I love fire. I always have. I’m just not very good at it. As a child I used to go camping with my dad, and we would build fires which would last for days. On a recent holiday I was able to sustain a simple fire for a few hours. Except that it was outdoors, and the tent we were staying in – replete with its own ventilated stove – was ice cold. That’s worse than a schoolboy error, when the night draws in.
Fire is there to heat things up, not to be in the fresh air while people huddle around in their coats. I had missed the point of the free wood, and had to buy more the next day. That’s how they get you, was my first thought, that dew-drenched morning. At least the stove had a gas bottle attached to it.
One of the things I desperately want to do with fire is to cook with it. I mean, that’s a given. The first thought I have when faced with anything interesting is “what can I eat?”: that’s just who I am. The idea of outdoor cooking on fire is therefore so enticing to me that I cannot but help myself to come back to it again and again. The successes outweigh the failures of such endeavours in my mind, so it seems like a fool proof thing to do. I have fire; therefore I can cook on it, and most spectacularly.
My first experiences of trying to cook on barbecues always involved those little tin foil things which you can optimistically pick up at any supermarket in the vaguely warm months in this country. I lit one up on the balcony of my student flat and confidently under cooked some chicken. The oven solved the cooking, but a bucket of paint was needed to make good the scorched wall I had placed the fiery tray too close to. Little was I to know that this would be one of the more successful meals I would ever attempt to cook over fire in the many years to come. Mostly because I got heat out of it.
Once I was living in a home I was actually part of owning, and which had some fireproof outdoor space, I bought a barbecue. Now, it must be stated that we have dogs, and that the outdoor space was then being used as a bathroom for the little fellows. Fire and small dogs doesn’t mix, so I had to put the barbecue on a stone plinth on a wooden table. So far so fucking stupid, but I’d had a few beers, so it seemed like less than a stupid idea. I filled the belly of the beast with coals and ignition.
And then I remembered my issue: I could get one corner of the fuel lit, but it would not stay lit and nor would it spread. I blew on the burgeoning embers and nearly passed out. I beat it with the box that the beast had come in, and only managed to produce smoke. After several hours of trying to force air in to charcoal to make fire I finally had enough embers to try and cook our meal on.
The problem was that it was now cold, and so was I. I had a fire in front of me, and the meat was well marinated, but I held such resentment for the fire that I could barely bring myself to cook upon it. I was in a position of being damned if I did, and equally fucking damned if I didn’t. And so I did.
From a food safety perspective, it is always best to finish barbecued food off in an oven. Thankfully. It is also always surprising how long it takes to roast some corn on a poorly fashioned pile of embers.
Apparently what we call in the UK a barbecue they call in the USA a grill. Conversely, what we call in the UK a grill they call in the USA a broiler. Likewise what they call in the USA a barbecue we call in the UK a smoker. Only a fucking huge smoker. I have not got one of those, and I never have had. OK?
I spell this out to take a meandering tangent along a street called gas barbecues. My brother-in-law has one, and I have coked on it. While I will openly deride him for it, I actually quite like it. It looks a lot like a full-sized barrel-style barbecue, only it has rocks in it, and a pipe coming out of it, which leads to a gas canister. Not a fire risk, apparently; that only comes with burning natural fuels.
My kettle barbecues – squashed spheres of metal which hinge at the back, and which hold quite a volume of coals, when you come to think about it – were crap. I would use them once, leave them covered in chicken fat, and let the winter snows take them for their own, only for my partner to evict them the following spring. I envied a more sustainable solution; I envied something I could light.
I never did get a gas barbecue, and I am a little sad about that. The reason I didn’t get one is that we didn’t have space for it. That and the fact that my partner finds such things as risible as I do. More on the space issue soon; I just want to point out that it is these gas-powered meat burners which I have, in my mind, labelled as “Grills”. It’s not correct, but that is what they will always be to me. That and clean.
Look, we didn’t have space for a grill, replete with its own cover so as to rebuff the advances of winter, but we did have room for a pizza oven. No, I think I’m talking rubbish too, but it is precisely what happened. And it turns out I am just as useless with that as I was with everything else.
My partner has always wanted a pizza oven. A brick built one, which one sets a fire in, where the temperature sky rockets to face melting levels, and can cook pizzas in seconds. Therefore I bought her a standing chimney, with a metal box underneath it, inside which an underwhelming pile of coals could be gently heated up in order to cook a pizza in a matter of hours. If you can get it lit at all.
It was a compromise, but one which I was excited about. I knew that she had always wanted her own pizza oven, but I had not realised how substandard this solution would turn out to be. The fire box is even more enclosed than the kettle barbecue before it, and so is far harder to light. It has a chimney, which projects the smoke more efficiently on to next door’s hanging washing. It takes a huge degree of planning to even consider thinking about using it. Basically, it hates me, and that’s that.