Blame the flame
Photography: Daniel Boud
2:17PM, Dec 15, 2011
They say that no summer is complete without grilling. In my opinion, grilling isn't really grilling without a wood fire. The discovery of fire remains one of humankind's most important advances, the application of heat radically transforming our diet from its raw beginnings. Fire is the oldest form of cooking, a fundamental connection to our carnal memories that taps into the core of our humanity. We are irresistibly drawn to fire with a moth-like fascination; it rekindles our earliest memories. I was captivated as a child by my father building a bonfire. Paper lit, the fire would magically spring to life with immense energy, the flames engulfing the wood, filling the air with sweet billowing smoke. Like Charles Dudley Warner, I soon discovered that "to poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world".
Cooking with fire provides a connection to our past and a return to the "stick, pit, and spit" cooking of our ancestors. As modern cuisine emerged, grilling fell by the wayside, considered too crude and primitive a process. People sought to enclose and control fire and the once-visible flame has almost disappeared from our everyday lives. The hearth no longer stands at the heart of the household, and it is only in traditional cultures that the fires remain burning. When I joined Etxebarri, a restaurant which cooks its food over various aromatic coals, I discovered that this legacy still existed among the Basques, and soon became hooked.
The real beauty of fire lies in its simplicity, allowing fresh ingredients to reveal their inherent flavours. In playing with fire, I developed a heightened understanding of good produce and its intimate relationship with the grill. I realised that it's not about the smoke, but the magical aroma created as natural juices and fats drip onto the fiery embers. The profound depth of flavour is genuine.
Cooking over a wood fire is the ultimate flavour-enhancer, with each wood imparting its own unique personality. I try to match these intrinsic characteristics to the food that I cook, considering the wood as a seasoning and not just a fuel.
Wood with flavour
Hardwoods are best suited to grilling because they burn slowly with an intense heat. Sugar molecules in the wood caramelise in the heat, exuding a sweet, fruity perfume; other natural components produce the distinctive aromatics and smokiness of the grill.
* Look for native woods such as ironbark, mallee root and gidgee, or perhaps try some chestnut or apple and match them to the food you grill.
* Lighter woods such as olive impart delicate nuances of flavour best paired with vegetables. Citrus is a perfect foil to oily fish; gnarly grape vines release a robust aroma best suited to meat.
* I particularly love working with aged wine barrels. They release a toasted smokiness with the subtle interplay of oak and wine giving notes of vanilla and spice.
* Use fallen hardwood (at least six months old); resinous soft woods exude an acrid smoke.
* Preparation. Take time to establish a good fire. Creating fire provides a certain satisfaction not derived from the flicking of a switch.
* Patience. Light the fire early and wait until the coals are ready (too high a temperature and the subtle flavour of the wood become tasteless). Optimal conditions are a slow, smouldering fire burning over a long period of time.
* Keep it seasonal. Use only the freshest ingredients available on the day.
* Keep it simple. Don't disguise everything in a marinade but let the food speak for itself. Other flavours should be served separately.
* Be instinctive. Forget precise recipes - the best grilling comes from the soul.
* Experiment. Fire up your imagination and grill something different for a change. While certain foods pose a challenge and dictate a different approach, the art of grilling is boundless. It's also addictive: once you prepare food over an open fire, you'll never go back to gas.