Light my fire
STORIES

Words: London Log Company   Photography by Steve Ryan

Light my fire

London Log Company

 

People started cooking over fire an unimaginably long time ago. 200,000 years ago we had primitive hearths. Orzi, the 5000 year old Iceman discovered in the Italian Alps, had his fire with him in the a porous black solid, consisting of an amorphous form of carbon, obtained as a residue when wood, bone, or other organic matter is pyrolysised in the absence of air. Formed of embers wrapped in maple leaves and stored in a birchbark box, he also had a back up fire-starting kit consisting of iron pyrites, flint and tinder fungus.

Let’s give a shout out to the Arawaks but particularly the Tainos, these guys had it going on long before Christopher Columbus showed up. The barabicu, which became barbacoa, which became barbecue originated from the Tainos in the Caribbean, it translates as a ‘framework of sticks set upon posts above a fire’. The flames and smoke gave a certain flavour to the meat as well as keeping the flies off.

Our American friends got a whiff of it in Florida and propagated the ideology. Before you know it, Henry Ford’s getting involved. The Model T’s hardwood frame generated lots of waste, this did Henry’s head in, he hated waste. He adopted a process of making biscuit sized lumps of fuels from sawdust and wood scraps heralding the birth of the briquette! Now, everyone’s in their backyard with their fancy grills and their special techniques, their unique rub and marinades and long may it continue!

Where is it used?

Anywhere an intense heat is required you’ll find charcoal, it can burns up to 2,700°C. Traditionally blacksmiths used it. If you consider the melting point of iron is around 1,500°C, you’ll understand why charcoal was king. Charcoal is used in many things, the production of Syngas, pyrotechnics, cosmetics, toothpaste, purification and filtration, horticulture, medicine and, or course, cooking.

How is it made?

Charcoal is almost pure carbon. It’s made by cooking wood in an environment starved of oxygen. It’s a slow process with the aim of burning off all the volatile compounds of water, methane, hydrogen and tar.

Direct method

Using heat from the incomplete combustion of the wood, which is to become charcoal. Traditionally, but still very much used today, is the pile or the clamp method. A circular pile of seasoned logs, with a chimney in the middle, completely covered with straw and a layer of soil preventing any air entering. Add some burning material down the chimney and let the logs burn slowly over a period of 5/10 days. Any cracks appearing in the soil get covered by fresh soil and once the burn is complete, plug the chimney to prevent any air entering. Allow the mass to cool and you’ve got yourself some direct method charcoal. Typical yields are 40% volume and 25% weight.

Indirect method

Using sealed metal containers called retorts, the indirect method uses an external heat source to cook the wood which is contained in a vented airless chamber. This method results in higher yields, typically 30% weight and requires less skill and attention than the direct method.

Good woods / bad woods

It’s a matter of opinion. Generically, hardwoods make great charcoal. The Japanese white charcoal, Binchotan, is made from Ubame Oak, it’s not the hottest burning charcoal but is very long lasting, produces almost no odour and is bloody expensive. Holm Oak or Encina, pronounced enchina in Spanish, is the tree that grows the edible acorns (Bellota) that has fed both man and beast for a millennia, particularly associated with the black Iberian pigs which produce Pata Negra, Jamon Iberico. The charcoal is made from the waste product of the pruning process which in turn leads to higher acorn yields. The coal is high heat, long burning and has a gentle aromatic. Oak, Beech, Birch, Hornbeam, Cherry, Apple, Hazel, Alder and Sweet Chestnut all make good single species charcoal. All bring something different to the party.

Then you have your lumpwood, hardwood blends, mixtures of the above to provide a rounded heat/longevity/ aroma. Finally we must touch briefly on briquettes, the fired compressed wood dust and chips. Yes there’s consistent heat, yes they last longer, the question is what’s in them? Ogatan charcoal, or Magik as we like to call it, is the daddy of engineered charcoal. It’s recovered sawdust and other bio-mass from the sawmill industry. It’s bound by lignum, extruded into a hexagonal sided bar and fired. Produces an efficient, high heat and long consistent burn.

Ethics

It’s quite a frightening statistic but nearly 90% of lumpwood charcoal sold in the UK is imported. Many of these areas are under severe pressure for ‘legal’ and illegal deforestation. Hectares of woodland devastated in search of fossil fuels and population encroachment, trees cut down, turned into charcoal and then sold off cheaply into the global market. Next time you buy a bag of ‘restaurant grade’ charcoal, check it’s provenance, it may say ‘from renewable sources’, it may say ‘FSC Pure’ but it won’t tell you where it’s from. Ask yourself why.

How to light your fire

Light from the top down or from the bottom up? Again, it’s a matter of opinion. However you light your fire, have patience, it’s going to be 20 minutes before you get to use it. Get good natural firelighters, avoid liquid accelerants like kerosene. Paraffin wax dipped products are excellent, odourless and burn readily. Allow plenty of air in and open all the vents. Alternatively, you could get yourself an Orzi fire-starting kit, iron pyrites, flint and a bit of tinder fungus.