There’s nothing more primal and multi-sensory than cooking with fire - the smell of the smoke, the colours of the flames and the crackle as the embers burn. But while this might conjure up a vision of barbecued beef burgers, chargrilled sausages and slow-cooked joints, or smoked mackerel and air-dried chorizo, this summer there are new star ingredients on the menu for al fresco dining.
From garden to grill, fruit and vegetables are taking centre stage in smokers and on barbecues across the nation.
Last year was Genevieve Taylor’s first full year on her Bristol allotment, so she had gluts of vegetables to experiment with while writing recipes for her latest book, Charred – the complete guide to vegetarian grilling and BBQ. “The ever-growing BBQ world is pretty meat heavy and it is still often about man versus meat, which I found frustrating. I wanted to redress that balance,” says Taylor, an omnivore who has for many years been passionate about outdoor wood-fired cooking.
“Putting vegetables on the barbecue excites me and people just don’t expect it. Ultimately, we should all be cutting down on eating meat for the love of the planet. As a biologist by training, being in nature is so important to me and I’m happiest cooking outside – plus people want to get involved and help poke the fire, it’s a social gathering.”
Taylor explains what real barbecue geeks call the Maillard reaction, a high heat chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavour. “The Maillard reaction results in really intense caramelisation and a rich, savoury, umami flavour – yes, it makes meat taste amazing, but likewise it does a very similar thing to veg, especially root veg like parsnips,” says Taylor, whose recipes include minted pea and paneer fritters, vegetable stack burgers and smoked Jerusalem artichokes with charred rosemary mayonnaise.
“Smoked veg dishes are colourful, fresh and appeal to a new generation of people who are getting into smoked food but don’t just want that sweet smoked spiced BBQ flavour,” explains Cornwall-based eco-chef, James Strawbridge, who has been smoking cheese at home since the age of eight: “Yes, it was quite an unusual hobby, but I’ve always loved smoking.”
For his latest book, Smoked Food: A Manual for Home Smoking, he has built on his passion and created various vegetarian smoked dishes, from mushroom burgers to guacamole. “Too often, it is deep south American-style BBQ – and there’s nothing wrong with good quality meats sourced from local farms – but the idea of just glorifying huge amounts of meat is not really my thing, and vegetables are a real crowd pleaser,” he explains.
His book is all about practical step-by-step guides, so it’s easy to follow and Strawbridge, who insists that you don’t need much kit to get started, also shares his instructions to make your own smoker. In fact, smoking as a cooking technique is all about going back to basics.
“It really is the first food trend ever,” he says. “When people were first learning about fire and cooking, the smoke around the fire would help preserve a strip of meat that might be left near it. It’s quite a radical food trend but so many people are getting on board with it now – the smell of wood smoke is so nostalgic and has quite a raw, primal power about it.”
Strawbridge says that cooking with fire is a digital detox and believes the process is, by its very nature, much calmer than the high-octane atmosphere of professional kitchens. “When you’re cooking smoked foods, you have got to be patient and I can feel my pulse dropping. There’s plenty of time to talk and be sociable, it’s all about feasting and sharing,” he adds.
So, with this sudden peak in alternative smoking and wood-fired cookery books, and an exponentially growing barbecue scene, has this market been saturated?
Not yet, according to Taylor who believes we still have quite a long way to go convincing people that cooking with fire is actually a year-round pastime. “It’s not just for the summer months,” she says. “In fact, a lot of top chefs are switching to open fires in their restaurants. Maybe that’s a kick back to so much fine-dining and technical cooking.”
In fact, she believes working with fire presents a rather different challenge: “You have to learn to master the fire and free yourself from the rules, then you become a more instinctive cook and that is really liberating.”
For your summer bookshelf:
Smoked Food: A Manual for Home Smoking by James Strawbridge (£24.99 out now, published by Haynes Manuals)
Charred – the complete guide to vegetarian grilling and BBQ by Genevieve Taylor (£15, published 30 May 2019 by Quadrille)
Vegan BBQ by Nadine Horn and Jörg Mayer (£14.99, published 30 April 2019 by Grub Street)