Where there is smoke, there is fire.

Posted by on June 6th, 2016

Come to think about it, the last few weeks of May weren’t too bad. Bags of sunshine contributed to some excellent cricket. The sweet sound of bat on ball is another one of those lovely subliminal signals that summer is here.

The garden is bursting with life and I’m pleased to write we still seem to have a few bees buzzing about – an increasingly rare sight these days. But the weather gods are a fickle lot and many a promising May has degenerated into a miserable June. So let us not tempt fate unnecessarily, touch wood and where did I put my rabbit foot?

All the sunshine, warmer weather and longer days presented ample opportunity to indulge in one of our favourite pastimes – alfresco dining. Unlike many parts of the world, where barbecuing is part and parcel of a rich cultural tradition and inherently associated with good friends, excellent food and a wonderful laid back atmosphere, the British equivalent is, usually, a pretty uninspiring affair.

By comparison, the Argentinian asado, the South African braai and the Australian barbie are practically the de facto first choice for any occasion. The reasons for this are many and varied. Certainly, the abundant sunshine and outdoor lifestyle play a big role. The cost of meat is another factor. Perhaps it harks back to our hunter/gatherer roles in society. Early pioneers and settlers lived entirely off the land and this trait may still be imprinted in their DNA.

It certainly has a lot to do with the friendly, gregarious nature of the people. Take a look at this old TV commercial with Paul Hogan  from 1984, inviting Americans down under – and he would throw another shrimp (prawn to the rest of us) on the barbie.

The regional barbecue traditions are as fascinating as the recipes. Some of my Ozzie mates insist that when hosting a barbecue in Australia you never answer a knock at the door. This indicates the guest isn’t carrying, at the very least, a couple of cases of beer. If he was, there would be a kick at the door.

In South Africa, a unique subculture has evolved where many groups of friends will have their own ‘braai master’, similar in some respects to the American ‘pit master’. The ‘braai master’ takes control of the cooking process with unquestioned authority. The fire itself is the sole preserve of males, a sanctuary where men will gather to discuss manly things and woe betide any female who tries to break into the inner circle.

In Argentina, an asado is part of the Argentinian national identity sentimentalized, in part, by the gauchos or cowboys who roamed the pampa region. Having attended one or two asados in my time, they are indeed feasts of biblical proportions. Of course, the gorgeous Argentinian women had little or nothing to do with my enjoyment of these epic events.

In these countries, any day is a good day for a barbecue; birthdays, Christmas, housewarming, holidays, sporting events, impromptu mid-week get together for absolutely no reason with a few friends. It is not limited to the odd bank holiday weekend. That’s the difference.

Keith Floyd pioneered alfresco dining all those years ago as he cooked (and drank) his way around the world. One of Floyd’s favorite dishes was roast leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic. Anyone who has mastered this dish on a Weber (or equivalent) will swear there is no better method of cooking lamb currently known to mankind.

Not only did Floyd reinvent the role of the TV chef, he did more to encourage people to get into the kitchen and try something new than anybody else before him. He laid the foundations for others to follow and today celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, Heston Blumenthal, Rick Stein and others have assumed the mantle. Take a look at this charming video with Jamie Oliver sitting cross-legged next to a fire demonstrating a few dead simple barbecue recipes. As he says, ‘there’s nothing much better than that in life.’

More open fire grilling using wood is creeping into restaurants across Europe as chefs discover the unique taste benefits of preparing meat in this way. I suspect the large expat communities from places like South Africa and Australia now living in the UK have influenced the situation as well.

And little by little, its catching on. Alfresco dining will never reach the same epic proportions as it has in countries like Argentina, South Africa or Australia. It is unlikely we’ll ever see Greg Wallace trumpet the great British BBQ. Not in our lifetime anyway.

But where there is smoke there is fire. Ever increasing numbers of people are beginning to discover that there is more to a barbecue than burning a few pork sausages on a bank holiday Monday.

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