Fire food has become an integral part of the Dish repertoire. The most obvious reason for this is that we can produce hot, tasty food, even if we’re in the middle of nowhere. The other reason is that it’s just one of those things we do. We get a huge kick out of taking something that people most usually associate with men-drinking-beer-around-a-fire-while-burning meat, and using it to produce the kind of stylish, sophisticated food they would normally expect to find in a good restaurant.
It’s not that we’re the only ones. You will even find a charcoal grill holding centre stage with the super-stylish cocktail bar at London’s vaunted Zuma restaurant in Knightsbridge. Contrary to expectation, Zuma does not refer to South Africa’s heat-taking ex-Deputy President. The restaurant is Japanese, with a particular focus on robata.
Coals are a heat source, just like any other. No matter what stove, oven, pot or pan a chef is using, the dish needs to be matched to the appropriate type and degree of heat. It so happens that the kind of intense heat one can get over coals is absolutely perfect for cooking various ingredients. Or perhaps one is after a gentler preparation with some wood chips for extra smokiness. The problem with braais, charcoal grills or barbecues, is that they can be extremely hot – even to stand next to – and one has less control over the exact degree of heat. In a way, it’s the culinary equivalent of extreme downhill sports. With experience one can learn to manage the variables with skill, but disaster can be looming at any moment.
One of the early events we did at Cloof was a small lunch for a book launch. Well, it was supposed to be small – so small that I didn’t think we needed someone to open and serve wine. At the last minute the publisher added half a dozen additional guests, which kind of tipped the whole thing over the edge. I seem to recall the starter being a salad with caramelised pear and gorgonzola cheese. No great challenge there for the grillmester. But with the main course being rolled loins of lamb, lengthy preparation time was needed. So, as the guests were busy arriving I put the loins onto the grill and went inside to open more wine. I returned to find my meat engulfed by flames that looked as if they extended three foot above the grill. Doing a passable Red Adaire impersonation (but without the asbestos suit) I dashed in and rapidly grabbed the meat off the fire. I swear that my arms were thereafter devoid of hair below the elbow, and I may also have done my eyebrows some damage.
Lamb, of course, is one of the best meats to barbecue, precisely because of its fat content, and no part of a lamb is fattier than the outside flap that gets rolled around the loin. Fortunately the burnt parts flaked off, so a major crisis was averted, but cooking these loins were more than a little trying as I’d started with too much heat. The slightest drop of fat – an inevitability given the fat on the outside of the rolls – resulted in more flames. Having charred the exterior of these things it became much harder to judge the degree of done-ness in the centre. When Andrea started slicing in preparation for plating, the lamb wasn’t only just a little bit too pink. Scorpio started venting at Libra, who went in search of a cooler spot next to the fire.
Even at long-distance, well-balanced Libra has a part to play. I’d checked into a hotel in Edinburgh, sitting on the bed reading the Sunday papers for the first time that day, flush with the spiritual experiences I’d had on the East Lothian links over the weekend. I was in a Zen state (and it wasn’t just because my legs were crossed) when my phone rang. Andrea was in the middle of a crisis to end all crises. She was doing a barbecue for a group of 20 or 30 lawyers in Camps Bay in conditions very far removed from the grey, gentle drizzle in Scotland. The legendary Cape south-easter was in such full force that the Weber had been moved into the garage. So, Andrea had her Spanish-flavoured rolled chicken legs and thighs on the conventional, brick braai-place in the front of the house, and salmon in the garage. She popped into the kitchen quickly and returned to the garage to find the salmon on fire. Fortunately the fish had been packed onto a grill that enabled her to lift it off quickly. As she did so, the wind caused a (new) black garbage bag to swirl around the garage, which then shrink-wrapped itself around the fish-filled grill. This was when she phoned.
She didn’t get much sympathy, I have to admit, “I never leave salmon unattended,” I deadpanned (which was true – all the fat that makes salmon so gorgeous over coals is also its nemesis if it is left on the grill). The conversation didn’t go much further.
Feeling remorseful I called her a few minutes later with some suggestions for what she could do to rescue the situation. By now the chicken – which was similarly unattended – was also surrounded by flames (the predictable consequence of fat dripping onto hot coals as the chicken starts cooking).
Fortunately events like these are the exception rather than the rule. We have successfully cooked a huge variety of dishes, in dozens of different locations, using direct – or indirect – heat from coals.
There are several marinades we use regularly. Our Chermoula works brilliantly with lamb – French-trimmed chops or butterflied leg – especially in conjunction with the smokiness from the coals. Beef is great with olive oil, rosemary, Dijon mustard, raw onion and garlic. Asian flavours – ginger, soy, chilli, garlic have an amazing affinity for being grilled over coals.
Universally, though, nothing has earned us more compliments than the Dish Oriental BBQ sauce. If culinary achievements qualified for Nobel prizes, this sauce would have to be a nominee. It is just the most miraculous flavour combo with salmon, tuna, duck or beef. Especially on the braai. Lest you think that culinary salvation awaits you over the next page, accept that we’ll gladly share dozens of our recipes, but this one particular receipt (as they used to say in the very old days) will have to remain a family secret.