[As published in December/January BayBuzz magazine.]
Paul Paynter doesn’t eat meat. He’s lazy but impatient, cerebral not sensible, and would rather sit on the couch reading poetry than hunt or gather. He doesn’t have a natural innate ability to wrestle dinner to the ground and roast it over coals. As YummyFruit head honcho, what Paul does have is good wood and lots of it.
“I’m a fruit guy, I have piles for bonfires and I have to schedule the burn for 3.30pm because the kids love it so much.” Paul, progeny in tow, enjoys lighting things and watching them go up. He’s also fixated on how to feed his issue, who are particularly fussy eaters. He figures if he can combine the thing they love – pyromania – with the thing they hate – healthy eating – he might be onto a winner.
So, fire is central to Paul’s desire to cook outdoors. His mission to find the best alfresco gastronomic solution isn’t focused on big, gas BBQs with all the bells and whistles. Instead, he’s looking for the best way to play with flame. “Men seem to like cooking outside, it’s primal, but the modern gas BBQ has nothing to do with our ancestors,” Paul tells me. “The reason gas is so popular is that it’s instant heat and you don’t need to spark up an hour before cooking. If time allows, I do think the ritual of manly conversation around the preparatory fire, while the missus knocks out the salad inside, is the best of all possible worlds.”
He also rails against the environmental impact of building the stainless steel BBQs in the first place. Although he’s not a fan of carcinogenic smoke either.
“You have to leave wood for a long time to make sure it’s dry. Leave it for a year, then leave it for another year. Then another.” A hot tip from the guy who really knows his wood.
So, the constraints are mapped out. Low-key, fuss-free, vegan-friendly, kid-friendly, fire not gas. We’re off to find apparatus, gizmos and gadgets for cooking with flames.
Paul’s kids eat chicken and love the idea of rubbing it with spices and herbs and a variety of gourmet salts á la the slow-cook craze of State-side competitive BBQ. The actual practice of touching raw flesh puts the kids off though and it’s left to Paul, who won’t even eat the results. Despite a range of devices principally for poultry – beer-can chicken stand, hanging chook cage, rotisserie – Paul’s not keen.
“We have to be careful with obsessions and men do get obsessed with their meat. One must never become obsessed with a mechanism that leads to certain divorce: golf, fishing, skiing, surfing. Women start off fairly supportive, but then it’s ‘No’ when they’re suddenly a fish widow,” Paul postulates. “I don’t know any woman who says, ‘He does these six-hour, slow-cook slabs of meat and it’s wonderful’.”
“I have that in me, that obsessiveness. I can’t get too interested in things because it could lead to obsession. I’m anxious about becoming obsessive.” He’s also anxious about lactose and the lot of milking cows so he doesn’t eat dairy. His one exception is buffalo mozzarella, which leads us to pizza. But he doesn’t bake either so even margherita is a bit of a stretch.
Pizza oven? No
Pizza ovens come in many styles and sizes and are an excellent way to get rid of apple wood. The suggestion that Paul make his own – hand mixing ciment fondu while his children learn the ancient crafts at his elbow – is met with scorn.
“I’m too impatient and I’m not practical at all,” he says. He also rents so is in the market for something portable.
The issue then is that the bijoux table-top jobs don’t get rid of the wood he’s accumulated, being mainly run on gas. He and his family make and eat a lot of paratha, which is basically a pizza bread, and this can be cooked over the simplest of hot plates. So now we add the need to cook bread over fire, but not necessarily melt cheese, to our list of must-haves.
Paul is a vegan except for the aforementioned mozz … and also extremely expensive smoked salmon, which somehow slips between the terms and conditions of veganism. We set off to look for a smoker, although Paul doesn’t back himself in believing he’ll be able to operate it.
“It’s so expensive, I don’t want to muck it up,” says Paul. “It’s a lot of flavour and it sounds complicated, plus I don’t think it’s something you become an instant expert in, also it looks like something I could obsess over.” Anxiety is setting in already.
Instead of the big guns of the smoking world we go shopping for a wine barrel to turn into a smoker thanks to a portable outfit we buy online. The barrel matches the rustic Hawke’s Bay aesthetic of the Paynters’ bucolic pad. Looks don’t matter too much to Paul, but the cohabitants of his domicile do care. In a similar vein, he’s curious about adding a kamado ceramic egg to his cooking caboodle. Although, it’s a lot of kit to basically just light a fire and burn some aubergine.
Keep it simple
I suggest that many cultures have been cooking outside in interesting ways since Adam first planted his apples. We discuss potjieskos from South Africa, which does away with all fancy equipment and is simply a fire pit with a Dutch oven planted among the embers. Paul’s intrigued, although he thinks it sounds a little too old-school.
