When planning how to entertain a group of Italian students and show them typical British cooking, one of the hosts commented that we had better have a barbeque, as, certainly during the summer months, this seems to be the most frequent form of entertaining in modern Britain.
In fact, it is only for a short period of our recent history that we really moved away from cooking over an open fire. It was during the nineteenth century that the enclosed kitchen range gradually began to replace the open fire for cooking purposes, but it was a slow process, slower here than in other countries, where, with our cold climate, we continued to see the value of combining heating our house and cooking in one operation. At the end of the 18th century, Count Rumford (Sir Benjamin Thompson) began to apply scientific methods to the design of cooking and heating stoves with the aim of directing energy more efficiently to exactly where it was required. An early prototype was installed in the kitchen of Baron de Lerchenfeld in Munich, Germany. But here in Britain Count Rumford’s theories on heat conservation proved to be well ahead of their time and it was not until after 1900 that they were put into practice. In the meantime, ranges were built into the kitchens of new houses, and gradually incorporated into existing houses, to replace the open hearth, although the latter was still to be found in cottages well into the twentieth century.
Nineteenth Century Ranges
The ranges that were installed during the 19th century basically fell into just two designs, one being more enclosed than the other. The open type had an open firebox with bars across the front, the upper ones being fitted to swing down to act as a trivet for pans or kettles. At one side of the fire-box was an oven, at the other a small hot water boiler or warm closet, with a hob above for simmering. This type of range was, in general, more popular in the north of Britain than the south because it both cooked the food and warmed the kitchen at the same time, of great importance in the colder climate. The second type, known as a closed range or kitchener, became available in about 1840. The fire-box was covered with a metal hot plate on top, which was fitted with boiling rings and the front firebars were enclosed by a metal door. Ovens were placed either side of the firebox, or one of these could be substituted for a hot water tank. The kitchener was designed to cook or heat, but not to carry out both functions simultaneously. Although gas slowly became available during the nineteenth century, the gas cooker did not replace the solid fuel range because the latter, already installed in most people’s homes, carried out more than one function. These nineteenth century ranges were temperamental and took a considerable amount of time each day to maintain, so as domestic help became rarer, and household sizes smaller, so too the ranges decreased in size. A popular model had an oven at one side adjacent to a living room grate, while the hot water boiler was situated behind – or, where the living room was adjacent to the kitchen, the back-to-back version (with the open grate in the living room) was more convenient.
Twentieth Century Cooking and Heating
Although by the 1920s the solid fuel kitchen range was considered outdated compared with gas or electric cookers, there were still many homes in Britain without a supply, particularly of gas. Then the solid fuel method of cooking received a new lease of life with the design of the Aga by Swedish Nobel-prize winner Dr Gustav Dalen. The Aga continues to be considered a style icon in Britain, although now also available fuelled by gas or electricity, and it seems that for some people it has taken on a role that goes much further than being simply a cooking and/or heating device and they refer to it as if it was a friend or family member.
But with the exception of the Aga, heating and cooking were generally achieved by separate devices during the second half of the twentieth century. It was however advances in heating that signalled the greatest change in the way we cooked and lived. In 1970 central heating was still regarded as a luxury, yet by 1980 it was considered a basic requirement. It had a massive impact. Before central heating the whole family still gathered around the fire (even if a gas fire had replaced an open log or coal fire) because only one room was kept warm enough to be comfortable – you ran to the loo and back as quickly as possible! The fireside tea therefore continued to be popular even if some of it was now cooked in an enclosed oven in a separate room. Heating chestnuts or toasting crumpets were activities to be carried out in the living room rather than the kitchen.
A twenty-first century return to real fires
Whilst there are very few people who would wish to live without central heating nowadays, there does seem to be some return to the pleasures of a real fire. Wood burning stoves are increasingly popular, and a wood-fired oven is sought after in both restaurants and residential gardens. No matter how refined and expensive your cooker is, none of them can match the wonderful all-round even heat that comes from the domed shape of a clay or brick oven. Wood smoke also imparts its own flavour, and hunger is sharpened by being in closer proximity to your food as it cooks. But even if you no longer have any form of real fire indoors, the long months during which the barbeque has been put away need not spell the end of the pleasures associated with cooking on a fire. Remember that with all the time taken to heat an oven with solid fuel, baking in it tended to be kept to just one day a week and we have a plethora of recipes that were designed to be cooked on a griddle over a fire (or on the hotplate of an enclosed range). With a good solid cast iron skillet you can bake on top of the stove and enjoy watching a dough rise and bake before your very eyes.
Click here to see Fireside Tea recipes.