The ashpan gourmet

Oh for an automatic water heater,'' I used to sigh as I cleaned up the smuts 'round our solid fuel model. But Peter has always preferred real flames; he considered it the very heart of the house.

''Your little goddess,'' I would mutter, as he poured in his thunderous offerings of coal. He never shirked polishing its windows, sitting up with it at night, and was often found kneeling before it in pensive mood, no doubt wishing that the loves of his life got on better together.

Then a disturbing electricity bill led to a change in my hostile attitude. I was hesitating as to whether to switch on the oven to bake merely two potatoes and wishing we had bonfire ashes in which to bury them, when Peter pulled out the ashpan and suggested we put them in that.

''Not such a different environment,'' he said, as I handed them over, wrapped in tinfoil.

The result was beyond criticism, so next day Bramley apples were subjected to the same treatment, followed by a macaroni and cheese and crumbletop at supper time. Peter pronounced the flavor of all these delicacies superior to my usual efforts. Soon even tired leftovers were graciously received if heated up in the ashpan.

''Don't turn on the toast rack,'' Peter called out one morning. ''I'm toasting on top of the coals.''

Soon there was another call. ''Would you pass me a perfectly clean, very soft brush. One of those little silver ones would do, from a dressing table set.''

With eyes fixed on his task, he was vaguely holding out a hand for this choice article, although he had never seen one in our house. A freshly washed household brush seemed to satisfy him, and the brushed-up toast was fine.

The next day was Saturday, and Peter withdrew to his workshop, eventually emerging with two oblongs of grill on a long handle. This contraption opened and shut like the mouth of a crocodile. He stuck an envelope between the jaws and showed me how secure it remained while he turned the device over as if to toast the other side.

''But is it so much trouble to turn the toast by hand?'' I remonstrated.

''It's not for toast,'' he replied. ''It's for bloaters.''

The following week he grilled industriously; kippers, sausages, sardines, chops; and though one sardine escaped through the mesh it was retrieved without much harm.

How pleased I was to find Peter lured into the art of cooking. He concentrated on the live-coal department while I persevered in the ashpan. When even a shoulder of lamb turned out well, I was ready to join in praise of the goddess.

A forehead-to-floor obeisance was a necessary part of the ritual in order to see the strength of the glow beneath the grid; but one forgot creaking joints in the challenge of working out the strategy for each dish. The choice of container , whether to go for the back or forward part of the cavity, and how long to leave the buns or puff pastry called for a sagacity hitherto untapped.

''Steady with the stoking,'' I might say to Peter as he came in to see his loved one. ''There's a baked custard in there.''

''How many asbestos tops on it?'' he would ask.

''Two.''

''Better add a third,'' he would advise, thoughtfully. ''It doesn't matter how slowly they cook.''

However, when winter came - stew weather, in fact - even more was expected of our goddess. Peter began to envisage a witch's caldron set on the coals. One day he came home with the very thing (in miniature) and huge wooden tongs to lift it in and out.

''The beauty of it is, dear,'' he said when withdrawing our first Irish stew, ''all the smells go up the chimney. Those kippers yesterday - you'd never have guessed we were cooking at all.''

''Nor do I have to clean this oven,'' I added, edging him out of the way to look at my tart.

Certainly cooking is not the peaceful occupation it used to be, but besides these assets and the slashing of the electricity bill, I have got off lightly. Peter had threatened to build me a brick oven in the yard.

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