BBQ tips from Georgian cooks

The new series of The Kitchen Cabinet is here – yay! In keeping with the bank holiday tradition of having a ridiculously late lunch of half cooked meat with a tang of firefighting fluid, we discussed barbecuing. I brought one of these with me.

A gridiron. (American, 1890)
A gridiron. (American, 1890)

I’ve been asked a few times about the history of barbecuing: where it originates, why it’s so inexplicably gendered, and why so much of the stuff turned out on BBQ’s in the UK is crap (ok, I made that last bit up, but I had a fairly traumatising occasion last year involving poultry, charcoal, and the clear need for a meat thermometer. It could have ended in A&E). It has a long, complicated, and increasingly disputed history. The OED suggests etymological origins from Portugal, with the word itself entering the English language by the seventeenth century. You can find early English recipes in most eighteenth century cookery books, such as this one, from Henderson (c.1800):

BBQ pig, Georgian style. It's quite nice.
BBQ pig, Georgian style. It’s quite nice.

Here, the specificity doesn’t lie in the technique – it’s just roasted meat – but in a mixture of the ingredients, the basting, and the use of the contents of the drip pan to make a sauce. We’d recognise the application of direct heat to a lump of meat and the dousing in a spicy sauce as being part of modern day barbecuing. Elsewhere, the term is used to indicate the grilling of meat over a fire on a platform or piece of apparatus constructed for the purpose. Again, something we’d sort of recognise today.

(Incidentally, grilling is in in the old English and modern American sense of heat from below, rather than modern English heat from above. Today we use grill for top heat, Americans use broil. We used to use broil for top heat too. Etc.).

Barbecue as a term continues to crop up throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century in English-authored cookery books, and it would be plausible to see a link between the fairly basic techniques of grilling and roasting on open fires with some form of sauce, and the development of modern BBQ, which is overwhelmingly associated with countries which were colonised and/or opened up by westerners in the same period. Australia, New Zealand and, of course, America, in particular the Deep South, also have the benefits of having a climate which makes the development of BBQ techniques and recipes not only feasible, but necessary – put simply, in a country like Britain, where you can reasonably only BBQ three or four times a year, BBQ can only ever remain a bit of a novelty. Elsewhere, it’s a quotidian cookery method. There’s a strong argument, however, that BBQ was (and is) a pretty low-tech way to cook, and that, for that reason, in America, it was the very poor, especially rural poor who really elaborated the techniques and flavours. And yes, very poor, and rural poor, in the Deep South, means slaves and their descendants. There were, of course African antecedents – but let’s face it, every culture armed with food and fire and a basic ability to construct a bit of kit has traditions involving open fire cookery. There’s an excellent article on this subject by Michael Twitty from The Guardian here, and a piece on the tension between modern, white BBQ  champions and the real heritors of many of the historic aspects of BBQ on the BBC here.

BBQ, then, historically, is just cooking. English recipes clearly show that, even if its origins may have been in outdoor, open-fire cookery, the term was quickly applied to kitchen-based cookery. In America, where it stayed outside, it was still everyday cookery. So how on earth did we get to a stage where, in the UK at least, it has become a weirdly gendered, and very specific style, of ruining your lunch?

I think part of it comes down to open fires disappearing from our homes. BBQ doesn’t have much of a presence in formal food writing, at least, in the twentieth century, until the 1960s. Of course, many homes still had open fires for heating at that point, but fires for cooking on were increasingly rare. Rare, mildly dangerous things, especially those involving physical labour and special gadgets aren’t naturally gendered – nothing is – but sadly they tend to be written about in gendered terms and marketed toward men. By the late 60s and 70s, when BBQ recipes and techniques were starting to appear in cookery books, the gender division was already clear, along with the cunning ploy of selling extra kit to naive cooks. Here’s Marguerite Patten’s Book of Savoury Cooking (1961), and The Good Housekeeping Camping Caravan Cookery Book (1978):

A man and his bird.
A man and his bird.
I'd be more impressed with a really big G&T and lots of camembert.
I’d be more impressed with a really big G&T and lots of camembert.

Pshaw, I say. It’s all a load of rubbish, I hear you cry! Well, of course. We have absolutely no need for heaps of special tools for cooking stuff in a way in which was the only way of cooking stuff for quite a lot of centuries. A modern day standard charcoal BBQ is just a chafing stove. Here’s one at Kew Palace.

kew
Kew Palace chafing stoves, c.1730

Gosh! A grill with charcoal in, and stuff cooking on top! Hmm. Which brings me to my last point. I have had some really good food cooked on BBQs (I’m not even going never the idea of gas BBQs here, by the way – just, no). I’ve even had good food cooked on BBQs in the UK. But generally it’s still a heady mixture of raw and burnt, firelighter flavoured and served with poor quality bread baps and sodding iceberg lettuce. But how to better the British BBQ experience? Well, if you think of your BBQ as a chafing stove and basic roasting apparatus, it does rather help. Here are my top (historically influenced) tips:

1. BBQs enable most of us to get as close to proper roasting as we will ever come. If you’ve a kettle BBQ, you can use indirect heat to roast a joint. If you’ve a more basic beast, buy a spit mechanism (about a tenner in French supermarkets from April to September). Then you can do this:

Chicken on a spit. It works better if you put the coals underneath really, but I was experimenting.
Chicken on a spit. It works better if you put the coals underneath really, but I was experimenting.