“It’s like something from the 17th century!” he thinks. “Like a lunch break during the Salem witch trials.”
We segue to other cultures where a reliance on fire, fat, salt and patience wins out over flash contraptions. Paul has family ties to Hungarian culture, so we discuss the pros and cons of bogracs. “It needs a fire pit, paprika, some pretty average meat, and we need to be out on the plains,” he explains. “Really it’s about standing around drinking pilsner.”
Ticking the simplicity box, the aesthetically satisfying box, the fire box, the tradition box is the Oz Pig, and Paul falls for it straight away. It has an antiquities vibe and he thinks his kids could even find it so attractive they want to actually eat what it cooks up. It’s basically a washing machine drum on legs with a cute chimney and a grill plate. In the garden it looks like it’s been there since the 1700s but it can be dismantled and packed into a sensible canvas bag. It’s pretty but small so anyone wanting to butterfly a lamb isn’t going to have enough space. For those just wanting to spatchcock a capsicum, it’s perfect. It’s also a great way to use up wood.
“Hands down, for me, fire wins,” concludes Paul. “It’s not in our brains. It’s at a deeper level. It’s good for our mental health. It’s something men have been doing forever, it’s the most important task we have: find food and cook it over flame.
“Although back in the day the people of my cave would have starved to death,” he confesses. “I’d have carried a spear and looked the part but I’m a delta male not an alpha.”
Paul’s tribe may also have passed away due to inheriting the same pickiness to food as their contemporary descendants. “The niece won’t touch it unless it’s free range, Kevin is vegan and sees the spuds as contaminated by the tyranny of the bird, and Uncle Merv is gluten free. So you can end up with a contingent that will just pick away at the salad,” Paul explains. “But even there you can bugger it up with the dressing – contains egg – or the addition of gluten croutons. It only takes a couple of people with just a sad-looking lettuce leaf on their plate and the raucous family gathering falls flat.”
If the goal then is a simple fire, how best to cook on it? We explore the options, from slinging an old oven tray over it to purchasing a top of the range Argentinian asado grill. Due to the variety of allergies, maladies, aversions and avoidances at a Paynter family feast, any cooking solution must have multiple surfaces and dividers.
“You need a cooker that caters for the complexity of roasting, grilling, separation of ‘contaminants’ and the like,” Paul suggests.
We settle on a swinging hotplate, which is basically a metal stick thrust into the ground with a range of different grill plates pivoting off it at a variety of levels. It also has the option of hanging the bogracs from a meaty looking hook.
With the hearth in place – helped by some old bricks to barricade it in – Paul and his mini-Pauls can skewer things and roast them over the coals: strips of damper, marshmallows, cherry tomatoes, cubes of courgette, Linda McCartney sausages. He can also slide his salmon – not freshly caught but freshly bought – into a fish basket and apple-smoke it on the edge.
In that too though there’s a problem. Squatting. As much as Paul admires the cuisine of a variety of cultures, he’s got tight calves.“It’s been a revelation to find out what the Indians do with okra, the Chinese with broccoli or how the Thai bring vege to life with ginger, lemongrass and chilli,” he says. “The low-hanging options though are not attractive. I think there was a time when squatting was in vogue, but no longer.”
“You’d need a collection of stools to satisfy everyone and a shortage of these would leave you with an upstairs/downstairs situation for meat and fire watchers,” he explains. “Really you need people at the same levels in order to avoid conversing with bald patches and crotches. Bench-height cooking is eminently desirable. Anything that simulates a bar leaner will induce a relaxed and convivial setting for the average Kiwi.”
So, we discount all the above and end up balancing a $20 eco-grill on a bar stool and cooking a cauliflower for lunch. A lick of olive oil and a sprinkle of smoky Maldon, and it’s delicious.It’s never really the food that’s the hero when it comes to cooking on a fire. It’s the primal urge that links us back to the Neanderthal in the cave. The meat might’ve been tough, the chicken dry, the fennel bulb charred and the smoke annoying, but as long as there was good company and good conversation, the tribe would survive.
Where to buy
• Fourth Element in Hastings stocks Oz Pig in multiple sizes as well as Eco Grill
• Total Food Equipment in Napier has a variety of pizza ovens
• Wine Country Craft in Napier has barrels
• Smokai online has smoking kits and info on how to convert a barrel to a smoker
• Argie Barbie online has asado options
• Food Over Fire online has dutch ovens
• Try lowandslowbbq.co.nz for hanging chicken baskets
• Go to nz.adventurekings.com for the swinging hotplate
• Hungarian Kitchen in Auckland stocks bogracs