AT THE COALFACE
Alan Cochrane serves up his top tips on hosting a perfectly authentic Scottish barbeque
Alan Cochrane has the recipe for a great Scottish barbeque
Acouple of years ago a TV weatherman got it completely wrong when he predicted that we were on the brink of what he thought he’d call a ‘barbeque summer’, given that he was predicting months of glorious sunshine. What happened? Two, or maybe it was three, months of almost incessant rain. It wasn’t quite as big a howler as Michael Fish’s ‘don’t worry there isn’t going to be a hurricane’ back in 1987 which then saw almost the whole of the South of England, including my Kent garden, being devastated by – guess what – a hurricane. But it was close.
This year, even if we get not another blink of sunshine, the summer of 2018 will definitely go down as one of the best. We’ve had fabulous weather; I can’t remember much better for decades. A barbeque summer? Well, if the quickly-emptied shelves of burgers, sausages and steaks in our butchers and supermarkets are anything to go by, then there is no doubt about it.
Oh yes, and those stores’ stocks of charcoal didn’t last long either, and of course you can’t have a barbeque without charcoal. Now can you?
Not in my book, you can’t. However, I am continually astonished by the incredible array of barbeque grills that are now on sale; and I’m just as astonished at the number that don’t need charcoal. In my book, a barbeque isn’t worthy of the name if it uses any other fuel.
I know that charcoal can be incredibly messy and the bit that I hate above all else on barbeque evenings is the cleaning up afterwards. But isn’t a bit of mess what eating outdoors is all about? My trusty old Weber does a marvellous job: it doesn’t use much charcoal, gets going quickly and cooks perfectly whatever I entrust to its tender care. In fact, the Weber replaced what was little more than a hole in the ground and a few sticks, with a bit of fence-wire placed across it, which served as our barbeque grill when we had that but ‘n’ ben in the Angus Glens.
The idea that I’d replace it with a gas-fired monstrosity is beyond comprehension, no matter how slick and space-age it might appear. Indeed, I can’t understand why anyone wants to cook outdoors on anything but charcoal. After all, aren’t some of us seeking to replicate something basic, almost primeval, about cooking a meal in the open air, even if it is only the garden – and a suburban garden at that? Why would you want to use the equivalent of that range cooker in the kitchen? Or if the weather is really brilliant and you must get outside to enjoy the sun, why not simply cook things in the kitchen and serve them up outdoors?
I accept that I’m being more than a bit picky about this issue but I am nothing if not a traditionalist. Mind you, if climate-change really is going to give us many more nice summers – as well as rubbish and extra-long winters – then maybe we will need to draw up some new code of behaviour about outdoor dining.
First and foremost, here in Scotland, you must always have some alternative source of heat. No, not for the food – for the guests. At the very least, a supply of logs with which to feed a good chiminea.
Next, and allied to the first, a pile of rugs, blankets, sweaters and, sadly, waterproofs, must be handily placed so that they can be easily reached when the temperature plummets or rain threatens.
An indoor alternative is another must and for those who insist on gas-fired barbeques, this shouldn’t be too much of a hardship. Make sure the menu you’ve prepared is suitable for indoor consumption, as well as outdoor, and a decent pot of soup is always a handy thing to have in these northern climes.
Perhaps most important of all – plan nothing and invite nobody in advance. It is perhaps one of life’s immutable laws that barbeques planned weeks, possibly even days ahead, never take place, at least in the form that had been planned with such meticulous precision by the host.
Instead, have some friends or relatives – close neighbours are best as they can get to you in double-quick time – at the ready. Ideally they should be only a few minutes away and certainly not fussy eaters.
Then, on the spur of the moment when a tiny blink of sun and a slight increase in the mercury level causes you to leave off a sweater, you can definitely announce, ‘let’s have a barbeque’.
Oh yes, and boast as loudly as you dare that all the food you serve up will be charcoalgrilled. It really is so much better.
Perhaps most important of all – plan nothing and invite nobody in advance