Playing with fire

Author: Fergus Henderson
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

Fergus Henderson is happy to battle the elements for his idea of a sizzling barbie. It's a primal theme.

Barbecue means different things to different folk. I myself instantly think of gathering driftwood on a Hebridean island (not so easy now that fish boxes and boats aren't made of timber any more), doing battle with the wind to light the fire and hoping the rain holds off. There's that threshold you reach when there's no turning back, even as clouds loom. In the Henderson family, wood is favoured over charcoal and chicken wings are the barbecuer's best friend, marinated in mayonnaise and cider vinegar. Soon the gathering around the fire becomes an impromptu forum where talk is free, with lots of red wine of a chirpy nature to lend its hand to proceedings.

Others may think of a rusting griddle on bricks in the back garden, which sits there looking unloved throughout the colder months, collecting leaves, fag butts and other such detritus. When the sun finally shines, what had been the hub of last summer's jolly lunches is a mere shadow of its former self, so a new brick structure is constructed on which the trusty rusty griddle is popped. Here is the barbecue health warning: even if you avoid getting lockjaw from said rusty griddle, you're not out of the danger zone yet.

Beware chicken that has been burnt to a cinder on the outside and left raw in the middle - a happy home for salmonella. I also think one should beware skimping on ingredients, buying scary chicken, thinking, "I can buy the really cheap stuff because the barbecue will give it flavour". Never buy a cheap chicken. You deserve to get ill - or at least grow breasts.

Then there is the kettle barbecue enthusiast who has removed any element of chance from the barbecue process. You have a lid to help you get your charcoal started, you can control the heat almost as well as on a stove, you can fit a further device on top of your kettle to turn it into a pizza oven (which I must admit is a rather nifty bit of kit - it works and it does make good pizza). But the barbecue is our chance to become early man again, taming fire. Hosted by the tight control of the kettle, the fire rather loses its sizzle.

I feel I should make a point before we go any further: Australia and barbecues are synonymous, but I am ashamed to say I have never been to a true Australian barbie, which is why I've not yet mentioned that particular cultural touchstone. I apologise. More familiar to me is Turkish barbecue. My brother-in-law comes from Glasgow, but if you put him behind a trough of burning coals he takes the Turkish stance, sitting on a wee stool turning kebabs - a much calmer scene than the sight we most commonly see with a gathering of males drawn to the fire like moths.

We haven't broached American barbecue, another thing altogether. The first time I came across it I had flown to Fort Worth, Texas, to start a book tour of the States. Now, that's quite a long flight, especially with bad food and too many gin and tonics. The sight of the immigration officer reeling from the gin fumes I was giving off was a memorable one. "What you need is a Texan barbecue!" said the person who greeted us, which I'm not sure would have been my prescription at that moment. You ordered dinner by weight: brisket, pulled pork, sausage and ribs, not to mention beans by the bucket. A meaty and emotional first introduction. The beer was so cold that it could've taken the skin off a man's hand.

Back home, my reputation as a purveyor of innards precedes me and I'm expected to show up at barbecues with a bucket of snouts, A3 sheets of tripe and skewered bulls' heads. Offal, of course, takes splendidly to the fire. Squares of ox heart, introduced to the flame for a mere minute each side and served in a bun with a pickled walnut dressing and a sharp salad, are a tender barbecue dream.

But in truth, on the wind-blown beach with the coals glowing, I'm just as happy with a sausage. Here the alchemy begins, transforming the rather anaemic pale pink bangers from the local butcher into frazzled offerings which, when popped into a bap with a big squirt of tomato sauce, hit the spot like nothing else. Fire in the hole!

Looking for recipes? Check out our barbecue recipes slideshow. 

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