months we have to host our 3rd annual Vastrap Boran auction (14 August), finish the building work that we are doing on the new baby room, attend various other auctions around the country, whilst at the same time trying to make sure that I don’t have any final stage complications in my pregnancy like we did last time. The only sure way of achieving this is to put my feet up, but there’s not much chance of that happening with an 18 month old toddler making mischief around the house and demanding her mommy’s attention!

It doesn’t help that we’ve been away from home a lot this year and every time we get back there’s an adjustment phase to get back into routine. I really can’t complain though. We had a lovely trip to the UK recently. Livia and I tagged along for the ride, while Quentin joined some friends on a week long golf tour. We had a fantastic time in London and visited a friend and my God-daughter Daisy, near the sea in West Sussex. It was a real treat to relax and enjoy some warmer weather whilst doing fun things with Livia.

I bought some fabulous accessories for the Aga in London. An old Aga like ours doesn’t have all the cooking attachments that the new ones have. I didn’t even realise this until I saw them at another friend’s house. The most useful thing I got was a cooking grid that slides into the Aga runners so that you don’t have to cook straight on the solid bottom plate of the oven. There is also a shelf that slides in to make the oven a bit cooler and more suitable for cooking when the fire is burning really hot. I also love the oven gloves and chef’s pad that protects the chrome top of the Aga stove. It is so useful and totally solves the problem of where to put hot things when moving them from the stove to the oven or from the hot plate to the cool plate. I wanted to get the baking trays that slide into the oven runners, but there wasn’t enough space in my luggage!

I made some enquiries when I got home to see if these things are available from the Aga agent locally. The full catalogue is here –> AGA Cookshop Spring Summer 2015 or click on the link for the local Aga Living website. They don’t stock the full range, but if you’re willing to wait for the next container load you can do a special order. I really would highly recommend the textiles and simple accessories for those wanting to make their old anthracite Aga’s more user friendly. 2015-07-03_0001 2015-07-03_00022015-07-03_00032015-07-03_0005

Winter is Here!

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Winter has finally arrived at Vastrap. We’ve been bracing ourselves for the cold for a while now, but May was unusually sunny and warm. We spent some of the time on holiday down in the Transkei and Kwazulu Natal where it really felt like summer so that also saved us a bit. Last night the first big cold front of winter hit us and we were treated to some early morning rain and much colder temperatures. The forecast for the next while looks bitterly cold, as it should be for this time of year. This is the perfect start to the winter crop season so my farmer love is in a happy mood today!

At times like these, I’m always so grateful to have a warm and cosy home. It definitely wasn’t like this when I first arrived on the farm 5 years ago. My first experience of winter in the house was almost unbearable. There was no insulation in the ceiling, huge glass windows everywhere and only one or two heaters in the main living areas. We were always dressed in our warmest winter jackets and watched TV wrapped in blankets sitting on top of the heater. My hands even froze just sitting in bed drinking coffee or typing at my computer. Needless to say, it was absolute hell during a power outage. Not my idea of fun!

When we renovated the house about 3 years ago I insisted on installing double glazing and insulating the ceilings. We also made sure that there were multiple sources of heating – a Morsø fireplace and an Aga stove – and gas for cooking. With all these options we can cope well without power on a cold day.  We also put some underfloor heating in the main bathroom and kitchen just to take the chill off the tiles.

The Aga stove really is at the heart of our home and it’s an annual ritual getting it clean and lighting it for winter (see Lighting the Aga). This year Quentin had a brainwave to use the vacuum cleaner to suck out all the old grit and residue left inside the chimney from last winter. In two minutes everything looked spick and span and good as new so the fire should draw nicely.

Having the Aga lit changes the whole dynamic of the house. I use it a lot for cooking and everyone automatically gravitates towards the heat. New visitors to the house can’t help but admire it and share memories of old Aga’s from their childhoods. I was a bit worried how Livia would cope with such a big exposed heater, but so far she’s steered clear of it and she seems to understand that it’s hot. We’ve had to do a lot of childproofing in the house with a toddler cruising around. I’ve installed a safety guard around our fireplace and I found a lovely old oregon pine kitchen cupboard at one of the antique shops in town to store breakable things that were lying around. Now I just need some locks for our toilets to stop her throwing things into them, my car keys and remotes being the most recent victims!

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Lighting the AGA

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One of the very first things I blogged about almost a year ago was our beautiful AGA stove, which was lovingly restored as part of our renovations (see The magic of AGA). It is a very old anthracite stove so requires quite a bit of tinkering and attention to keep it running properly through the winter. I can get terribly distracted by it, lifting the chrome lids every time I walk past to check if the fire is still burning hot. When the kettle takes a bit longer to boil, I know it’s time to stoke it up!