2. It’s a grill. Grill stuff. Hence the gridiron I opened with. Use the same techniques you would use in a top heat grill attached to an oven. Presumably you don’t usually serve half raw chicken legs from the grill, right? (Sorry – honestly, it was a terrible evening and the memories just burn).

3. It’s a stove. You can make sauces. Like this:

2015-08-09 17.43.54
You can use a normal pan. Though clearly a 3-legged earthenware pot helps to ‘look the part’.

4. Buy a meat thermometer. Please.
For more BBQ fun, the podcast of The Kitchen Cabinet is available via iPlayer, iTunes and all the usual suspects. Or the dedicated webpage is here.

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Sham ham and other stories

I accidentally acquired a new mould at the weekend. I say, ‘accidental’,, but clearly I walked into a shop, ogled, lusted after and paid money for, said mould, so it didn’t exactly fall into my sticky mitts or anything. However, on Friday I had no idea I needed a new mould, and by Saturday evening I was convinced I couldn’t have lived without it. Here it is:

Ham mould, c.1890. Photo from the Appleby Antiques website (it's lethal for food historians)
Ham mould, c.1890. Photo from the Appleby Antiques website (it’s lethal for food historians)

Isn’t it lovely?! Somewhat co-incidentally, I’d recently rediscovered this picture, of a surprise sweet entremets, from Garrett’s Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery, c.1895.

IMG_-4z6lgdA sweet entremets came about 3/4 way through an à la Russe meal, of the kind Garrett would have had in mind. As a diner, you’d already have ploughed through hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, a savoury entrée, a roast, a remove, some vegetables or such like and you might be be a tad jaded. Enter….a ham. ‘Not more meat!’ you cry, weeping tears of mutton fat from your buttery brow. But no, for it is ‘en surprise’…. Garrett describes it as a sponge cake, hollowed out from the bottom and filled with sweetmeats or cream, glazed with chocolate for the colour, and garlanded with candied flowers. The corks are yet more cake, (and could also be filled with cream), while the champagne bottles are real. Quite obviously, this could be called a bold and clarion challenge.

Anyway, it was obsess over that or the small fortress made of fried bread, with carrot cannons and truffle cannon balls from Soyer’s Gastronomic Regenerator, and I know my limits.

This picture was, I think it can be said, directly responsible for the mould purchase. For what came next I can only really blame myself.

Cake in oven
Cake in oven
Cake out of oven
Cake out of oven
Cake filled with sweetmeats
Cake filled with sweetmeats
Cake....CAKE
Cake….CAKE

The cake was a standard fatless savoy recipe, the sweetmeats lemon and cinnamon (essentially they are flavoured marzipan), and the flowers are clary sage (uncandied – it was 10pm by this point). I had a lot of fun.

Hams seem to be pretty popular for this kind of treatment. Garrett also has a swan ‘en surprise’, and this kind of fantasy fun food has a very long history. There are, of course, the mock foods born of necessity – the infamous wartime ‘mock goose’, various mock bacons, and the various vegetarian foods which are made to look like meat (why?). But there is also a lengthy tradition of making one thing look like another. From medieval manuscripts come things like fake guts – actually sweet, but look like something spilled its stomach on the table. Then there’s the  cockentrice, which is somewhat different, given it doesn’t actually look like anything real, but it’s pretty cool anyway (there’s a brilliant explanation, with pictures and commentary, from the inestimable Richard Fitch here). I’ve previously done a meat mellon from Eliza Moxon. And then there is a whole range of cakes or pastes sculpted to look savoury – and ham is right up there for your base item.

I think one reason is its colour – hams are bright, striped, and have yellow and red and brown and the potential for some breadcrumb action. Another is that they were often served cold, at ball suppers and the like, so the lack of steam or cover wouldn’t give the game away too early on. And another may well be that serving a whole ham wasn’t that common – hams were used for cooking with, or in sandwiches, or as luncheons or suppers, and wouldn’t often have appeared at the kind of very expensive dinner at which these sweet fakes would have made an appearance. Basically, if you can afford to have a cook spend all afternoon making marzipan look like bacon, you can afford to serve your guests something more upmarket than ham. So, double surprise – ‘good lord! a ham, how plebeian. but – OMG – it’s CAKE!’. etc.

Incidentally, I’m not convinced the illusion really worked. In the case of the cake, diners would have been expecting a sweet course, so they would’ve guessed within seconds. In the case of the one below – well, that’s more interesting. I cooked it at an event at Kew Palace, and in dim light, a lot of people did mistake it for a lump of pig….

Here’s the final ham cake. And here’s a Georgian/early Victorian sham ham made of almond paste, just to ring the changes.

The final cake.
The final cake.
Sham ham (Ude, French Cook).
Sham ham (Ude, French Cook).