Fire bugs

How cook­ing over char­coal, wood and flames is hav­ing a culi­nary re­vival, and the re­sults are smokin’

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - FRONT PAGE -

As any­one who’s prod­ded a steak over glow­ing em­bers, taken a bite of wood­fired pizza or toasted marsh­mal­lows on a stick – los­ing them mo­men­tar­ily to the am­ber flames only to eat them charred and molton any­way – will tell you, fire is a be­guil­ing el­e­ment. In his book, Cooked, Amer­i­can au­thor Michael Pol­lan wrote: “When we learned to cook is when we learned to be­come truly hu­man.”

These days we are more likely to know how to use a mi­crowave than build a fire. But fire was al­ways at the cen­tre of com­mu­nity and shar­ing. Sto­ry­telling, for in­stance, be­gan around fire, where we rev­elled in its warmth and sus­te­nance.

In mod­ern times we may have re­sorted to gas and elec­tric­ity, but chefs are re­turn­ing to our el­e­men­tal roots.

“Fire al­lowed [us] to un­lock the nu­tri­ents, sug­ars, fats and never-be­for­e­seen flavours too,” says chef Len­nox Hastie of Syd­ney’s Fire­door,a restau­rant that cooks with no elec­tric­ity. “What fire does to in­gre­di­ents can’t be repli­cated by other cook­ing tech­niques.”

Gath­er­ing for an Aussie bar­be­cue isn’t far re­moved from what our ear­li­est an­ces­tors did.“The rit­ual of cook­ing over fire is one of the most hu­man things you can do,” Hastie says.

Hastie’s new book, Find­ing Fire: Cook­ing

At Its Most El­e­men­tal,isn’t a bar­be­cue book, how­ever. He in­tro­duces wood, fire and in­gre­di­ents,giv­ing home cooks the con­fi­dence to use this most prim­i­tive of el­e­ments them­selves.“With the rapid pace of our so­ci­ety now, I think there is an in­nate desire in all of us to feel some­thing real and con­nect again,” he says.“Fire is an ex­ten­sion of ap­pre­ci­at­ing where our food comes from.”

Cook­ing with fire is spread­ing like, well,wild­fire the world over.Top chef Mas­simo Bot­tura,of Os­te­ria Frances­cana in Mo­dena,Italy,says: “Len­nox Hastie is proof that cook­ing with fire is so much more than bar­be­cue. It is a pri­mary tool for bring­ing food cul­ture to the ta­ble and mak­ing ev­ery­thing, from veg­eta­bles to seafood, taste di­vine.”

In­deed, Hastie’s mantra is about learn­ing how to char an egg­plant over em­bers so that it soft­ens and smokes in­side, or gently cook­ing a whole John Dory over the heat of the em­bers – not the flames.

In Gee­long, chef Aaron Turner from Igni also turned to fire to snub his nose at the di­rec­tion gas­tron­omy was tak­ing.

“I think it’s par­tially a blow­back from the last few years – the molec­u­lar years,” he says. “It seemed for a while there it was all tech­nique-driven food and it was of­ten at the cost of flavour.

“Cook­ing with fire gives you an el­e­ment of flavour that no other way can. It’s a whole new world of cook­ing and de­mands your full at­ten­tion.”

And it’s hap­pen­ing all over the coun­try. Syd­ney’s Ar­gen­tinian car­ni­val of the flesh, Porteno, roasts whole an­i­mals over a fire pit in the restau­rant. Also in Syd­ney,The Bridge Room’s Ross Lusted del­i­cately chars in­gre­di­ents us­ing Ja­panese meth­ods with bin­chotan coals on a ro­bata grill, as does Ryan Squires at Esquire in Bris­bane.

There are Amer­i­can-in­spired smoked meat mad­houses like Syd­ney’s LP’s Qual­ity Meats and Mel­bourne’s Fancy Hanks,while in Bris­bane,Black­bird’s Jake Nicolson uses iron­bark to caramelise his top class steaks.

Mat Lind­say at Ester in Syd­ney al­lows flames to kiss al­most ev­ery in­gre­di­ent in his wood­fire oven. So too does Mike McEn­ear­ney at Syd­ney’s No.1 Bent Street by Mike, Dun­can Wel­ge­moed at Ade­laide’s Africola and Char­lie Car­ring­ton at At­las Din­ing in Mel­bourne.

Fire al­lows cooks to en­joy the nat­u­ral char­ac­ter­is­tics of an in­gre­di­ent, rather than need­ing to spend days on an in­tri­cate recipe.The per­sonal in­vest­ment comes with the time spent watch­ing it smoke, crackle and pop.

To get started,Turner from Igni sug­gests in­vest­ing in the right grill. “The abil­ity to ad­just the height of the grill is paramount – this gives you con­trol over the heat source,” he says.

“Find food-grade sea­soned hard­wood and cut it to the right size to cre­ate a con­stant and even heat source.”

Ryan Squires sug­gests to start by get­ting the grill just right. “Start with a su­per-hot cook­ing grill or rack be­fore plac­ing meats on, and if you want to avoid flare-ups, don’t use oil.”

He also sug­gests re­sist­ing the urge to fill the grill. “Cook only what can be eaten at once, then cook again.”

Black­bird’s Nicolson be­lieves that know­ing when to place the food on the grill is key to suc­cess. “There’s a mis­con­cep­tion that cook­ing over fire means over flames,” he says. “Most in­gre­di­ents should be cooked over the smol­der­ing em­bers to nur­ture the in­gre­di­ents and re­tain mois­ture.”

Most of all, pre­par­ing a meal us­ing fire should be un­der­taken for the love of the pro­duce, says Hastie.

“Start with qual­ity in­gre­di­ents,” he says. “Cook­ing over fire al­lows you to let the in­gre­di­ent shine rather than rely on a clever culi­nary tech­nique. Go to the mar­ket, see what looks good, en­gage your senses and base your menu on the best pro­duce you find for your bud­get.”

Af­ter that, it’s sim­ply up to you and this most nat­u­ral of heat sources. So go on, jump into fire.

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