Confession time: I despise gas barbecues. My heart sinks when I hear the unmistakable click and smell the propane blue flame of neighbours "firing up." Surely the whole point of this primal rite of summer is the fragrant flavour of slow-burning charcoal and sizzling succulent flesh or fish? An unmistakably outdoors taste. Let's face it, so often with barbecues the excitement is in the anticipation, not the scorched yet decidedly under-cooked offerings. So my curiosity was aroused by chefs raving on Twitter over the last month about the peculiarly named Big Green Egg.
Chief among its proselytisers is Daniel Clifford of Midsummer House, Cambridge, who's convinced this modern reincarnation of the 2,000-year-old Japanese dome-shaped clay cooking pot called a "kamado", aka the original Japanese Aga, "is the most magical piece of kit, it's transformed my kitchen and taken flavours to another level". Clifford has three Big Green Eggs in his two-Michelin-star restaurant and another pair at home. Says Clifford: "Diners can't believe it when they're told their turbot (a delicate explosion on the palate served with pistachios, scallops, lettuce, asparagus and vanilla – hardly the stuff of a common or garden cook-up) has been cooked on a barbecue 'egg'. They demand to come into the kitchen to see for themselves." Don't imagine Clifford's brigade are going neo-Neolithic, grappling with flames and tongs – what makes the BGE so appealing not only to chefs, but mere home cooks too, is the level of control and versatility. As Clifford observes: "We can keep the Egg at a constant heat during a whole service. There's a lot more technique, scope and nuances of flavour with this than the now ubiquitous water bath."
In layman's terms, what makes all the difference is that the temperature of the BGE can be controlled precisely. Its range is immense: from high temperatures – up to 400C searing for maximum umami crust on steaks, matching the heat of last year's chef must-own the Josper oven – to slow cooking ribs or brisket at around 100C overnight. The ceramic insulation keeps the heat within the Egg and it eliminates the air loss so juices stay locked in and food doesn't dry out.
If this all sounds too good to be true, Claude Bosi of two-Michelin star Hibiscus, another early convert, even uses his BGE to roast foie gras at low temperatures. The Fat Duck has several in its development kitchen and Ashley Palmer-Watts has one at Dinner and at home.
Noma in Copenhagen has six BGEs and, like Simon Rogan of L'Enclume, uses them mainly for cooking vegetables, including brassicas, not normally associated with a barbecue. Rogan's mesmerising warm salad with truffle custard on Great British Menu was cooked on a BGE. What's more, it can also be used not only as a wood-fired oven (Palmer-Watts attests to making sensational pizza), but as a smoker, too. Sat Bains of two-star Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham raves about "pushing the boundaries with bespoke smoke flavours (such as tamarind)," on his BGE, whilst Clare Smyth of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Royal Hospital Road, swears by smoking short ribs on hers.
All very well, but proof is in the cooking, I approached my BGE baptism with trepidation as someone who frankly finds conventional barbecuing too macho and too much faff. First, my initiation on BGE's agent David Erzine's bespoke double decker bus, which caused great excitement on Balham's Nightingale Square when it took up an afternoon's residency without getting a parking ticket.
Incredibly, Erzine had been slow-cooking a joint of meat since the morning on one of his three BGEs installed on the top deck on as he raced up the M11 from his Norfolk base. Six hours later, it tasted marvellously succulent, falling-off-the-bone luscious. Even a medium BGE really does have an awesome weight, so my borrowed kit (worth upwards of £600. Mini Eggs start at £399 while the Extra Large will set you back £1,200) was ceremoniously wheeled into my garden on a wheelbarrow-like stand. Although many chefs install BGE in their kitchens, Erzine warned that without professional-spec extraction, using an Egg indoors would be dangerous. For my first BGE entertaining I decided I should be adventurous and experiment on my friends (burgers really are not my style, especially with a teenage pescatarian son).
Inspired by my recent trip to Istanbul with Glorious Foods in search of new spice combinations and intrigued by the idea of plank grilling, I marinated some strips of monkfish in a mix of rapeseed oil (lower burn threshold than olive oil), crushed cumin and isot (or urfa biber) pepper I'd brought back from the spice bazaar. Its sweet, rich, complex, raisin and smoky tobacco flavour and moist texture – it's sun-dried and sweated – is addictive and I'm betting it's likely to become the new smoked paprika.
Cooking is simplicity itself. First I soaked the alder plank in cold water for half an hour. Meanwhile, I got the BGE going, which merely involved lighting the American oak and hickory natural lump charcoal. A bag lasts an impressive 100 hours: a great sustainable natural energy method of cooking as Vladimir Niza, head chef of Daylesford Organic Cookery School, another devotee, enthuses. I opened the vents top and bottom and waited a mere 10 minutes until the coals were glowing, before closing the lid. I kept an eye on the temperature gauge until it reached the desired steady 200C then I reduced the airflow by adjusting the vents to closed (small adjustments can be made later to fine-tune the temperature), arranged the monkfish on the plank, closed the dome and relaxed with a glass of rosé.
Grilling on a soaked alder plank imparted a distinctive delicate smokiness and kept the monkfish incredibly moist. I served it with yoghurt, pomegranate molasses, sumac and mint sauce. Simultaneously, on either side of the plank, on the cast-iron grill, I cooked pre-blanched Jersey Royals and asparagus for a salad with rapeseed oil, chopped shallots and dill (my substitute for rocket flowers, sadly absent from my garden) as suggested by Galton Blackiston of Michelin-starred Morston Hall in Norfolk, another Egg enthusiast.
What makes the BGE extra pleasing is that it retains its heat throughout the meal without distracted prodding or refuelling required, though some tweaking of air vents is necessary after opening. Also, the "burping" technique Erzine advises before lifting the lid so as not to get a backdraft of heat and smoke from introducing air too quickly caused great mirth, especially for nine-year-old Honor. To ensure my guests were properly replete, I cooked a stack of big prawns – within five minutes they were head-suckingly perfectly grilled to dip in green (parsley, mint, garlic, lemon and olive oil) sauce and the second batch I forgot about tasted just as moist after a full half an hour languishing. The verdict? As my friend Vivienne pronounced with evident satisfaction: "This is the first barbecue I've been to where everything is utterly delicious and nothing tastes burnt. I'm definitely converted."
I realised I was well and truly hooked on the BGE when I cooked supper just for myself on it the next evening: maple planked mustard chicken with roasted aubergine salad. Then, on Sunday morning I found myself craving breakfast on it, too. Why not? Almost instinctively, I fired up and grilled haloumi and peppers plus added a moreish whiff of smoke by "toasting" some slices of Quo Vadis's wonderful sourdough and raisin bread, too.
Vladimir Niza, head chef of Daylesford Organic Cookery School, runs cookery courses incorporating The Big Green Egg. Daylesfordorganic.com. Toby Allen of Brockley Market is planning pop-up British street-food stalls at Greenwich Summer Festival around Olympic venues using Big Green Eggs. Brockleymarket.com