Inside the glorious home of a household name that is synonymous with AGA; demonstrator, mother, wife and fabulous cook Tatty Happell. Visit her 1900’s Armadale home and see that famous AGA we all know and love.
A name that is synonymous with AGA is Tatty Happell. If you own an AGA or have an interest in AGA’s, then I’m sure you’ve heard the name. You can usually find her at our Prahran Showroom, working her way around the AGA Dual Control oven, effortlessly putting various ingredients in the oven, chatting with guests, and then moments later a beautiful 5 course feast is on the table. It’s like magic. You never know where the food comes from, but you’re continuously guaranteed a fantastic demonstration on the versatility and efficiency of the cooker and leaving with a belly full of wonderful sweet and savoury. Tatty has notably been given the title of “best boiled carrots” by numerous customers, due to the simplicity of flavour and cooking process, some of which are the sole reason they’ve purchased an AGA. She’s also a mother to three gorgeous daughters Edwina, Bella and Josie, and wife to Michael Happell.
I thought it was only fair to interview the woman who so many look up to, who so many know, and are now friends with via the AGA community, and find out more about her childhood, her AGA, her family, and how she landed the job of AGA Demonstrator. I’m invited to Tatty’s home in Armadale, just a few blocks away from the AGA Showroom. I always wondered what the inside of Tatty’s home would look like, especially the kitchen with the cooker in question. Would the AGA be hidden or tucked away? Or would it be the centre of attention, the heart of the home? The answer: the latter. When I walk into Tatty’s kitchen all eyes are drawn to it. The lovely shade of Royal Blue, the glowing letters above the cooker that spell “AGA”, the stainless steel AGA kettle, the AGA shaped tin box, the chef pads on the hotplate lids, and the letters on the wall that represent all the family members. It’s almost equivalent to a shrine, paying tribute to Tatty’s admiration and appreciation of AGA. I want to find out more about how this love of AGA began.
“If I close my eyes, I can still picture my childhood. I can see my mother sitting on the floor with her back against the AGA….and now I do the same thing.”
Tatty grew up in the UK, very close to where they make the AGA cookers. She grew up in a family of five - her parents, an older brother and a younger brother, and she was the middle child. She grew up in Shropshire and went to high school in Shrewsbury. After high school, she went to finishing school where you learnt to cook. “It’s a domestic science college called Eastbourne College of Domestic Economy, where you learnt Cordon Bleu cooking and Catering cooking. Once I completed that college, I went to The Marlborough Secretarial College. I completed a secretarial course, and then travelled to London and got a job. I did all sorts of extraordinary jobs as a young person. I worked for a company called Simpsons of Piccadilly which were a high-end designer retail store. I started off in the HR/Personnel department and then went into the PR Office. I used to travel around the UK doing trade shows to promote the clothing, so we would go to horse trials and golf shows.”
Tatty met her husband Michael in London. Originally from Melbourne, Michael moved to London to work and live for a few years, and they met indirectly through the Royal Tennis, and moved back to Australia. “I did quite a lot of temping jobs in Melbourne, I worked for John Holland in the Plans Office while they built the Toyota factory. After that, I got a job as a cook at Minter Ellison Law Firm in the city, which I did on and off for about three years; cooking for boardroom lunches, breakfasts, big dinners. And at that time in our lives, we had just bought our house in 2001, and we went to the AGA shop the purchase an AGA, and that’s how I became connected with the AGA family. I asked Peter if they had any AGA demonstrators, and he said no. So, I told him, if he was ever considering an AGA demonstrator, then I would love to do it. He contacted me a few months later and asked me to come in and cook, and the rest is history.”
“We went to the AGA shop the purchase an AGA, and that’s how I became connected with the AGA family.”
Tatty worked in Scotland for a few months a year, cooking for shooting parties on the AGA. So the AGA was in her blood. However, when she left Scotland and moved to London with no AGA in sight, it was a rude awakening. Then Michael and herself packed up and moved to Melbourne, their first two houses also missing the AGA. “When we moved to Melbourne, we had two houses with just normal cookers which I eventually got used to, and it was all fine and dandy. But I would still phone call my Mum and ask her to clink the AGA oven door to make me feel better - I really missed it. If I close my eyes, I can still picture my childhood. I can see my mother sitting on the floor with her back against the AGA. My brothers and I are putting alphabet magnets all over the AGA. She’s sitting down, leaning against the simmering oven side with her eyes closed. And now I do the exact same thing - I sit on the floor, leaning against the AGA and I read the newspaper every morning. I’ve never not had an AGA. I’d grown up with one my entire life. Everything Mum cooked out of the AGA tasted better of course. My Mum grew up all over the world, so she didn’t have an AGA growing up, but my father grew up with one. He grew up in a generation where there was a cook in the house. But there was always baked bread in the warming oven if he was hungry for snack; he could always open the warming oven and get out some crunchy, freshly made bread. I’d grown up with one, and the kitchen really was the heart of the home with the AGA in it. We all practically lived in the kitchen because the house was so cold, and it was the warmest room in the house.”
