Goodnight Sweet Heart

By / Food / March 31st, 2014 / Like

If you haven’t tried for a while to find dry kindling, the paper to make it burn, and the matches you will need to light the paper, you tend to forget or don’t know about all of the things you need to know about wood stoves.

I met a wood stove again last summer. A marvellously-appointed Sweet Heart, made by the Elmira Stove Works of Elmira, Ontario, it sat resplendent in its shiny metalwork in the corner of the kitchen of a cabin that hangs on the north face of April Point on British Columbia’s Quadra Island.

Black, white, and sparkling silver, with all kind of bells and whistles that were never part of the stoves I knew as a child, it still  had all of the characteristics that are so very different from the gas and electric automatons we have come to know so well. The sight of it stirred the richest memories.

The stove was burning when we arrived, on a droopy, too-cold day in July, the kind of day that felt like January, and should never have disgraced a British Columbia July, no matter how late in the year rain forests are prepared to endure cold and persistent wetness.

We tromped inside, loaded with suitcases, groceries from the city and high expectations, and the cabin felt truly marvellous. Those who had been there before us had stoked the fire, and the crackling and spitting of the wood inside were sounds instantly more warming than the best of heating systems could ever have provided.

Wood stoves are part of a life that exists beyond suburban horizons. If you have never met one, and there must be many these days who haven’t, wood stoves are living things. Electricity is energy, but except in the glowing elements of toasters, the light of incandescent bulbs and other controlled short circuitry, we are unable to see electricity.

With a wood stove, energy is rooted in visible, moving, sometimes terrifying fire. The effects of wood stoves approach magic.

Wood stoves become friends. As they begin to glow in the cold of morning, keep kettles steaming into the wee hours, dry socks or bake roasts for Sunday dinners, they kindle in each of us a state of inexplicable contentment that never quite comes in an antiseptic city kitchen. Wood stoves, with their warmth and dancing flames, slow things down. They heap special therapy on our often-ragged lives and whisper to us to rest, luxuriate. In their warmth, all is well.

Listen only to my gentle hiss, my earthy pops and crackles. You will feel my calm and I will change you. Wood stove hypnosis? Primal fascination of flame? Why are we moved by bonfires and burning buildings? Terrified by thoughts of a burning hell? Deep in the brain, there is always remembered fire. Maybe we should talk to the moths?

An electric stove doesn’t make you feel different. An electric stove is purely functional. It will cook you a roast, boil your potatoes, fry your eggs and heat your wok, but you won’t feel different in the presence of an electric stove. Gas? There ís the smell, like it or not, the flame, the instant heat, but it cannot approach the therapeutic power of the wood stove.

You turn on electric and gas stoves with the flick of a switch. Wood stoves are nursed into life, flame by growing flame. And when the flame burns brightly, we are not just ready to cook or to bake. The torch of our long history has again been passed. We are ready again, to begin!

It takes a while to remember how to “drive” a wood stove. The one we had when I was a child had a damper in its flu, a damper that controlled the air flow through its wide front door, a firebox and an oven beneath it.

The stove at the cabin had a damper in the flu, three doors on the front, three dampers calibrated to catch the smallest breath of air, several levers to lift lids or multiples of lids, an oven to one side—and a warming oven to the rear and above the stove’s top surface.

As a kid, I didn’t think our wood stove was any big deal. Like today’s electric kettle, it was simply there. You took for granted its ability to cook, to dry clothes, to warm your backside on a frigid morning, to radiate its special heat throughout the house. You took for granted that it needed endless wood to feed it, paper to fire the wood, a supply of matches nearby.

And as a matter of course, you blessed the fact that along the way you had “graduated” to electricity or gas or microwave—that wood stoves, for you anyway, were now a part of your history.

With gas or electricity, everything, with some easily-developed cooking skills, becomes perfect. Preheat the oven to 325. Bake for 25 minutes. Stir on low heat until the mixture thickens. Sauté until golden brown. Bake for 15 minutes at 425, then for an hour or until done. It’s very hard to go wrong.

The wood stove, as with life itself, offers no such easy road to success. Given dry twigs and some time, it will boil the kettle, fry your eggs and bake your bread, but it will never be “turned on”. You will welcome its high highs when the snow falls and when the sky turns grey in July, but you will have to endure it in the hot winds of August.

