In recent years, the buzz words of sustainable and local have made huge inroads into the mainstream narrative of our food shopping habits. I applaud that wholeheartedly, especially when it comes to meat - eat less and eat better is a mantra I try hard to live by.
As a professional barbecuer, I consider charcoal to be my number one ingredient. Good cooking starts and ends with good fuel. There is little point in spending time choosing a wonderful pasture-fed steak and then cooking it over inferior fuel. You will be doing that piece of meat, and the animal it came from, a severe injustice.
The story of what is good and what is bad fuel is worth shouting about because, unlike the provenance of our food, not enough people are asking the right questions about where their charcoal comes from.
The vast majority of our barbecue charcoal is picked up at the supermarket or the garage - it's convenient, it's easy, we can all be a bit lazy sometimes - last year we brought a whopping 90,000 tonnes of the stuff. The bulk of this charcoal comes from the tropical forests of South America and Africa, and sadly there can be little doubt that some of it, perhaps worryingly more than some, comes from the felling of virgin rainforests. I doubt any of us would feel good about burning that.
On top of the dubious sourcing of wood, there are the practicalities and environmental impact of producing charcoal en-masse in the tropics to consider. Making charcoal is dirty, messy and very hard work. The process of pyrolysing wood into charcoal - basically baking wood in an oxygen-starved environment to drive off everything other than carbon - produces many toxic volatile gases. In old-style charcoal kilns - such as the majority of those found in the tropics - these gases are not recycled and end up being released into the sky, creating considerable pollution both into the wider atmosphere and into the immediate environment around the charcoal workers themselves.
So, what is good charcoal? For me, there is only one choice and that is sustainably produced British lump wood charcoal. Made in a modern, environmentally sensitive way. A ‘retort’ kiln system is closed and as such the ‘off-gases’ are recycled within the system, creating a far cleaner process. These kilns produce 75% less pollution and charcoal they produce is very pure. It stands to reason that burning something pure will make our food taste better than burning something impure.
Open a bag of cheap charcoal or, heaven forbid, one of those awful foil-tray disposable barbecues and take a sniff. You will smell chemicals, chemicals that you need to burn off before you put your food anywhere near it for cooking. Imported charcoal gets hit with a double dose - fire suppressants to stop it self combusting on its long journey by container ship and then fire accelerants once ashore so people can light is easy. Open a bag of British lump wood charcoal, and you will smell nothing. Good charcoal is around 95% pure carbon, an inert element. No smell whatsoever, just pure black gold for cooking.
On top of its superiority for cooking, making charcoal in a sustainable, environmentally responsible way has great ecological benefits. Wood, our ultimate renewable resource, is harvested from forests by coppicing, or thinning them out, which in turn is brilliant for biodiversity.
When you thin a woodland you let light into the forest floor, which allows different plants species to colonise. These plant species go onto support different invertebrates, birds, mammals. The biodiversity improves, the woodland becomes a richer more ecologically self-sustaining place, a healthy woodland.
There are economic benefits too. There is a saying among woodland-workers - a woodland that pays is a woodland that stays - if people can earn some sort of living out of the forest, that forest has a chance of being allowed to stay. If a forest becomes financially unviable it becomes neglected and is vulnerable to development.
The network of trees around Britain are crucial to absorbing pollution, the vast majority of which comes from vehicle emissions. The more trees we have, the more pollution gets taken out of our air, it’s a simple equation.
So, buying sustainable British charcoal for me is at the very heart of shopping more responsibly. There are no chemicals that need burning off before you cook, you can get it lit and be cooking on it in just a few minutes. Your beautiful pasture-fed, perfectly aged steak will thank you for it.
Pipers Farm offers a range of sustainable barbecue kit that has been ethically and sustainably sourced to guarantee you the best barbecue experience this Summer.
Whittle & Flame, Sustainable Charcoal
Ignite your barbecue with Whittle and Flame's easy to light sustainable ash charcoal.
Using ash trees felled by hand within a 5 mile of Whittle and Flame's yard on Cornbury Park near Oxford the charcoal is made using a unique distillation process. This process produces charcoal that still retains the ash tree's carbon structure and the essence of individual character.
The charcoal carries the distinct flavour of British woodlands straight to your food.
Sustainable Fire Lighters
The UK's most sustainable natural firelighters.
These sustainable firelighters are made from 100% waste wood and recycled vegetable oil, with an odourless 8-10 minute burn time. They're easy to light and efficiently get your fire going in next to no time. You only need one to light your fire. Made from 100% recycled materials.
Woodsmith, Applewood Smoking Chips
Add incredible flavour to your barbecued feast by adding some heavenly sweet smelling Applewood Smoking Chips. Simply add a few handfuls to sustainable lumpwood charcoal, and the smoky aroma will beautifully flavour your meat, fish or vegetables.
They are so simple to use and create impressive results. For best results, simply grab a handful of the smoking chips and soak them in water for around 20 minutes, before you want to start cooking. Once you have lit your charcoal and it has formed a grey coat, ready to cook on, drain away the water from your chips making sure to shake off any excess. Scatter them evenly over the charcoal and within a minute or so they will start to catch and smoke. You are now ready to start cooking. The chips will give you about 15 minutes of smoke, so are best suited to quick grilling.
Woodsmith's work directly with West Country farmers to produce Great British cooking woods. Grown in Somerset, their cooking woods are 100% natural and completely chemical free.
Woodsmith's Applewood Smoking Chips come in a 1.5kg bag, a handful of chips goes a long way so there are plenty of memories to be made from one just one bag.
Kiln Dried Kindling
Kind Wood's kindling is perfect for indoor and outdoor burning. It is made from untreated waste wood, sustainably felled and gathered from local sawmills. With an incredibly low moisture content, this kindling will light in no time, giving you a roaring blaze set to warm the coldest of hearts.
This kiln-dried kindling is excellent for starting a fire on a wood burner, starting a campfire or lighting up a barbecue.
A guest journal post by our friend and fire cookery expert, Genevieve Taylor.