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 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.

BBC Dish Up (notes from a small kitchen, part 2)

I’ve been involved in promoting a new BBC campaign, Dish Up, aimed at breaking down barriers to cooking, and getting the inconfident and self-proclaimed incompetent into the kitchen. The campaign is based around a website, which contains recipes, all very simple and easy on the kit and the ingredients, along with articles, tips and tricks which link to the various reasons people gave for wanting to learn to cook. The Beeb did a survey to inform the website content, and show the scope of the problem. 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women said they’d never been taught to cook.  So what?, I hear you cry. Teach yourself (which is what I did in my teenage years). It’s not that simple. 19% of the population say they don’t think they can cook at all – higher for the under 24 year old age group. And around 50% of the population say they’d not feel confident in cooking relatively simple things like toad in the hole and macaroni cheese. We’re spending less time cooking, and are more likely to eat ready meals and entirely no-cook meals more and more of the time. And, as has been repeatedly shown by various studies, that’s not a good thing. There are potential health dangers in high consumption of heavily industrialised foods, including the simple fact that portions are on the large side. Even if you genuinely don’t care about the taste of your food, and can happily ignore the various issues around sustainability, in both food and environment terms, there are still loads of reasons to cook. 

The Dish Up survey suggested that the main motivators for wanting to cook are health and saving money, but there are also factors around sociability, family dynamics, and enjoyment. There are so many barriers to cooking, but the main ones seem to be perceived cost (presumably the people who cited cost as a motivator for learning to cook are either different respondents or maybe, I hope, aware of the reasons for very cheap processed foods) hassle factor (cleaning a microwave is hell vs a hob and a knife, I’d say, but hey), and time. Keen cooks will be aware that all of these barriers are rubbish, if you pick the right recipe. More pernicious, I suspect is the fear of failure, unrealistic expectations based on the incredible stuff produced by the ‘amateurs’ on Masterchef and GBBO, and a lack of motivation to just get in there and have a go. Anyway, there’s loads of stuff on the website to tackle these misconceptions, and I had a crack at challenging and encouraging wannabe cooks over 3 hours of radio interviews on Friday 22nd, when the campaign was in full launch mode.

I also thought I’d see how well I practise what I preach, and since we’re once more in a French gîte, with its random range of equipment and limited scope for ingredients (very little here, don’t want to spend a fortune stocking up on my full range of stuff from back home), the time seems perfect. The gîte, by the way, is stunning, but the owners admitted they never cook, and gave us a comprehensive list of local restaurants. As a result, the kitchen is one of the most poorly equipped I’ve ever seen. 3 saucepans, a frying pan, some flexi-mats (one of which is split) as chopping boards, and oven proof dish, a lemon squeezer and some tableware. The only knife is a bread knife (I have brought a 10 inch cooks knife and a paring knife). No mixing bowls (though it does have a lettuce washer). I made mayonnaise on day 1 in a mock flowerpot which was being used to keep the dishcloth in. And I did buy a couple of cheap 70s mixing bowls at a car boot sale on day 2. Clearly, I’m no scared, inexperienced cook, and I have a tendancy to buy fresh, as-near-to-unprocessed-as-possible produce. And I’m not on a scarily tight budget (but neither, necessarily, are the uncooks that the Dish Up campaign is aiming at – this isn’t about food poverty, but people not cooking in general). Otherwise….here goes.

Day 1: olives, cheese. It’s Eurovision, so finger food is important to allow all attention to be on the screen. Fried sand smelts, battered in a fizzy water, flour and egg batter and shallow fried. Boiled artichokes with tartare sauce (home made, we’ll never use a whole jar of mayo). Massive box of strawberries and unpasteurised cream (there are some large advantages to being in France). 

Day 2: yoghurt and jam for breakfast, picnic lunch, dinner of tuna marinated in olive oil and garlic, briefly blanched globe artichoke and cheese salad, more strawberries. There are now no more strawberries.

Day 3: breakfast poached egg and asparagus. Put slotted spoon on list of things we need to buy.  Lunch, local brasserie. Dinner, endlessly cooked white beans (can get them tinned, but we have the time, and they are way cheaper with more variety in a plastic net), with tinned chestnuts and mushrooms and cream sauce, with boudin blanc, fried and sliced and chucked on the beans with some lettuce as a sort of hot salad beast. Oodles of watermelon. 

Day 4: Lait fermenté pancakes (essentially buttermilk ish pancakes) with cheese and butter for breakfast, lunch ham and cheese in a baguette. Apples, more watermelon (now all gone). Dinner, veal chop, cooked over wood on the gîte BBQ (long story, but there was no charcoal, and Monsieur gave me a load of kindling and assumed I could light a fire), with more artichoke salad and black pudding.

Day 5: more pancakes, decided to buy some muesli as by now groaning. Lunch an ice cream (cider sorbet, ahem), as breakfast was so large and so late (I’m on holiday!). Dinner fried floured mackerel fillets, tomato salad, melon. 

Day 6: muesli. Epic lunch at a recommended resto, followed by a cheese crawl round Camembert and other cheesy villages. Dinner, as a result, was cheese, saucisson, pickles and baguette. And strawberries, now happily replaced.

