Monday, May 25, 2009

Joining the Aga cult II.

This morning I had a chat to 'The Aga Man' John Jenkin about our newest addition to the family. John is the Aga guru and knows just about every Aga in South-Eastern Australia - where they are, where they were before - an amazing source of information. The good news is that the Aga I have bought was recommissioned by him only 3 years ago, and is in good condition. The bad news is that conversion to gas is going to cost us $3500 - so I guess that makes the decision about whether to keep it on coke or run it on gas a little easier: at least for this winter! John is booked up for the next 3 weeks ( he has just come back from 2 weeks working in Tasmania on Agas all over the state) which gives us time to complete all the preparatory stuff.

First we have to have the current Italian stainless steel 6 burner gas stove disconnected and list it with splashback and rangehood on ebay.(the topic: 'how much I hate this bastard stove' could be a blog all by itself, I won't bore you with my travails with it except to say that it is possibly the worst 2 grand I ever spent). Umm guess we'll be eating take away or cooking on the BBQ for a month or so (Jonathan suggests raw food - I don't think so).

We also have to have the wall behind the Aga tiled and David has to build a plinth for it to sit on (I guess I'm putting my Aga on a pedestal!). We will also have to take off a few doors to get this big baby inside the kitchen, but will cross that bridge when we get to ir.

In the meantime I have started reading a pocket book on Aga cooking and can tell you one of the reasons it is such a perfect cooker is that there is no radiant heat therefore no drying out of food (correction - there IS radiant heat and therefore no drying out - there is noe direct heat). I now very much regret selling the first edition of Ambrose Heath's Good Food on the Aga a couple of weeks ago. More to come.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Joining the Aga cult

Welcome to the beginning of a blog within a blog - I am about to join the Aga cult (as a customer recently called it) and achieve a long-held ambition to have an Aga in my kitchen. For the uninitiated the Aga is a stored heat slow combustion cooker which some cooks regard as the ultimate in cooking methods. Visit the Aga shop website to see these monsters in all their glory. Sadly my need for a new car took precedence over my desire for a new Aga (seriously, buying these things new costs the price of a small, quality hatchback ) and instead yesterday I purchased on ebay a coke-fired model which had been recently removed from a renovated old homestead in Berwick. I've done my homework and know that there is still a lot of work (and money) needed to get this up and running in my own house. First it has to be transported by a specialist (they weigh 450-500kg) then recommissioned. I have to decide if I am going to leave it as a coke-burner or have it converted to gas: while I've always had romantic notions of my kitchen warmed by a solid fuel cooker, gas is eminently more practical. Because the Aga is always on, it is not practical to use it over summer in Australia, so I have to decide what alternative cooking methods I'm going to use from December -March.

I am very excited at the prospect of finally owning an Aga, but suspect it's going to be like being pregnant with your first child - the reality never fits the dream. However I am hoping that, also like having children, the joy outweighs the heartache. So I've got a lot of learning ahead of me. I'm planning on picking the brains of a caterer friend who produces the most amazing food from her bright red Aga, but I welcome advice from out there: Have you got an Aga? Can you share your secrets? I particularly want to know the advantages of keeping this one on solid fuel vs having it converted to gas. Here's a picture of my cooker (before it was taken out of its kitchen - when I inspected it it was outside with the doors off). Stay tuned for future updates on my sAga (!) .

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Queen Vic Market 2: Rabbit Pie

7am last saturday morning, another trip to Queen Vic market and another (relatively) uncommon protein to be explored. While I was tempted to buy goat again, Jonathan (my son) and I have agreed that every time we go to a market we're going to try something different. I'm not looking forward to the day we've worked our way through kangaroo, buffalo, camel, quails and pheasants and have to start trying what the Americans euphemistically term 'Variety Meats'. Although my mother is a master of cooking offal, I never took to brains and kidneys, tripe and sweetmeats - pressed tongue is all the offal I can take.
I bought a farmed rabbit from one of the poultry stores ($11 each). I discarded my plan to make the classic French lapin a la moutarde/rabbit in mustard sauce because our rabbit seemed on the skinny side. Instead it was agreed that a rabbit pie was in order. I found a recipe in Stephanie Alexander's Cook's Companion, which was handed down to her from her mum Mary Burchett. Mary is well-known for her charming 1960 cookbook 'Through my Kitchen Door', which Stephanie later re-issued as 'Recipes my Mother Gave me' (although the Rabbit Pie, I discovered later, is not in the book).

After simmering the rabbit as instructed for 1-2 hours (surely a very wide time window!), I stripped the meat off the bones of what was by now a very gruesome-looking carcass. The meat was combined with sauteed mushrooms, bacon pieces, toasted flaked almonds, parsley and (not too much) white sauce made with the reserved cooking liquid. Because I still had to make a fish pie for the non-meat eaters in the family I cheated on the pastry and used frozen shortcrust (Maggie Beer's sour cream pastry would be great for this). The end result was worth the effort and a gentle introduction to something new: particularly for my (live) rabbit-loving 19 yo daughter Pippa. Stephanie's recipe also uses the rabbit kidney and livers, which are sauteed with the mushrooms and bacon. Rather than making one large pie with a lattice top as Stephanie suggests, I made individual pies and of course no blind-baking for me all straight into the oven.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Clunes booktown

Well it's been a very busy couple of weeks. Mother's Day is always a busy time for me and it seemed a lot of people decided on Saturday afternoon that what their Mum really needed was an old cookbook, or one of the vintage aprons I sell in the shop. But what really makes May busy every year is that on the first weekend in May I take the shop 'on the road' as it were, attending the Clunes 'Back to Booktown' mega-bookfair.

Clunes is a small former gold-mining town about 20 minutes outside of the large former gold-mining city of Ballarat and about 2 1/2 hours away from home. In 2007, as part of a move to revive the town's fortunes and establish a permanent booktown, it became a Booktown for a weekend, with dozens of booksellers converging on the town on a Friday, followed over the weekend by thousands of booklovers. While the permanent booktown is not yet a reality, the weekend booktown continues to be a great success. This year I was among 61 booksellers who took over old buildings and empty shops in the lovely historical town precinct. It's always a great weekend, but exhausting. Book fairs require an enormous amount of work - in preparing, setting up and taking down and then returning everything to its place in the shop. I was positioned in the majestic town hall with four other booksellers (a lovely group they were too) and from 8am on Saturday morning to 4pm on Sunday had a steady flow of cookbook lovers coming past my stall.

Some were return customers from previous fairs, others had seen the business name in the book fair brochure, for others discovery was purely serendipitous. For the second year in a row a customer was almost brought to tears by the discovery of a copy of 'New Australian Cookery Illustrated" in its delightful red gingham cover, which she had been looking for for years and which her mother had used. I spent a lot of time comparing notes on cookbooks or discussing the merits of Elizabeth David over Jane Grigson (there seem to be 2 distinct camps). There was a small number of what a fellow bookseller termed 'prodders' and I call tire-kickers: those who pick up every book page through them, sometimes exclaim over how expensive they are and walk away never to be seen again. As usual I came away convinced that I have the best type of customers - people who love old books and who love cooking (or at least reading and talking about it!).