The Guardian did a love ‘em or hate ‘em piece on barbeques that wouldn’t have been worth a comment if I hadn’t been in Greece.
Tim Hayward hates them and described the worst of British barbeques - and I have suffered many like that. He concludes that, ‘let’s face it, barbequed food tastes rubbish’. Zoe Williams differs for two reasons. First is the ‘ancient righteousness of eating items straight from the flames’, which apparently makes food taste better ‘both literally and morally’. I haven’t a clue what on earth that means. But the second reason, her ‘barbeque epiphany’, also had me in despair. I apologise at this point to any New Zealander who may think this a perfectly reasonable practice, but a New Zealand friend converted her to barbeques by teaching her to boil the food before putting it on the grill. This is apparently to ensure that things are not charred on the outside and raw inside as a result of the high temperature. It sounds disgusting. Hasn’t anyone worked out that you can slow cook by raising the grill from the coals?
The smell of cooking on charcoal is ubiquitous in a Greek summer. All the best tavernas have a charcoal grill in action, usually with a vast souvla with huge chunks of meat impaled on it. Whole fish are grilled over the coals to order, as are lamb and pork chops. Hawkers stand on the paraleia with their small barbeques offering grilled corn-on-the-cob as a snack. Melitzanosalata, puréed aubergine salad, gets its smoky flavour from cooking over charcoal and the same goes for the salad made from florinas, the long red peppers. Whilst I won’t convince many of the glories of kokoretsi, lamb offal wrapped in intestines, surely the ultimate barbeque is at Easter with the Paschal Lamb. The whole lamb is spit roasted over several hours (try boiling that first Kiwis!) and though some spits are now turned by electric motors, it is still common to see families taking it in turns to rotate the spit high over the blistering coals. Meat cooked this way is tender and juicy, fish is crisp on the outside and succulent inside, vegetables have a unique smoky flavour. This is cuisine at its best.
Every summer I entertain with barbeques on the patio and here are my tips.
First, the wind will change and the smoke will blow over your guests. Tough! It is the price they pay for the glories of your cooking and company.
Second, yes Tim Hayward, you do need to marinate, but not with anything vile. Simply use lemon juice, olive oil, herbs, and seasoning. Remember that the healthy Mediterranean diet is loaded with oil, unafraid of fats and high in salt. This is why it tastes wonderful in the Mediterranean and foul in the homes of British health faddists. It is also best served with chilled cheap wine (kokinelli at seven Euros for five litres goes down pretty well).
Third, cook meat slowly. Lift the grill high above the coals or spit roast, turning frequently. Lower the grill as the heat diminishes. Fish is best cooked a little quicker, whole with the heads left on and the body cavity filled with oregano.
Fourth, buy good quality food. Stick rubbish on the grill and it will become cooked rubbish.
Finally, wait for a warm night with a gentle breeze and a canopy of stars. Ok, I see it won’t work. Go to Greece instead. My friends will sell you a great holiday.