“I didn’t have the imagination that my husband did. He could really envision what the home would look like if we renovated, but I couldn’t see it.”
The Happell House is a beautiful home, built in 1902. It’s a Federation Arts and Craft architecture style, and has just recently become heritage listed. It was very dilapidated when the Happell’s bought it in 2001, and took one year to renovate. “We’ve tried to keep it as authentic as we could, certainly in the older, back part of the house; we built the new part to try and match the original aesthetic, and built larger scale rooms to keep a similar feel, with the high ceilings. We have a lovely home that you can live in inside and outside which works very well for us. It’s a beautiful old place, we are very lucky. It has a country feel, even though we are in the heart of the city; it blends well together, but it did need a lot of love when we found it. We weren’t sure how the house would look if we renovated it, but it turned out that it was salvageable and it’s a beautiful place. I didn’t have the imagination that my husband did. He could really envision what the home would look like if we renovated, but I couldn’t see it.”
The Happell’s home used to be the lodge of the nexty-door Mansion, which was called Huntingtower. It was an enormous black and white house on the block next-door which is where the school is now. The house was a house for a while, and then it became Huntingtower School, then Huntingtower School moved to Mount Waverley and Lauriston Girls School moved in. “Even though its federation style, it’s also a bit quirky, as a lot of it is a-symmetrical; the front steps don’t a-line. Before we rennovated, when you walked in the front door, the floor boards were all on a diagonal pattern. Unfortunately, we had to get rid of them because they were broken. It was a very wacky house; it was extraordinary.”
“The AGA became a life time thing; I joined a community and became part of the AGA family.”
For Tatty, it was a no brainer getting the AGA, which was installed 15 years ago. They entertain a lot and the AGA works extremely well for them and fits into their lifestyle perfectly. “When we realised we were going to build our own house, we knew it was going to have an AGA. That part was nonnegotiable, my husband Michael had no choice. But once he started eating food out of the AGA that I was cooking, he realised it was his proudest object in the house. He wanted to show off the AGA to everyone.”
Tatty purchased her AGA from the Prahran showroom, where she met owners Peter and Brian. “I think I was their worst customer because I kept changing my mind, I didn’t know what model or colour I wanted. In the end I ordered a 2 oven AGA. When I told my mum, she said I was mad, and I needed to change it to a 4 oven because we always have so many people coming and going. So, we swapped to the 4 oven AGA. We had to adjust the kitchen cupboards because the cabinet maker had made the cupboards for a 2 oven AGA. So, we had to change the cupboards a bit. The AGA was already on its way via the ship when i changed my mind. So, we had to order another one. It took me about 2 months to work out the colour. We ended up with the Royal Blue AGA. It’s a heritage model I believe is the technical term now, because it’s on all the time. The Royal Blue colour matches the blue tiles we put in behind the AGA. That beautiful AGA sits there all the time, and she only gets turned off for a service. Otherwise she’s on the whole time. We turn her down a little bit in summer, but she’s still firing away. It was wonderful to meet Peter and Brian and be able to annoy them intensely until I got my AGA. I made a family with them too and everyone at the AGA shop, it’s so special. The AGA became a life time thing; I joined a community and became part of the AGA family. I’ve met so many amazing, extraordinary people thanks to AGA, some extraordinary cooks and some wonderful personalities doing the AGA cooking demonstrations and cooking days. I’ve been very blessed.”
“I’ve met so many amazing, extraordinary people thanks to AGA, some extraordinary cooks and some wonderful personalities doing the AGA cooking demonstrations and cooking days. I’ve been very blessed.”
