The use of fire has shaped thousands of years of cooking technologies. Humankind’s ability to control this element is one of the most significant reasons we modern folk are here today and not still swinging from trees like our primate relatives.
What makes fire so significant? When our distant ancestors learned to control fire, they set us on a different trajectory to where we would be right now had they not; a mildly intelligent primate as opposed to today’s creatures of leisure, watching TV, getting our food delivered from the comfort of our beds and meeting mating partners via an app.
To explain, here’s an extremely brief, totally unqualified and undoubtedly grossly inaccurate timeline of hominoid anthropology in a few short paragraphs.
Around two million years ago, our long-lost cousins, Homo Habilis, found themselves in a rather precarious landscape. At this point they were still very similar to their apish relatives – short, covered in hair, with a small cranium and brain. However they were no longer living in trees, they lived in caves along with many other animals, some of which regarded them as prey. Think large, sabre-toothed tiger and you’d be close in picturing these animals.
Homo Habilis was forced to learn to defend themselves by fashioning tools, aided with the dexterity of their opposing thumbs. Over thousands of years they eradicated their hungry and ferocious enemies, meaning Habilis very quickly became the most dominant species in what’s regarded the cradle of civilisation, Africa.
Homo Habilis was superseded like a mobile phone and upgraded to Homo Erectus – who took our evolution to the next level by beginning to use fire around a million years ago. Archaeologists studying an ancient lake on the River Jordan found some 500,000 flint chips buried very close to each other, suggesting that around 800,000 years ago, H.Erectus was honing stone tools while huddled around a hearth. Crucially, Mr Erectus had learned to light fire.
It was this control of fire that changed both behaviour and biology: fire gave these early humans warmth and protection from predators. It allowed them to make more advanced tools for hunting and to venture further in search of food – perhaps most significantly, they began to cook their food.
With the development of cooking, meat, seeds and tubers became more easily digestible and more nutrient-rich for digestion. Proteins also became more easily absorbed and as such, the stomachs of Homo Erectus began to shrink and their teeth got smaller. Biology shows us that our bodies struggle to obtain enough energy eating an all-raw food diet so it seems as though early human biological changes are most likely a result of the way we prepared our foods.
Cooking makes more energy available for digestion. Taking energy from meats and starchy foods exacts a heavy toll on our digestive systems, but when proteins are cooked and denatured, they are more easily broken down and absorbed. Starches are some of the strongest molecular bonds known in the food world, until the cooking process breaks them down to a gloopy slurry, easily absorbed by our guts.
For example, apes spend more than a quarter of their day chewing their food and another quarter digesting. Today’s humans spend less than an hour chewing and it takes only a couple of hours for our food to pass our digestive tract. So, when old boy Erectus began cooking, their bodies redirected energy away from their guts and jaws to their energy-hungry brains. Brain power kicked in and our brains grew significantly, bringing with it greater intelligence and eventually, the invention of dry martini cocktails. Amen.
Homo Erectus continued to evolve into the next evolutionary stage as Homo Heidelbergensis, likely due to the increase in meat and protein consumption that came with better hunting techniques and tools: basically, 700,000-year-old ‘new tech’. By the time the Neanderthal man was roaming the planet, the increased brain size and subsequent intelligence meant their tech had become quite advanced. They were obligated to use fire because they now could no longer survive without it. They used medicinal plants and flora and adapted advanced cooking techniques, including smoking and roasting.
The rest, as they say, is history. Well, actually pre-history, if we’re being technical. Just as our ancient species probably stumbled onto the ability to make fire, it was only relatively recently that Homo Sapiens learned to make bread – an event that may also have changed our evolutionary path, sparking a desire to farm crops; a decision that allowed our population to grow rapidly with an abundance of food not available to the earlier hunter-gatherer life.
Jump forward to today – what we have created as a species in the last century alone is truly remarkable and it is fire and flame that has truly sparked it all. We are seeing a return to this primal urge to cook with fire as restaurants adopt custom built centrepiece hearths, at which chefs and diners engage in an ancient urge to cook and eat huge chunks of meat over hot coals.
We all know chefs can be a bit of a wild bunch; this recent trend towards live-fire has unleashed many an inner Neanderthal with chefs literally getting to play with fire. I know one chef at a live-fire Spanish restaurant in Liverpool who couldn’t control his pyromaniac tendencies and would put so much wood on the fire that he sweated away 4kg in bodyweight in the opening fortnight.
There is something to be said for cooking over hand-selected wood charcoal and it’s not just the chefs, but also the diners, who are reaping the smokey rewards. Live-fire aromatic profiles are subtle and nuanced, imbuing food with tasting notes from a gentle minerality to a full-blown flavour hi. Diners are tasting flavours they’ve not tasted before because this style of cooking was lost to this part of the world for a long time.
There are now expert wood merchants such as London Log Co. and Treewood Harvesting that supply the country’s top restaurants with bespoke, sustainably sourced wood species such as Spanish holm oak, British birch, applewood and sweet chestnut, to name just a few. Simple ingredients and produce, cooked over the crackle of real wood charcoal, transformed into something extra special – all through the ancient magic of fire.
Righto, I feel like a martini and a steak.