Humankind took the next step into evolution the day it put raw food on fire. Cooking is what separates us from the animal kingdom.
Traditionally, cooking consisted of placing raw ingredients more or less in contact with heat coming from a fire; for centuries food has been cooked straight on gridles or pots placed on live fire or embers. As we scientifically know today, cooking food is a safer way to consume it, as it kills harmful bacteria. But with scientific progresses also came different ways of cooking and gas and electricity have since been used to produce the same heat. Interestingly enough, it’s the temperature that cooks, not the type of fuel. For this reason, in the past 100 years or so, we assisted to a decrease in the usage of fire inside houses: our heaters use electricity or gas, we cook in electrical ovens and on gas or even induction stoves.
However, despite technological advancements, barbeque never stopped being one of the greatest attractions of all. The world barbecue has a Caribbean origin, barbacoa, which means ‘grill on a raised wooden grate’ and it first appeared in prints in 1526, in the account of a Spanish explorer of the West Indies. 500 years later, we still use the same way to cook our favourite cuts of meat.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns, barbecue trends were on the rise. Since 1997, when National BBQ Week was launched in the UK, there’s been a massive increase in numbers: whilst 1997 counted 9 million BBQ a year, 2020 reached a more conspicuous 150 million barbecues, with 15 million held during Easter Holidays alone. Still speaking of numbers, the overall BBQ and al fresco eating market was worth just more than 1.7£ billion in 2020, compared to the £150k of 1997. The number of women who are stepping behind the grill now accounts for 47% of the total UK population, making the grill no longer a men-only club only. Another interesting fact is represented by food choices: once traditionally led by meat and corn on the cob or Mediterranean vegetables, now barbecues are more “inclusive”. Not only beef burgers and the occasional short rib steaks, but also chicken, lamb, fish and cheese see the grill, with vegetarian or vegan alternatives representing the 19% of food choices.
But can we really talk about a ‘latest’ food trend?
Not exactly. In the past, as we mentioned already, cooking on a fire was the only way of cooking, and there are cuisines that never really moved on from it; think about, for example, a traditional wooden pizza oven or tandoor clay oven. Also, there are many different barbecue traditions that are now becoming not only more popular, but thanks to globalisation, more widely known – for example South Africa, but also Caribbean, Mexico, North Africa and regional cuisines like Cajun and Creole, each one influencing or being influenced by the other.
As chef Francis Mallmann said “fire cooking is a sensory experience”: you have the smell, the sound, you see the fire, you feel the heat, you gather around the pit, share a moment with family and friends, chill out. Chef Mallmann rose to fame for cooking in the traditional Argentinian way, on a live fire built around and underneath a metal dome made of thick, metal cables, where he hangs everything: meat, fish, vegetables, even fruit! Then he sets the fire on and lets ingredients cook for hours, depending on the specific type of food. Every day is a different experience, according to the wind, the temperature, the wood, the humidity, therefore everyday is special. Not a single barbecue is the same as another and that’s what makes barbecue unique.
Barbecue is the opposite of fast food. It takes time to prep – think about the marinating process – and it takes time to be ready, giving us time to enjoy a happy and relaxed moment in good company.
So, whether you are using gas or charcoal, a disposable BBQ or a traditional fire pit, and you are a meat-lover or a newly vegan, set the fire on and grill!
Happy BBQ week!