Here at bunscuffle towers we have a beautiful kitchen – I apologise if it sounds like I am boasting but actually, I can take no credit for it – we rent the house and the whole design is the work of our very tasteful landlady.
When we first saw it I was thrilled by the Belfast sink, granite work tops and huge, floor to ceiling, housemaid’s cupboard but I have to admit I was slightly daunted by the beast in the corner: The Rayburn.
This is not the first time we have had a Rayburn; we used to have a solid fuel stove in a previous house but we also had a more conventional cooker too so the stove warmed the house and heated the water. The only cooking it was used for was making casseroles – like a giant, unpredictable slow-cooker.
This time round the Rayburn is our only means of cooking so I have had to be a little more creative.
Me being me I have learned my creativity the hard way and reached a vague approximation of competence only via raw pork chops (still uncooked after 45 minutes), cakes burnt on one side but uncooked on the other and one fateful night where we drank 2 bottles of wine and fell asleep whilst waiting for the potatoes to boil.
Two and a half years on it is not a problem; I can turn out a Christmas dinner – complete with mince pies and Christmas pud, bake cakes, do a three course dinner for fourteen people at the Unseen Restaurant or make an omelette without using a super-tanker full of oil. The only thing I haven’t mastered is a stir fry – it takes too long and too much fuel to heat a wok enough for 5 minutes of cooking.
The most important lesson I have learned is to start early. It takes at least 30 minutes to get up to the required temperature and often closer to an hour. That’s clearly not ideal for spontaneous snack making but really isn’t a problem once you get into the slow food mindset.
I struggled at first with the oven temperature – the dial registers 3 heat categories – simmer / bake / roast which is a bit vague by my standards especially as “bake” can be anywhere between 160°C and 210°C in my oven – not great when you have a delicate sponge in there. Most modern ovens have a glass door so you can take a look at progress but, try as I might; I have not been able to peer through the heavy, enamelled door without opening it. Buying an oven thermometer with an external display has made a huge difference to my cooking and has given me real confidence over baking and roasting times.
The hot plate is fairly straight forward – you can’t turn the heat instantly up or down under a pan but you can move the pan around as it’s hotter on the left and cooler towards the right. Cooking lots of different veg and sauces at the same time can feel a bit like spinning plates as pans are repeatedly moved on and off the hot spots but it keeps you focussed. The real challenge is that lifting the lid on the hot plate makes the oven temperature drop so you have to plan the order and timings of your meal quite carefully.
Cleaning the Rayburn can be fun too because you are always trying to wipe a hot surface and food continues to get baked on every minute you leave it. The enamel is quite resilient so you can scrape burnt on grease off it without scratching if you are careful. Beyond that, most proprietary cleaning products give off pretty awful fumes if they get hot but you can get a really good cleaning paste from the BettyTwyford range – it takes effort but does a good job and doesn’t smell. The oven itself is much easier, put the oven shelves in the dishwasher and brush the cast iron oven out with a wire brush – couldn’t be easier – so long as you don’t burn yourself reaching into the back.
Having learned all these lessons I have to say, I love the Rayburn.
I love leaning against it in the morning, tea in hand, listening to John Naughtie berating yet another feckless politician. I love the slight element of surprise when you open the oven door onto a perfectly risen cappuccino cake. I love coming home tired to a perfectly cooked casserole. I love hanging the washing over it to dry (and then trying to get the faint smell of onions out of my T-shirts). I love that friends gather round it to soak up its warmth – even on a summers day, and I love that it has a personality all of its own.
In fact, the only question left in my mind is – Rayburn? Radio 4? When did this working class girl become such a middle class cliché?