BBQs: Fire up the flavour

Forget the barbecue charcoal – the secret of gourmet grilling is slow cooking your meat over the right wood chips. Lena Corner reports
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The Independent Online

The chef Adam Perry Lang is showing me round the various ovens in his kitchen. There's a custom-built burn pit with a couple of slabs of oak smouldering on top. There's a Texan smoker, a kind of covered barbecue filled with smouldering wood chips, slowly cooking some shoulders of pork and there's an Argentinian grill, the height of which is adjusted by a vast wheel, blasting out heat from a big pile of coal. His cooking is all about the open fire and his kitchen uses virtually no gas or electricity at all.

When Perry Lang teamed up with Jamie Oliver to open Barbecoa in London's St Paul's last November, they instantly elevated the art of the barbecue to the level of fine dining. The pair met five years ago at Perry Lang's Manhattan restaurant, Daisy May's, widely considered New York's best barbecue establishment. When Perry Lang offered to give Oliver a demonstration of his restaurant's smoker, a friendship blossomed.

"Jamie and I are both meat and fire obsessed," Perry Lang says. "When we met, we looked at each other and said we wanted to do a restaurant like this and here we are – it's a celebration of the relationship between fire and food."

Perry Lang says he has spent his career perfecting what he calls the "3D-flavour" barbecue. "The key to cooking good meat isn't just one thing," he says. "It's the baste, the dry ageing, the smoke, the seasoning, the wood."

One of the most popular things on the Barbecoa menu is pulled pork shoulder. Each shoulder goes into the Texas smoker on a low, low heat and cooks for up to 10 hours – a technique that produces meat so tender it can easily be pulled apart. Perry Lang feeds the smoker with apple wood, which imparts delicate flavours into the meat.

After he's chucked a rib-eye on the Argentinian grill he shows me how he positions its height so the fat drips off the meat on to the coals in just the right way. "The drippings hit the coal and atomise instantly, which you don't get from gas grills," he says. "Then it bounces back up and lands on the meat."

Perry Lang isn't the only one who is embracing this type of cooking. The Pitt Cue Co truck, currently parked under Hungerford Bridge on London's South Bank, is deserving of its long queues. Meltingly soft pork, piquant wings and tangy cocktails to match make it the latest street-food sensation.

The Red Dog Saloon, which opened four weeks ago in Hoxton Square, had a smoker shipped in from the States so it can recreate proper Southern

American-style barbecue techniques. "The Americans call what we call barbecuing grilling – that is when you cook the meat over a direct heat," co-owner Tom Berk says. "And what they call barbecuing is actually what we call smoking – when it's enclosed in a chamber and a long, slow cooking process on a low temperature is used using wood to flavour the meat."

He says he came across this technique when he met a British woman called Jackie Weight, who in 2004 became the first non-American to win the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Tennessee. "She cooked me a rack of baby ribs and some chicken in a smoker," Berk says. "That was the moment I fell in love with it."

A shoulder of pork could stay in Berk's smoker for up to 16 hours at a time, while a chicken might take three or four hours. "When you're dealing with fire, you can't set a time limit. When it's ready, it's ready. That's why smoking is much more of an art than a science."

Which is also why it is something that can be tricky to recreate in your own home – but even so, David Wright, of planetbarbecue.co.uk, one of the UK's biggest barbecue suppliers, reckons that sales of smokers have shot up 30 per cent in the past year.

"We are also selling more wood pellets and wood chips than ever before," he says. "People are clearly getting more interested and willing to experiment.."

While 10 to 16 hours for a shoulder of pork may be asking a little too much in your own backyard, things such as fish and chicken work brilliantly. Wright says any conventional barbecue with a lid will work as a smoker as long as it's got vents in it. For a chicken he recommends you do a dry rub with your favourite spices, put it on to smoke (not over the direct heat) and then in the last hour of cooking open it up and baste it three times.

Wright imports various woods from America – flavours include apple, orange, plum, mesquite and even Jack Daniel's, made from the wood of old whiskey barrels. "Chicken works really well with cherry or sugar maple. We do a plum wood chip that is great for lamb, and stronger flavours like the Jack Daniel's or black walnut work really well with beef," he says.

Just beware of the danger of over-smoking, he says, as many first-timers pile in too much wood, and create something totally inedible. "Just add a small bit of wood to begin with just to get the flavour," he says. "Then you can experiment. This is a whole other way of cooking meat just waiting to be discovered."

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