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Cooking Over Fire

Fire Food, An Honest Expression

Cooking over fire is a uniquely intimate way of sharing time and a meal, both casual and tactile. Deeply personal while at the same time welcoming with arms outstretched. A group experience valuing community in a primeval ‘gatherer’ way, baked into DNA weaving its way to us from distant ancestors. A sense of community is deeply intrenched into the human psyche, to such an extent that being in service of this brings fulfilment that motivates much of life.

Cooking over a Kauai for a large group in the woods

As community grows it is necessary to deploy efficiency in order to maintain this service, deploying the tools of convenience and consistency. Inevitably this brings a degree of uniformity and a dulling of personal expression through craft. This expression of humanity is valued almost as much as community. As efficiency increases and the personal touch diminishes vocabulary such as bespoke, crafted and artisan illustrate this value.

Providing for a community involves many skills, hovering near the top of this is providing food. There are many crafts involved in this and cooking is certainly a key element. Cooking over fire, or perhaps more accurately cooking with natural fuel, has underpinned this since the beginning.

A log fire on the ground in a woodland clearing

BBQ or fire food constantly evolves and adapts, falling in and out of favour as does any creative fashion. The question of what does this mean to you is the opening to discovering the true identity of this more natural way of cooking.

For many the familiarity comes with the term BBQ. A way of coking that invariably draws it’s gaze towards the warmer weather and time spent with others. Marinades, sticky sauces and melted cheese. Strong rich flavours enveloped in sizzling smoke or encased in a bun. Perhaps this is just the Americanised British image of BBQ, a biased throwback to a past generation where discovery was less explosive.

Cooking over fire is a food cultures underlying heartbeat, effortlessly championing heritage and stripping away convenience. Here in the UK food is a very multicultural affair perhaps more so than many other places in the world. As an island nation obsessed with exploration and discovery throughout history, the uniqueness of it’s culture is in the adopting and adapting of what has been unearthed. A sense of wonder in the unfamiliar and perception of beauty in the exotic. I think of this a like a child in a sweet shop, grabbing wide eyed with wild enthusiasm, which of course is not without enjoyment and not to be discouraged. Spicing from the cuisine of Indo-China and the Pacific harmonises with the style of American deep south and Hispanic cooking, all of which can be linked back to one part or another of British history. This is a wonder to behold and of course taste!

However, a distraction from of the raw beauty of what lies within often ensues, a sentiment I find to be very fitting when it comes to fire food. There is an innate wonder that comes with cooking outside over a fire, a wonder that has its own flavour, a palpable taste that seasons everything it touches without the need for spices, sauces or marinades.

Radish, asparagus & steak cooking on the BBQ

This is where I believe the true strength of cooking with fire is… FLAVOUR. There is a unique and irreplicable flavour that comes from cooking outside and over natural fuel, a seasoning that comes from every aspect. A flavour that morphs and adapts and is delicious. This simply cannot be replicated by a cook or in a kitchen with ingredients or preparations. It comes from the wood or charcoal, the grill itself, what stage of the burn the fuel is at and then smoke.

What tree produced the wood for burning or the charcoal brings its own flavour as well as cooking characteristics. The density of fibres dictates length and consistency of the burn, sap and oil content also influences this as well as adding an additional layer of flavour. How dry the timber is, referred to as seasoning, is hugely influential to the length of burn, the consistency and intensity of heat also. How the charcoal has been produced has an impact for this is a skill that has been mechanised over the years to its detriment. Fast mechanised processing produces an inferior burn quality with small chunks and low density that is challenging to cook with. Often these processes are laden with chemicals that taints the flavour as it burns.

Perfect charcoal in a kadai

Beyond these organic and tangible factors, the decisions a cook makes impacts the flavour. Fire is an untamed organic, living and breathing entity. To master cooking with this natural heat source is to understand its behaviours, its quirks and desires. and then to work with it and coax it to living in a way that suits our needs. How the fire lives directly impacts how to cook with it. A fierce and lively young fire is hot and wild, scorching and searing in an instant where as a mellow and content older fire is gentle with caramel smoky tones. These layers of flavour can be channelled by the grill or fire chosen to cook on, from a domestic kettle BBQ to a kadai fire pit or simply a fire on the ground, they all have their ways of controlling the fire and changing its flavour. 

Woodland dining at its best

Then of course there is US! People are the biggest part of cooking outside and with fire. It is a communal activity, the atmosphere resonating with a vibration that penetrates the whole experience adding taste and flavour memory of its own. It is the flavour of being there, being a part of something. The flavour of sharing, laughing, and communing with others. Food is and always has been about more than just ingredients or what is tangible. Food is a sensual experience and fire food is the ultimate expression of this. It is the flavour of terroir.

There is a part of human nature that strives for efficiency through consistency, a predictability and convenience created through refining and controlling a process and its influences. This has led to beautifully crafted kitchens capable of producing fine works of culinary art. Cooking on fire does not conform to any of and to do so would strip its personality and character, its very heart and soul.

Food cooked on fire is honest.

A true expression of terroir.

flames form a wood fire

Heritage | Environment | Craft


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