With a cold front moving through our region this weekend I decided to light it yesterday. My neighbour Jenny is resisting lighting hers because she says that’s the surest sign that winter has arrived and the longer she can hold out the better. For me it’s all part of embracing winter and the slower pace of life it brings. I love the late afternoon ritual of closing all the curtains, getting a roaring fire going, stoking up the AGA and getting slow cooked supper in the oven. Of course our animals love it too, especially Poepsie cat!

I’ve had some questions about how I light my AGA. Newer AGA’s are generally oil or gas run, which must be a lot easier to maintain. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about the anthracite versions on the Internet so I will share my experience in the hope that it will help someone.

First, make sure the stove is regularly serviced to keep it and the chimney clean. It will be much harder to keep the fire going if the stove does not draw properly. Our chimney is hidden behind pieces of old pressed ceiling which we can remove easily to sort out any problems. I only scraped out a handful of grime so it still looks okay. [Note: After three winters of full time use I gave the Aga a more thorough clean by opening up the connection to the chimney and cleaning it out. At first we were very puzzled about how to get the grime out, but then Quentin had the bright idea of using the vacuum cleaner. It worked like a charm! We sucked up loads of anthracite residue and I’m sure this will help to keep the fire drawing nicely.]

Aga 010Second, rinse the anthracite before using it as this will minimise the soot deposit on your kitchen cupboards. We had hardly any last year so I think it really does make a difference.

Third, anthracite is very hard to light so you either need to get some red hot coals going outside using a fire starter canister or you can start the anthracite in the stove using a gas flame. I prefer the latter method, because it’s so much easier especially when the weather is foul outside. Also, it’s much easier to restart the fire if it goes out. There is nothing worse than being in constant fear of the fire going out and having to scoop the cold anthracite out by hand! I have a gas bottle with a hose connector and metal rod attachment on the end. I simply stick it in the bottom of the stove and leave it until the anthracite is lit. It works like a dream and gives one so much more flexibility. It can take a good 30 minutes to get things going the first time so just be patient. It’s worth having a torch on hand to look into the drum if you aren’t sure if it’s lit. There must be a good red glow otherwise it won’t work! [Note: don’t be too sparing with your anthracite. You need to fill the fire box up completely and top up the coals twice a day if you want the fire to go 24/7. If you add anthracite at the wrong time when the coals are too low this will just kill the fire. It feels like you are going through a lot of fuel in the beginning, but it soon stabilises out and you also get a more constant stove and oven temperature.]

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Fourth, don’t expect it to be hot immediately. It takes quite a long time to heat up properly. I lit mine in the early afternoon and it was perfect by the next morning when Poepsie cat had taken up her position for the winter and I was able to boil the kettle for my morning cup of Rooibos tea. When the coals are glowing red hot top up the drum with anthracite. Be careful to use the right tools so that you don’t burn yourself! Also, keep a metal bucket on hand to scrape out the ash once or twice a day.

Aga 027I would love to hear from anyone with more tips and tricks on how to use the AGA!

Comfort from the Cold

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Boy, its been cold this weekend! It snowed on Saturday and it was still only 2 degrees by lunch time today.

People tend to think that we don’t have cold winters in Africa, but that is definitely not true. Quentin calls the Free State province where we live the “Freeze State”. The first winter I visited the farm the minimum temperature dropped to -14 degrees Celsius! That’s definitely the coldest I’ve ever been outside a ski resort! But snow is still a novelty for us and people can’t help getting excited when the world turns white. In the three years that I’ve known Quentin this is the first time it has snowed at home – twice already. Unfortunately it generally melts quickly here on lower ground (1 650m above sea level), but the Maluti mountains will still be covered in snow for a few days.

The mountain behind the house.

Footprints in the snow.

Roses in the snow.

I love this old photo from the 1950s taken from almost the same position as the photo above, which shows that there can sometimes be much heavier snow falls.

Snow at Vastrap in the 1950s.

On a weekend like this, there is nothing better to me than holing up inside and cooking comfort food. We were expecting friends for dinner on Saturday night so I decided it would be a good opportunity to get cracking on the mid-year resolutions I made at the end of our Italian holiday. On the menu: spinach and ricotta ravioli with burnt sage butter; slow roasted pork shoulder with fennel and orange; and tiramisu. These tick all my boxes for comfort food, but if it wasn’t for my current obsession with everything Italian I might have preferred to end with a golden syrup steamed pudding with custard. I’m a sucker for anything that goes with custard!

Of course everything was cooked on the Aga stove. In weather like this one cannot help but put things inside and on top of the Aga, especially when the fire is well stoked and burning hot. As you already know – I love, love, love it!

The ravioli turned out beautifully. The pork was juicy and succulent and fell apart at the touch of a fork after 6 hours of slow roasting. The tiramisu was good, but not as good as in Italy. I think it has something to do with the type of finger biscuits we get here. Soaking them in the coffee for a bit longer might help.

Happy in the kitchen as my guests help with the ravioli making.

Experimenting with ravioli shapes using my new tools.

