Summer might be well behind us now, but according to River Cottage chef and award-winning author Gill Meller, that’s no reason to pack the barbecue or firepit away. Here, he tells us why cooking outdoors over an open flame is something to enjoy all through the year – not just on August evenings and Bonfire Night.
What do you find so appealing about cooking outdoors? Being right in the elements really connects you to nature. You have to focus on something elemental, tangible and uncomplicated. It’s such an engaging way of cooking. We live in very complicated times – most of our working lives are characterised by high stress and we rarely take the opportunity to slow down. Cooking outside can’t be done in a rush. It’s the antitheses to fast food and everything it represents. In a way, it’s a form of mindfulness, offering you a chance to switch off from your everyday life, to relax, de-stress and unwind.
Is there a growing interest in getting back to nature? There definitely seems to be a shift towards spending more time outdoors and being amongst nature. Why not enjoy good food while you’re there? Our outdoor cooking courses at the River Cottage have never been so busy. The irony is that we all have the ability to make fires, forage and cook, we’ve just lost touch with that primal skill. It’s important for our wellbeing that we reignite the spark and foster that lost knowledge.
How did you get started? Living in the countryside, we had a fairly free to roam childhood and I was interested in making campfires and cooking things up even as a kid. Early creations included collecting wax crayons and melting them in a large pot to make a gloopy colourful soup, or boiling grass, nettles and apples. When I started cooking professionally in the early 2000s, it was fairly conventional. There wasn’t much open grill cooking taking place in restaurants or pubs at that time, and it wasn’t until I started at River Cottage that I developed a passion for cooking over wood and charcoal. Now we make it part of our daily menu.
Is it something we can all do? It’s not something we can do all day every day, because it doesn’t necessarily work with modern lifestyles. But if you can make time to go somewhere beautiful with a nice fire or barbecue and cook something – it can be over the summer or winter months, on a garden or a beach – it will be so rewarding. It’s not always about the food you end up eating, it’s the whole journey.
Do you have a favourite moment or meal cooked outside? For me, it would be a special time of year, in late April or early May when the sea kale is in flower down at the beach near our house. It produces tender stems from the centre of the plant that have such an amazing flavour. Something between asparagus and tender stem broccoli. We go down to the beach, light a fire and cook it in seawater, then simply top with black pepper and melted butter.
Do you have any tips or favourite tools? I always carry a tin with a flint and striker and some very dry tinder so that if the matches are wet I can still get a fire going. My Opinel knife is essential, but otherwise I don’t need lots of utensils – in fact, the less I take, the more the cooking comes. We avoid pots, pans, plates and cutlery, as I find it more interesting to eat with your hands – it’s a very tactile and earthy way of eating. Shedding all that noise makes it better, keeping it as simple as possible. It’s more rewarding to embrace it for what it is.
Can it be a year-round activity? I’m a big fan of combining fresh air with good food so, yes, it’s an experience that doesn’t cost anything and can be really enjoyable. A blustery autumn Sunday with a hearty stew simmering away outside is a lovely way to spend a few hours engaging with the elements and thinking about the weather. It’s good to make an effort on a frosty winter’s day too, even if it’s just hot chocolate with the kids.
What if we’re more interested in cooking vegetables than meat? When it comes to veg, the skies the limit in terms of what you can do. You can create the most amazing flavours and textures over coals and woodsmoke, and anything you can cook on a hob can, in theory, be cooked outside. There’s a whole set of flavour dimensions you can achieve such as charring, crispness, softness and smokiness. All the autumnal roots are beautiful right now – beetroot, onions and celeriac all have fairly thick skins that blacken, blister and crack leaving the flesh inside so juicy and sweet. A whole cauliflower cooked slowly over a fire is also delicious – if you don’t have a lid, try an upturned flowerpot. And one of my favourites: cooking leeks on the grill or straight in the embers until they’re black outside and soft in the middle, then crumbling over some soft goat’s cheese, hazelnuts and honey.
Tell us about the recipe you’ve chosen for us. Sweetcorn is ideal for cooking over fire. Grilled whilst still in the husk, the kernels steam inside whilst the outside blackens and burns. I like to serve the corn with a damson sauce, so plentiful this time of year, shot through with a little red chilli, apple cider vinegar and honey.
Find Gill’s recipe for sweetcorn with damsons, chilli, garlic and smoked paprika here.