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We spent a day in the forest with our wood and charcoal supplier 'Lord Logs' of The London Log Company, exploring the woodlands and chewing the fat – with freshly barbecued bacon sandwiches in hand.
I started cutting and working with wood as a teenager. So some years later, the need to heat our old and cold Victorian house quickly rekindled my thoughts about trees and axes. I called an old tree-cutting friend and soon our garden was full of wood.
When we started supplying restaurants it was mostly about heat. But we wanted to supply wood and charcoal that provided flavour, too. The chefs we work with are keen to experiment, and that’s why we work together. It’s about what flavours we can get from the various wood species. I feel like it’s my role to explore the wood and charcoal cooking cultures and trends in other parts of the world, and share that knowledge with the chefs I work with.
Restaurants like The Savoy have always had a big charcoal grill but it’s never been the feature of what they do, whereas the Barbecoa kitchen is like a toyshop of fire – it’s bonkers but totally brilliant. I’ve never seen a kitchen like it, with that much variety in the kit, and I’ve seen a lot of kitchens.
Barbecue tends to get wrapped up as one thing, but we’re interested in different cultures – they’ve been cooking with charcoal for as long as we know in the Basque region of Spain, so what can we learn from that? Mexican-style barbecue is becoming much more popular again in the US, so how can we get involved? Instagram, Twitter and Whatsapp are powerful tools for chefs, food lovers and restaurants; it's changed the way I plan my travels. I'll ask for recommendations for Rome, for example, and within minutes the best places just roll in.
But as we’ve used it for nearly a million years, I think we’re OK. What we are doing is getting back to the integrity of barbecue. Really good produce, really good wood, really good chefs and a really good attitude. Let the food and the fire speak for itself. I think Barbecoa’s got that. You might do things in a new, fresher way, but you want to use materials and ingredients that have historical significance. Making fires is an ancient craft but quite a lot of modern thinking has gone into it as well.
I think when the recession hit, people just wanted something to believe in again. Places like Barbecoa and Pitt Cue came along and all the frills had been cut away. “Look, here’s a grill, here’s a piece of meat from that farm, it goes in there and comes out transformed, onto your plate.” It doesn’t need heaps of explanation – we burn a sweet wood, we take really good produce and cook it over fire. You can’t fake it!
I’ve been working closely with winemakers in France and Spain to get some vine wood. We’ve just got our first batch that we’re starting to introduce – it’s used in the production of good wines, so it’s stunning quality. The wood burns down to a very white coal and the aromatics are amazing.
Quercus Ilex is an oak species from the Basque region of Spain – it also produces the acorn that Pata Negra Iberian pigs are fed on – and it’s used to make a really naturally sweet charcoal. It’s a Mediterranean species that strangely grows in abundance in small pockets of the UK. It means we can make a pedigree coal here in the UK that we can introduce to the industry. We won’t see it for another year or so, but everything we do is long term.
Cooking with good charcoal is initially easier than cooking with wood, which requires a little more craft and a light hand, but persevere as it’s super satisfying. Wood creates a depth of flavour, intensity and heat that's really good for meat, shellfish and the all-important vegetables. Or combine wood and charcoal for beef, pork and light meats, or slow-roasted whole squash, sweet potatoes and onions, charred leeks, lettuce and tomatoes.
When it comes to choosing the right wood, silver birch has more lemony, mineral notes to it and more of an open flavour, so use it to cook new-season lamb, fish and delicate foods. Oak is great with pork and scallops, or blend the two – like a good blended wine – for an all-rounder.
Use wood that’s well seasoned and dry, with good length, and split into a triangular shape – the edges catch first so you get a really consistent burn and the right amount of flame and coals.
In all, it's a joyful journey. There are endless ways to make great food, with a lot of heart and soul. And it's not all about kit and toys, though there are many. It's often about simplicity, stripped back to the very elements that have helped us develop the communities we find ourselves in.
Check out Lord Logs’ Instagram feed here, and don’t forget you can peek into our open kitchens when you come in to see our chefs put Lord Logs’ wares to good use.