TRIED AND TESTED / Turning up the heat: The sizzle of charcoal heralds summer in many a British garden. Our panel grills the competition in search of the perfect barbecue

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The Independent Culture
ANTICIPATING the weather for al fresco eating, we put six different styles of patio and garden barbecue to the test at Weston Park, Telford, once the family seat of one of our testers, the Earl of Bradford, and now run as a conference and banqueting centre. All came as packs for self-assembly; three used charcoal only, one was gas-fired, one electric and one gas-fired charcoal.

Half the fun of barbecuing, the whole panel agreed, was the smell and sound of the food sizzling over charcoal. The Earl, who makes his own sausages for his Covent Garden restaurant, felt sausages were the essential ingredient of any barbecue, and said he would judge the barbecues by their handling of this combustious element. The other chefs on our panel felt that marinating was the key: steaks, lamb, pork chops, chicken, should be marinated in a bath of spicy liquid overnight to tenderise, moisten and flavour them. So they would be concerned that the grill wasn't so fierce it would burn the meats to an unacceptable bitterness, killing the delicacy of the marinade.

THE PANEL

The Earl of Bradford, president of the Master Chefs of Great Britain; Joanne, his wife; Kevin Drayne, Weston Park chef; Vivien Williamson, sales and marketing manager; Ann Clark, catering manager; Nigel and Ann Wallis, proprietors of the Old Beams, Waterhouses, Staffordshire.

THE TEST

The panel gave each barbecue marks for how easy it was to set up and control, how quickly one could get the fire going, value for money, and quality of cooking. The marks were converted into a star rating.

**OUTDOOR CHEF CLASSIC KETTLE - Gas-fired. Price: pounds 399. Assembly time: 25 minutes. Ready to cook in 10 minutes.

A very substantial construction which requires a bottle of gas to use. The ample cauldron fills quickly with heat, but the temperature on the grill is uneven. A domed lid adapts it for roasts, baked potatoes or pizza, and a pan is provided for paellas or risottos. Some testers missed the sizzle and smell of charcoal. 'Nothing but an outdoor gas ring,' said Lord Bradford. Nigel Wallis agreed: 'You might as well cook the food indoors and carry it out.' But Ann Clark, who approved of this one, said: 'Gas is better for cooking for large numbers. Charcoal is okay if you're just playing.'

**THERMOS LIFESTYLE ELECTRIC GRILL - Electricity-fired. Price: pounds 399 Assembly time: 20 minutes. Ready to cook in 35 minutes.

State-of-the-art futuristic design, for sedate patio dwellers rather than end-of-garden fun and games. The egg-shaped domed lid lifts to uncover an ample oval griddle. An effective cooking surface but the chefs weren't much impressed, because there was no charcoal flavour to the food. 'As a barbecue it's barmy,' said Nigel Wallis.

*BLACK KNIGHT - Gas-fired charcoal. Price: pounds 99. Assembly time: 2 1/2 hrs. Ready to cook in 10 mins.

To a Meccano freak this might have been a joy, but half the testers said it was beyond them, a parcel of several hundred bits and pieces, with instructions that were complicated in six languages. 'You need a PhD in engineering to put it together,' said Lord Bradford. 'Horrendous,' said Nigel Wallis. The gas jet quickly lit the charcoal stacked on top. A gas-fired charcoal grill is like using belt and braces, the testers thought, but it did produce very high quality cooking. Wheels give it mobility, but it's not transportable by car.

**** LANDMANN KETTLE BARBECUE/FOUR LEGS - Charcoal. Price: pounds 69 Assembly time: 20 minutes. Ready to cook in 20 minutes.

A large metallic red dome sits over the grid on a metal bowl which you stack with charcoal. Use the dome over the grid for 'indirect' cooking, such as part-cooked potatoes wrapped in foil. This one cooked to a very high quality and was much liked by the regular barbecuers. 'Lovely, simple, the ideal BBQ,' Lord Bradford said. 'This is my favourite,' said Vivien Williamson.' The food tastes delicious.' Mobile, and could also be stacked in a car boot.

***LANDMANN PATIO/GARDEN BARBECUE - Charcoal. Price: pounds 24.99 Assembly time: 15 minutes. Ready to cook in 15 minutes.

Effective design admired by testers. Substantial, with semi-circular wind shield, notched to give five grid heights. High quality cooking gives the authentic barbecue taste. Not as robust as its four-legged stablemate, but mobile and fairly easy to transport. 'This is the one I use at home,' said Ann Clark. 'It's quick, easy and ideal for the small family.'

***LANDMANN DOUBLE HIBACHI - Charcoal. Price: pounds 7.99. Assembly time: 15 minutes. Ready to cook in 15 minutes.

Very basic. An oblong shallow dish for charcoal with a grid and adjustable height slots. Wooden insulating base so you can set it on the lawn or sit it on a higher surface, such as a wall. Unsophisticated but effective, with high quality cooking, and easy to transport. 'It's so cheap, when it gets rusty or dirty you can just throw it away and buy another,' said Ann Clark. 'Simplicity itself,' said Kevin Drayne. 'What else do you need?'

STOCKISTS: Outdoor Chef Limited, tel: 0784 421006; Landmann barbecues sell at Do It All, tel: 0500 300321; Black Knight barbecues,

tel: 0622 671771.

NEXT WEEK: TIN OPENERS

(Photographs omitted)

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