Le Creuset is in trouble. Aga sales have slumped. Is the middle-class kitchen dead?

The old staples are being replaced as changing tastes overhaul the modern home

lucy denyer
Lucy Denyer says the cost of living crisis isn’t the only driving force behind the latest kitchen favourites

They were a soothing sign that here was a kitchen you could trust: one in which comforting casseroles would simmer in winter, steaks would be griddled in summer and, on Sunday mornings as sure as the cock would crow and the church bells would ring, the frying pan would be deployed for bacon and eggs.

Sure, they weighed a ton and took up loads of cupboard space, but for years they were a jaunty fixture on wedding lists across the land, the colour denoting what middle-class tribe you belonged to: orange for traditionalists, blue for those who fancied themselves a little more modern, cream or duck egg for those who liked their cookware to match their kitchen aesthetic.

But alas, Le Creuset, that bastion of middle-class kitchens, is in trouble: sales of the French homeware brand’s goods fell nearly 20pc last year, with profits dropping more than £1.5m.

Nick Ryder, Le Creuset’s managing director, puts it down to the cost of living crisis and it’s true that £525 – the cost of the new, green, 24cm, Christmas edition casserole, with star-shaped lid – is an awful lot to spend on a pan.

But there are surely other factors at play, too – not least the aforementioned weight, as well as the fact that cooking scrambled eggs in them is a total bugger as they’re not non-stick (the company also offers a lifetime guarantee on its products, which is great for customers but not so great for new sales).

These days, it’s all about the multi-functional Always Pan by Our Place – which also comes in a range of colours, starts at a comparatively mere £85 and can be used for boiling, steaming, braising, straining or frying. (I confess that though I am the possessor of at least five Le Creuset items, I’m eyeing up the Always for Christmas.)

But Le Creuset is not the only middle-class kitchen staple to be falling out of favour. All around the country, the cornerstones of what used to constitute a decent kitchen are dropping like flies.

Sales of new Agas (from £7,000 for a dinky apartment-sized model) slumped £10m to £140m last year; in June, Cath Kidston, purveyor of the spotted and strawberry-patterned oilcloths that once adorned every scrubbed pine middle-class kitchen table, slashed prices by 70pc ahead of the final closure of its remaining stores; and in January, posh veg box supplier Riverford Organic announced a fall in pre-tax profit to £5.2m (although admittedly it claimed this was due to increased advertising and people costs, as opposed to a fall in sales).

Nothing seems immune, even the kitchen walls: Farrow & Ball sales slumped by about 3pc in 2022 as people moved on from slathering Elephant’s Breath and Mouse’s Back all over the place.

So what on earth is going on? Is the middle-class kitchen dead? And if so, where does that leave our wedding lists?

“I don’t think the middle-class kitchen is dying”, declares Fiona McKenzie Johnston, House & Garden magazine’s Agony Aunt. What we’re seeing instead, she says, is “an increased emphasis on back-of-room houses – so, other rooms that go with kitchens, like pantries and laundry rooms and those sorts of things”.

It’s true that #pantrygoals has clocked up 325 million views on TikTok, while Merlin Wright, design director of trade kitchen company Plain English, says that it’s the pantries that clients make a beeline for in any of his showrooms: “It’s like a cabinet of curiosities.”

Meanwhile, sales of “back kitchen” items are certainly not going anywhere: the latest trend is for two dishwashers – one kitchen company in West Yorkshire has seen requests for two up by 35pc.

McKenzie Johnston points out that when it comes to style, the English aesthetic – what one might think of as “Downton Abbey style” – is alive and well.

Sales at traditional kitchen makers deVol, for example (think austere and utilitarian style with brass detailing and butler’s sinks, with prices starting at £12,000), have been increasing steadily, with sales of kitchen accessories alone exceeding £1.2m in March. The company, which is also seeing customers Stateside going mad for its shaker-style cupboards in muted colours, released its first book in May.

As McKenzie Johnston puts it: “We’ve managed to export the English middle-class kitchen to America.” So, that’s where it’s gone.

“It isn’t dead,” agrees Nicole Salvesen, one half of upmarket interior design firm Salvesen Graham. Instead, she says, the middle-class kitchen “is reinventing itself.” Classic shaker style, she agrees, is still very much in, although today’s might have slightly cleaner lines than the 1990s version of old, and is more likely to be painted than pine.

Wooden worktops have been replaced by marble, countertops cleared of kettles with the addition of a boiling water tap (Manchester-based Quooker was named one of the fastest-growing firms in the North West in June, recording a turnover of £73m last year, up from £42m in 2020), and that old freestanding fridge freezer tucked into the corner will have been replaced with either under-counter fridge drawers or a giant integrated American-style fridge freezer (which costs about a million pounds and takes a year to order). We are not the only ones exporting things over the Atlantic, it seems.

When it comes to cooking, meanwhile, “the reason that Aga’s died is because there are some really smart other options on the market”, Salvesen says – and besides, the new Agas of today don’t heat the house, which was the one thing Aga owners wanted from their oven (when it comes to actually cooking, “it’s cumbersome, and you have to learn a whole new technique”.)

She says her clients still want a range-style cooker, but will opt instead for something like the French brand Lacanche, which still looks traditional, but cooks more technically than an Aga, and is generally cheaper to run.

Of course, there are some things which deserve to go to that great kitchen in the sky. Ugly pine mug trees, for one. Single-slot toasters (one piece is never enough). Strip lighting (pendants are so much prettier, and more useful).

But I’m not so sure this is really the end of Le Creuset. At the time of writing, a set of mini ceramic casserole dishes shaped like vegetables and on sale for £575 has 40 watchers on eBay, while you can also buy a limited edition Han Solo Le Creuset roaster for the whopping sum of £2,160.

As for me – I wouldn’t part from my old-school orange Le Creuset casserole for love or money.