The recipes I used all come from food blogs that I have recently discovered. It is amazing how much information is out there and how many people are sharing their passion on the internet. For the pasta I used Grandma Menna’s ravioli from Juls’ Kitchen. It is extremely simple, but delicious. I learnt that for ravioli you only roll the pasta to the second last setting and if you can’t find durum wheat semolina use bread flour to make the ravioli more robust. I also used the tiramisu recipe from this blog.

I found the slow-roasted pork recipe at Leite’s Culinaria. It’s a real keeper. The flavour is all in the rub (orange peel, fennel seeds, salt, pepper, garlic) and the long cooking time. I had it in the Aga for almost 6 hours! But I took a risk since I didn’t actually know how hot the oven was. I had it in the “cool” oven for the first 4 hours and then put it in the hot oven for the last bit to caramelise the fennel and orange. I also added a glass of white wine at the start of cooking, but I don’t think this made too much difference to the outcome.

The weekend is coming to an end and the forecast is for it to get warmer towards the end of the week. We went out this morning to see if Quentin’s embryo calves that have been born to surrogate mothers over the past few days are still okay. The ones born yesterday would have been very vulnerable in the wet and cold. Fortunately everything was fine and we found one newly born girl calf, which made Quentin very happy. The dogs loved their muddy run behind the car and all had to be bathed when we got home. The air is fresh and clear, just as it should be at this time of year. Beautiful.

It’s a girl!

View of the mountain behind Vastrap and the winter sky.

The magic of AGA

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Because it’s winter… because we only lit her this week… because my porridge is busy bubbling on the stove… and because I love her SO much I simply must document the history of our AGA stove.

Kettle on the boil for the first cup of tea!

Since October last year the house at Vastrap has undergone a complete transformation. The biggest change has been the kitchen living area and one of the best additions has been our beautiful anthracite fired AGA stove. There is something about an AGA that conjures the romanticism of farm life. One simply has to have one. Especially in an area like ours that gets extremely cold in winter. The reality, however, is that most farm houses do not have AGA’s anymore. The traditional old ones were hard to manage, made a big mess and were slowly displaced when electric stoves became fashionable. So imagine my disappointment when I arrived at the farm to no AGA….

When we started discussing the kitchen renovation I pleaded with Quentin to find me one. Fortunately his sister Lesley had an old one standing in her garage on her farm, which is about 20 kilometers away from us. Lesley and her husband Gary moved to Mauritz about 5 years ago but before that the house had been empty for decades while Bill farmed on the lands. Quentin can never remember anyone living there so they must have left in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The AGA had been standing abandoned and unused in the garage since then… can you imagine such a beautiful thing treated so badly!

Lesley and Gary very kindly gave us the stove as they had decided not to use it in their house. We were very excited to go and fetch it, but when it got to Vastrap we realised with shock that it was in a very bad state of repair. Full of rats nests, all rusted and the paint peeling off. Stupidly I didn’t take a photo of what she looked like then. I think I was too stressed about the mad rush to get the kitchen finished before our Christmas visitors arrived!

I quickly went to work to find someone who could help us. The AGA was an integral part of our kitchen design so I was determined to fix it. I got in touch with a woman from Pietermaritzburg  called Emmie who travels around the country with her husband Morris servicing anthracite stoves. Given my general experience with building I thought it would take months to get this done, but to my surprise Emmie and Morris arrived a few days later, loaded the AGA onto a trailer and delivered it back fully restored within 10 days. It was the best service I’ve ever experienced… but as Quentin likes to remind me it did come at a price! It was worth it though and we were thrilled with her new look.

The problem is that these stoves weigh tonnes… the following photos show how we used the strength of 9 men to get her into the house and into position.

Morris undoing the straps on the trailer. The bags of sand are poured in afterwards for extra insulation.

Heave ho there we go!

Negotiating a tricky corner.

She isn’t going anywhere now!

In her place with the chimney section kept open so that we can access it for her once a year service.

Of course this was done in December and we didn’t need to light her until winter in June. So we just admired her instead and finished the renovation around her.

Finishing touches… the chimney is covered with panels of old metal pressed ceiling that we sanded down and painted.

On Sunday when Quentin and I returned from being away we decided to take the plunge and light her. Everyone had said it would be difficult, but Quentin made it look like a breeze. The next day she was warm and cosy and gorgeous. I just had to put a kettle on to boil to see her in action. And then yesterday I simply had to boil some eggs for lunch and then just to make sure she was working okay I left a pot of lamb stock simmering the whole day… imagine that heavenly aroma. And again this morning I simply  had to make some porridge. So I can happily confirm that she is indeed working, but I haven’t made bread or cooked anything in the oven yet… it’s only a matter of time though!

Hot coals burning bright.

Farm eggs on the boil for lunch and lamb stock on the boil just because.

Poepsie cat definitely approves of this big new heater in the house. I bet she would even climb into the oven if I let her!

Poepsie cat approves of the new spot.

Inspecting the ovens… the top one is the hot oven and the bottom one is more like a warmer drawer.