I could go on, but it will get repetitive. As an experient in whether I can do as I say, not just say it and ignore my own advice, it was a success. I suppose the outcome wasn’t necessarily in doubt – after all, I managed 3 years as an undergraduate with one frying pan, one saucepan, an electric wok and a toastie machine. (You can do an entire fry up in a toastie machine as long as you get the right model). I once made fresh pasta by dint of crouching on the floor, which I’d stuck greaseproof paper to, rolling out the pasta with a wine bottle. But time moves on, and I’ve got very used to a well-stocked kitchen and zillions of things lacking here, like mixing bowls, graters, and cake tins. Conclusions? I don’t feel like a hypocrite, promoting the fact that cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or kit-heavy – unless, of course, you want it be, and that’s fine too.

Further reading 

BBC Dish Up is here.

For processed foods and health, Joanna Blythman, Swallow This (occasionally a bit Daily Maily, but a good and interesting read)

For a more general debate on food and sustainability, anything by Michael Pollen and also Jay Rayner, Hungry Man in Greedy World. (Includes must-read chapters on supermarkets and farmers markets)

Notes from a small kitchen

I’ve just come back from holiday. Two weeks in a French gîte, reliant on the as usual slightly random batterie de cuisine. Having gîted before, I am in the habit of taking a fair sized box of extra equipment with me, but this time sleasyjet was involved, so taking anything extra was Not On. All I could manage to fit in was a couple of knives, a digital thermometer and a not completely grim chopping board. Also, for once, there was no food at all in the gîte, not even the split bag of pasta, half a veal stock cube, and five different types of salt, which I thought were obligatory. So it was back to basics: cooking with strictly limited ingredients, buying in as little as possible unless we were guaranteed to be able to eat it before we went home, and relying on someone else’s version of necessary cooking equipment. All screaming out to me to make like a Victorian, and channel my inner thrifty historic cook. Except…

Requirements for a cottage kitchen, from Warne's Model Cookery, 1890s. (authored by Mary Jewry).
Requirements for a cottage kitchen, from Warne’s Model Cookery, 1890s. (authored by Mary Jewry)

This is Mary Jewry’s suggested list of vital equipment for a cottage kitchen in the 1890s. My cottage kitchen didn’t exactly have the full list. I had 4 frying pans, 6 stew pans of different sizes (2 lids), 2 mixing bowls, a whisk, a wooden spoon, two ladles, a slotted spoon, a nutcracker, a bloody awful corkscrew, and even worse tin opener, 3 fluted flan tins, 2 Pyrex dishes, a lemon juicer, a food processor and the inevitable elderly pressure cooker. There were two blunt knives, which I sharpened and then ignored, and a bread knife. Kit-wise, an oven, 3 gas hobs and an electric hob, a kettle, a coffee percolator, a microwave and a toaster….at least we had a dishwasher, or I’d’ve gone home.

It makes. I think, for an interesting comparison. It also highlights graphically the difference in what constitutes a meal now and then. Patent digester? That’s the pressure cooker which I ignored, as I usually do – but it would have been useful for stock. Bread grater? food processor. (I suspect many people would just buy breadcrumbs, but I actually saved all the bread and zapped it). After that it’s not so much substitutions as just not needing things. Skewers? Useful, but I bought my meat ready cut, and didn’t need to truss whole beasts. Fish kettle? Impressive, but I tend to fry fish and crunch on the skin. Actually, I fry a LOT more than my hypothetical inner cottage-dwelling Victorian would have done. Modern hobs and ovens are a wonderful thing. Much of this list is roasting kit, and that was all covered by the oven (and I didn’t roast a thing, though I did bake veg). Then we’ve got all those saucepans – I think I used about 4, which was all I could fit on the aforementioned hobs – less wonderful when you want to cook 5 things and you only have 4 hobs. At that point solid fuel ranges win. I didn’t make pastry, either, so all the pastry kit was unnecessary.

Of course, it’s not a fair comparison. Had I been there for longer than two weeks, I’d’ve been clamouring for full pastry kit, including the marble board. But it made me wonder what things we’d deem vital in a small kitchen today. Today’s version probably wouldn’t be a cottage kitchen, but student digs, or a cramped studio flat. I managed 3 years of increasingly stupidly ambitious cooking at uni with 1 saucepan, a frying pan, an electric wok, a toastie maker which doubled as a full English breakfast making machine, and a Pyrex dish and some decent knives. I accidentally acquired a massive stockpot in my final year, and I stole all of M’s unused pans when we got together around the same time. Still, compared to the stuff I have now, it was pretty limited.

What do people think of as must-have in their own kitchens? We cook, it can seem, a wider variety of cuisines now, but most surveys suggest people don’t actually cook that many dishes on a regular basis. I suspect the range of equipment we use regularly is pretty limited – a favourite frying pan, a couple of saucepans, a baking sheet…the microwave. How many of you have a tagine gathering dust on top of a cupboard? Jewry’s list suggests a cuisine heavy on roasting and boiling with a bit of grilling thrown in. Pies and puddings can be done without special equipment, so I’d assume they were also included – but there’re no moulds or cake tins. The bread grater shows the importance of not wasting anything – the statistics on the amount of bread we throw away today are truly scary when there are so many used for breadcrumbs and leftover white sliced. I could certainly cook most of my day-to-day repertoire with the list here. But – longer than two weeks, and I’d start to hanker after a pudding basin, and my massive Le Creuset pan. But times, and cooking preferences, change. Some people probably couldn’t imagine life without a cupcake pan.