The Earthly Art of Cooking – A food Historian and Celebrity Chef create a feast from a fire-pit
Long slow cooking techniques are something that we seem to have lost in our modern, fast paced society, however, there is something to be said for the flavour that can be achieved through slow-paced cooking. As humans we also derive great pleasure from the idea of getting back to basics and the concept of being ‘hunter gatherers’. It is true to say that traditional cooking techniques using earth, fire and wood have often been overlooked in mainstream cuisine, but being an outdoor gourmet has so much to offer.
For most of human history, cooking over an open fire was the one and only way to cook a meal. People started cooking in this fashion nearly two million years ago and there is something deeply satisfying for the soul about cooking in this manner. When we talk about fire pit cooking a lot of people don’t think of British cookery, instead they think of techniques such as the Maori hangi from New Zealand that involves cooking food slowly in an underground pit for up to 24 hours, however, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of pit ovens across the British Isles dating back to the Bronze Age.
What you have to consider is that until around 150 years ago when gas ranges came into common use every householder has a fireplace and everyone saw the fire as the heart of the home, cooking on a range and harnessing the power of wood and fire for cooking was commonplace.
I was delighted to catch up with celebrity chef, Valentine Warner for a spot of fire pit cooking and after he had dug the fire pit out large enough to accommodate a side of lamb; we lined the pit with a layer of house bricks, then a layer of seasoned wood before lighting. Once the wood had burned down and turned white we added a layer of charcoal to it and again waited for the charcoal to turn white. It’s a process that is all about taking time, it can’t be rushed, but then this is the whole point of using a slow cooking process and the end results are well worth waiting for. Our method made the most of modern equipment that you can easily lay your hands on (such as house bricks), but historically flat stones would have been used to line the pit; (again dependent upon what was readily available) the whole purpose of this type of cooking is being care-free and taking time.
Once the charcoal was white we rested metal grids across the top of the fire pit and lay our side of lamb on top of it, then entombing the lamb by the placing a metal vessel over the top of it we used the top off an old BBQ, but half an oil drum is ideal for this job.
The lamb was marinated with Leffe beer which was perfectly fitting for a slow cooking method as this Belgium Abbey beer comes with a pedigree of over 800 years of craftsmanship and its well-rounded flavour just encourages its drinkers to slow down, enjoy the moment and rediscover time. The Leffe Blonde is most certainly the most agreeable of drinks to enjoy when cooking out of doors but I couldn’t help thinking that the Leffe Brune would be perfect when sitting by a crackling fire on a cold night.
Once the basted lamb was placed over the fire pit there was time to prep a salad and relax with a glass of beer whilst listening to the relaxing spit and crackle of the fire pit as the lamb cooked. Turned a few times during its slow cook the lamb emerged perfectly tender and cooked to perfection a few hours later.
The wonderful thing about this method of cooking was the slowing down process, there was no way of controlling the cooking time; no temperature control to set to maximum; no kitchen gadgetry to speed things up; it just all took as long as it took and in the fast paced society that we live in it was good to just prepare food and take time. Food is so much more than just fuel for the body it is a form nourishment for the soul. A good meal in good company is something that gives us an instant boost and feeling of emotional well-being. I feel that time is an important factor in healthy eating and when we take time to prepare food most of us gain great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment from doing so.
Spending an afternoon preparing a rather sumptuous supper with Valentine in a fire pit , certainly gave me a sense of re-connecting with early cooking roots as well as a sense of simplicity and unwinding, well what can be better than good food, good beer and a fire pit?