The Happell home is known for always being full, whether its guests from overseas staying over, family members, or friends of the daughters, the house is always coming and going with people, and the AGA is constantly firing away and feeding the masses. “We had breakfast on the AGA this morning; we’ve got two sets of house guests staying. One of our guests has stayed a few times and is now an expert with using the AGA. She gets the bake o glide out and fries herself an egg, puts the lid down and makes breakfast. She even taught the other guests how to use the AGA, which is lovely because it brings all our house guests together and they all stand around the AGA and chat. We had Christmas day here last year, and we had a 7kg turkey and a 7kg glazed ham and had absolutely no problems. I put the turkey in the Simmering oven, then we all went to midnight mass. I took it out at lunch time the next day and shoved it in the Roasting oven to brown and crisp up. It was so easy. In the space of two weeks, before Christmas to the day after boxing day, I fed 122 people in this house and 98% of it came out of the AGA. It was very busy, but the AGA handled it so well. We even dried out orange circles to go on the Christmas tree. The AGA is just so handy. Someone told me I needed a dehydrator to dehydrate the oranges, but I told them I’ve already got one in the kitchen – my AGA. We cut circles out of the oranges, took the pips out, placed them on a rack on a flat tray in a single layer and they went in the warming oven overnight. They retained their orange colour, dried out beautifully, and looked gorgeous on the Christmas Tree.”
“Everything’s delicious out of the AGA, and everything you need, you can do with the AGA.”
Now I want to talk about my favourite topic, the food! Tatty’s favourite dish to cook depends on what time of year it is. In winter. she loves slow cooking meats, such as slow cooked lamb with ginger beer and potatoes - “that’s one of our family favourites.” The most popular meal among the family is a dish they call “prisoners last meal”, a dish you eat before going back to school, consisting of roast pork and apple tart for dessert. “My brothers both went to boarding school and we always called it “prisoners last meal” before they went back to school, and they always got roast pork and apple tart, so now I’ve kept the tradition going with my daughters. We have crackling competitions on who can crunch the pork crackling the loudest and it’s become a bit of a popular thing in our home. Everything’s delicious out of the AGA, and everything you need, you can do with the AGA.”
“I never stop learning, especially from the guests who attend the AGA demonstrations, they teach me so much.”
Most say the AGA is always warm and welcoming, it never answers back, and it’s always pleased to see you. it’s always available to different types of chores and it even dries your washing. “I always say: it’s not just an oven. It’s a cooker, plus everything else. I do my ironing on it too. Pillow cases, tea towels, napkins. I never need to iron them, I just pull them into shape, neatly folded and sit them on my warming plate. It’s so multipurpose. Everyone does something a bit different and quirky with their AGA, and I love hearing their stories and learning from them. The ‘I love my AGA’ Facebook page has taught me so much too, and you hear some extraordinary, clever things. For example, someone suggested a fantastic way to clean the inside of the hotplate lids. You just place ice cubes on the hotplate and close the lid for a few moments. The steam will make the dirt just wipe right off. I had never heard that before, but it works brilliantly. I never stop learning, especially from the guests who attend the AGA demonstrations, they teach me so much.”
“I’ve taught my mum a few things about the AGA. But she never believes me, so she’ll get the AGA book out to prove me wrong and will then realise I’m right. I think the AGA never ceases to amaze me, the things you can cook in it and the household chores you can do with it. It’s such a calm way of cooking, it’s not frantic. Because there’s no flame and because the heat is even and slow, it takes a real talent to burn something. Peter used to say “the hardest thing about cooking on an AGA, is staying sober” because it’s a very easy way to cook, that you could drink so much while your waiting. Essentially, it’s a very calm way of cooking.”
“From a very early age (my daughters) have been cooking and learning and experiencing everything with the AGA. Their confidence in how to cook is very strong.”
“The AGA has grown my passion for cooking and made it stronger. My children have become wonderful cooks because they’ve grown up with the AGA. There’s no fear, the AGA has always been there and it’s always on and ready to cook. My daughters would ring me and ask if they could bake a cake and I would say ‘yes of course.’ There’re no issues at all, that they would turn the temperature too high or do anything wrong; they knew what ovens to use. From a very early age they’ve been cooking and learning and experiencing everything with the AGA. Their confidence in how to cook is very strong; their only issue is going to someone else’s home and trying to figure out how to turn the oven on. All three of my girls and I have a huge passion for food; it’s intuitive cooking.”
If you would like to attend an AGA cooking demonstration with Tatty Happell, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 03 9521 4965.
Images and words by Paula Vinci.