In the two hundred thousand years man has walked this planet, he’s always brought two things with him – language and fire.
While most of us have a firm grasp of one of those things, very few of us do the other. Fire is a fundamental part of our evolution, but – if you’ve watched or read Michael Pollan’s Cooked – you’ll notice we’ve generally neglected the benefits and techniques that go with it. One of those techniques is making, and cooking with, charcoal.
Let me tell you a few mistakes we make with charcoal. If you’re visiting your local service station with the intention of picking up a fresh bag, then you’re doing it wrong. If you’re peppering your steak before chucking it on your wood-fired grill, then you’re doing it wrong. And how about this: if you’re not factoring in charcoal as an active ingredient to your cooking – like Hawksmoor and Pitt Cue are – then you’re doing it very, very wrong.
This is a big oversight among chefs. Mark Parr (Mark being a man who does know a few things about fire) and his business London Log Company help source wood and charcoal for food festival Meatopia, as well as some of the country’s most successful restaurants. He tells me why some chefs are becoming more conscious of what they put under their grills and barbecues.
‘Charcoal is essentially a distillation process,’ he says. ‘You take the wood, put it into a sealed retort, and superheat it from the outside. There’s a whole lot of distillations going on – the early stages drive off tar, creosote and moisture. Then it drives off other elements until eventually you’ve got carbon. Not pure carbon, but it’s very high quality.’