In an electric stove, all you may ever have to do to bake an evenly-browned tray of cookies is turn the pan half way through the bake. Your wood-stove cookies, on the other hand, will be the product of ingredients, temperatures, drafts in the flu, the wood, and any number of hot spots in the oven. They may not be evenly brown, but neither is a flame evenly red, or gold, or consistently at the temperature where cookies become perfect.

I had successfully baked bread for years in an electric stove when I met the Sweet Heart of Quadra Island. Deserving of the environment and of the stove I was about to use, my bread this time would be of stone-ground whole wheat, richly fortified with sunflower seeds. No lover of the earth could find a better brew! It mixed well and rose in the warming oven. But after 30 minutes in an oven that came close to, but apparently not close enough to break-baking temperature, it looked very little like anything I had ever made before. One loaf was black on the top, barely cooked on the bottom, the other was extremely crusty, like something that might sell well in a Scandinavian deli. I convinced myself, but no-one else, that it was perfect.

I didn’t make bread again. Or soup. It was marvellous for the first while, but we went fishing and returned to a pot that had dried to a crusty mass on the top of the stove. Or bacon and eggs. I fired up the propane stove because no-one wanted to wait. Or cookies. Because of the hot spots, I just couldn’t get them right. Or salmon. Because we didn’t catch one.

But I chopped a lot of wood. Even though the cabin was richly blessed with a wood supply. No Black Locust or Shagbark Hickory that’s called for in all the stove books, but good old west coast hemlock. I figured no wood pile is ever big enough. And it did my heart good.

On the last night at the cabin, it got cold again, soaking rain that swept off Discovery Passage in sheets, and along April Point where it ran down the picture windows and made noise on the shingles. Someone said we should light the stove.

But I figured we should conserve the wood pile, so I turned on the floorboard heaters. I also figured it was also a good way to start getting ready again for life in the city.

I think I miss wood stoves, but like a lot of things we’ve left behind us, I don’t quite know how much I miss them.

Good night Sweet Heart. It’s too soon to say good-bye.



My paternal grandmother was forever old. That’s all I remember about her, except that she cooked extremely well. I’m convinced that her secret ingredient was butter. She and Julia Child would have related well. Grandmother used to make this cake in the oven of her shiny, wood- burning black stove in Angaston, South Australia and sister Janet sent me the recipe in the spring of 1994.  God knows how grandmother managed without the equipment we have these days, but she did. And how must it have been in that kitchen when it was 40-plus Celsius outside! The kitchen was always dark and the blinds were always drawn, and coming in from the blinding outside light, it was like nighttime in there. The walls of grandmother’s house were made of marble and were probably two feet thick. The house was called “Holmesville”. It had a wide verandah on all four sides, made cooler with lots of wisteria. The house, which was at the top end of Murray Street, the main street in town, isn’t there any more. A fruit processing company moved in and pulled it down to make room for not much at all. What a pity. You will note that the measurements for this recipe are in pounds and ounces, the Australian of doing things back then. One day, I must convert them. The comments in the method are sister Jan’s.



11 oz. butter

11 oz. sugar

4 eggs

1 lb. plain flour

1 oz. baking powder

1 lb. currants

3/4 cup milk



Cream butter and sugar, add eggs and cream a little more. Add some of the flour, then all of the currants (mix in a bit of flour first then add all of the currants so they sort of sit in the dry flour, this probably stops them from sinking to the bottom of the cake.) Add the remaining flour and milk alternately. Bake in a lined, huge baking tin (the kind you would use if you cooked an old fashioned, cholesterol-filled family roast for six the Australian way.) Cook in a moderate oven until done (about 40 minutes).  Decorate when cool with icing sugar mixed with cold water. Before the icing has set, make strips of thinner pink icing across the cake with a knife then run the knife one way then the other to get the { } look.




Our West Coast wordsmith Duncan Holmes likes to cook all parts of the meal—hot and cold apps for the eyes; big, generous mains, where timing, color and taste come together on sparkling, white plates—and there’s always enough for seconds. But it’s at dessert time when he really shines. Not with precious fancy dancy, but with a melt-in-your-mouth-pastry apple pie. Granny Smiths, of course, and French vanilla ice cream.

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