If the UK has come on in leaps and bounds in the past two decades in standards of ingredients and cooking, there is one area we may lag behind other nations - the barbecue. We have a good excuse - the UK's maritime climate likes to dump water from the Atlantic on us at regular intervals, and is hardly the best environment for cooking outdoors with real fire.
But that's changing. Pubs and restaurants can now take advantage of quality outdoor furniture and equipment, offering shelter from a passing shower or heating to take the chill off the evening. So barbecuing has become more popular - and that means more covers and more variety in menus.
Historically, we're not a people who have cooked things outdoors to any great extent, so what we do is a result of external example.
In the Caribbean, however, no Saturday night goes by without chicken, ribs and fish cooked on street corners on barbecues made of oil drums. And in India, the tandoor we often think of as a clay oven usually turns out, again, to be the faithful oil drum, lined with clay and imparting charcoal flavours to marinated chicken and fish. Then there's Australia - for many, a land synonymous with the barbie. It's that country's method of cooking marinated food on a grill, over embers, that we usually think of as barbecuing - though that could all change.
Nigel Tunnicliff is owner, director and head chef of Blistering Barbecues, a London-based event caterer specialising in barbecues and in charcoal- and wood-fired oven-cooked food, and which has catered for as many as 5,500 people at a time. Tunnicliff thinks barbecuing is maturing in the UK. "People are realising that alfresco is a great way to eat," he says, "and the barbecue formula is a great one - grilled meats and fish in the open air in summertime, with fresh salads."
Besides the smoky, burnt flavours given by the grill, marinades are a vital component. The process of marinating tenderises meat, relaxing muscle fibres tensed at slaughter while imparting flavours deep into its structure.
Basting during cooking is another key part of the process, Tunnicliff says. "It keeps food moist," he says. "It can be really basic, with, say, a salt water and garlic brine, to keep fillet of beef or a butterflied leg of lamb from drying out."
What new trends has Tunnicliff spotted recently? "The barbecue - with the setting up and preparation involved - is really a special occasion," he says, "so what we're seeing, in keeping with that, is a trend towards using better-quality meat. The farmers' markets phenomenon and the drive towards organic are taking hold with barbecues."
For vegetarians, or as an accompaniment, Tunnicliff recommends butternut squash, plantains and sweet potatoes. "Anything with a high sugar content will barbecue really well, as will boiled potatoes on a skewer," he says.
Tim Tolley is head chef at Conran restaurant Plateau, at Canary Wharf in London, which runs a terrace barbecue in summer. He sees the barbecue as ideal for fast, easy cooking.
"Lamb chops, pieces of chicken, shellfish, or any kind of fish - are ideal," Tolley says. "Most marinades use vinegar or tomato, shallots or onions, garlic and chilli, with something sweet like palm sugar or caster sugar. They shouldn't be overpowering but should complement the food."
While the UK is catching up in using the barbecue as a grill, new trends arriving from the USA promise to bring big changes to the outdoor cooking scene. In the USA, a typical barbecue is not the type of quick-cook grilling that we're used to. Originating in the south-eastern states, the barbecue is poor man's food, featuring whole animals rubbed with spices, cooked slowly over pits of charcoal and wood, with sauce glazed on to the flesh as it cooks. In its original form, barbecuing is a method more akin to hot smoking.
Ideas such as these find their way back to the UK via the British barbecue cognoscenti who attend the massive competitions held in the USA each year, such as the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue in Tennessee, and commercially, through US companies recognising that their slow-cooked, seasoned and smoky meats have a ready market in Europe.
Brian Eastment is development chef for Major International, which makes stock bases and barbecue marinades in the UK. He is also a team member of the Major Players, which, out of 70 teams, came fourth and fifth respectively in the beef brisket and whole hog events at the 2005 Jack Daniel's event.
Eastment believes that the UK is gaining ground in the world of barbecuing, even when measured against the Americans. "They have the weather and do this week in and week out in massive restaurants, but we're near to perfecting it and have done well in contests," he says. "More and more pubs here are having barbecues, and that will increase with moves toward not smoking in pubs."
Most chefs, he says, have the skills needed for barbecue grilling. "But barbecuing in the US sense of the word needs different skills," he points out. "You're cooking with smoke and controlling the heat and amount of smoke in a different way."
The preparation and process of barbecuing US-style is rather different, too. To begin with, a rub is administered to the meat. The contents of this vary but usually include salt, spices and powdered aromatics, such as onion and celery powder. Then the cooking begins, long and slow over charcoal and wood - the latter to provide the smoke. As cooking nears its conclusion, a sauce is glazed on to the meat. There's no marinade as we know it. As they often contain sugars, marinades would simply burn because of the long cooking time.
In the USA, sauces vary by region, says Patrick Smith, executive chef with US equipment manufacturer YieldKing, part of the Bakers Pride Group. "In Tennessee," he says, "they tend to be tomato- and vinegar-based, Kansas favours sweeter sauces with sugar and honey, while the Carolinas opt for mustard-based. Sauces are made up and then cooked down to provide a semi-thick glaze for brushing on to the meat as it cooks." Smith himself hails from Nashville, Tennessee, where a typical sauce recipe would be tomato, white or cider vinegar, sugar, molasses, honey and citrus.
But while we may think of the sauce or marinade as key to the barbecuing process, the wood is just as important. The idea is that, as wood smoulders, the smoke is absorbed into the food. "Even in the USA," Smith says, "we find guys who don't understand what they should be doing with wood and that it should be green - the sap still flowing in it is what produces the flavour."
He adds: "Much of the variation in the USA is in the wood used. In the South-west, they use mesquite, a desert wood, and, in the North, oak. People are beginning to use more obscure woods, such as orange wood in California. My favourite at the moment is black walnut."
Colin Capon, a consultant development chef, is captain of the Major Players World Championship team. He has immersed himself in the US barbecue culture, seeking out roadside shacks for new ideas. He thinks chefs need to try out various woods before "going live".
He says: "It's a matter of trial and error, and I would advise chefs to taste the flavours of various types of woods, such as the natural fruit and nut woods along with oak and hickory - but avoid heavy resin woods. Slow cooking is another trend that's beginning to penetrate across the water into Europe. It takes 16 hours to cook a pig, 10 hours to cook a brisket, four hours for pork ribs - and, I have to say, it's worth it."
Naturally, the Americans have a snappy slogan to sum it all up. As YieldKing's Smith says: "With barbecuing, we say low and slow is the way to go."
Tips on barbecuing meat
- Use flat skewers for kebabs - meat and vegetables spin on rounded ones, making turning tricky.
- With oil-based marinades, the meat will baste itself and prevent sticking.
- Choose steaks at least 2.5cm thick, so they seal over the high heat without the centre becoming dry.
- Make burgers about 2.5cm thick and turn them once only.
Source: Keith Fisher, butchery and product development manager, BPEX
Cuts for the barbie
- Pork steaks, spare ribs, tendons, belly, speciality sausages.
- Lamb leg cubes for marinated skewers.
- Diced chuck served on a salad or in a roll.
- Beef briskets, silverside - must be slow-cooked beforehand then finished off on the barbecue.
Sources: BPEX, Eblex. The latter has produced two CD-Roms, A Guide to Specifications for Beef and Lamb, which contains step-by-step cutting and delivery specifications for different cuts, and Quality Standard Steak - A Masterclass. Both are free to caterers.