This year the renewal of my regular, all consuming winter love affair was unexpectedly early. In fact it was not initiated by me at all. Normally, I plan many days ahead, preparing mentally and physically, cleaning, scrubbing. This time JP and I had taken a quick trip to London – day one travel there, memorial service on day two, day three return trip, alas, we are in that age bracket – and got home at dusk to be greeted by an all pervading feeling of warmth. Not just the feeling of warmth, but the smell of wood fire warmth. The Rayburn had been lit.
Now you may consider it daft to have a relationship with a cooker, even one that heats hot water and services some radiators, but I feel that the Rayburn and I are partners. One cooks with a solid fuel range, not on it. In fact, says she waxing indignant, cooking on a wood fired range requires a great deal of critical path analysis, long, longish and longer range planning. It also requires a rough knowledge of the heat output of various woods, at least by size of log if not by type. It demands a considerable degree of man management skills to get the wood as near as possible to the lengths and widths that cook wants and cooker needs, rather than those that satisfy male egos. (I draw the line at learning to use the circular table saw.) The cooker, also, has to be understood.
My Rayburn has three principal functions, it heats water, it heats an oven and it heats a hotplate. All this is done by directing hot air flow from the firebox. Very simple technology. But one has to allow for weather conditions: the Rayburn does not like rain or damp, the flue will not draw properly unless it has previously been made very hot. This cannot be done except with small, thin logs, preferably chestnut. Then cook has to remember to add thicker, oak logs to keep the fire going, ready for cooking. It loves cold, the flue roars away and one spends a considerable amount of time damping down the fire, opening draft intakes, putting on green wood (bad) leaving just enough embers to revive it in time to cook lunch.
Of course, with such variable fuel, the temperatures of both hot plate and oven are not easily controlled. Recipes demanding that something be cooked at x degrees for y minutes have to be radically modified. Cook in or on hot, less hot, barely hot, areas until ready is the only guidance. The temperature gauge on the oven door is more indicative than accurate. I can feel the temperature of the hot plate by holding my hand above it – but once the insulating lids are open, the oven starts to lose height. And the oven is not evenly heated, main heat input from the firebox side obviously. Cook has to remember to turn oven contents regularly. Fortunately I have been comforted and supported by my inherited, first edition of the Larousse Gastronomique which does not give temperatures and only approximate times in its recipes.
Once I have re-learned its vagaries the Rayburn is back in my heart again. Even the fact that hanging over the hot plate is not good for the complexion; that it makes everything so dirty that I have to wash my elephants and other ornaments once a month; that it is erratic and sometimes has to be relit; that bringing in logs is no fun; all this is forgiven, for it does cook beautifully. I even know how to sweep its flue though now, old age and common sense dictate, I have delegated this activity.
The Rayburn is the third person in our winter marriage. We ask if the other has 'fed the cooker' recently, decide which one of us will 'put the cooker to bed' and know that the first person out of bed in the morning will 'wake the cooker', whatever the weather. And I push to the back of my mind that in a few months time, with the inevitable progression of seasons, cooker and I shall cease to work together.
As the marketers of the Betty Crocker ready cake mixes discovered way back when (the sixties, I think) a cook (usually but not always a woman and wife) likes to feel s/he has created the food being offered to the family. Hence the famous egg that had to be added to the eponymous cake mix. Working with a wood-fired range is hard work, rewarding work but, oh, how I wish it was not so hot and dirty!