When I was a young boy my grandparents lived in a remote cottage in Wales. It was a wonderful cottage with a huge garden where they grew all their own fruit and vegetables. They even kept chickens and a pig.
The main room was the parlour, and it contained a huge fire range with a massive chimney from which hung chains on which they would suspend a big black kettle over the ever burning open fire. The fire also heated an oven to one side and a boiler to the other. All their cooking was done on the range over the open fire. As a small boy I remember toasting the most delicious toast in the world on a toasting fork held close to the flames.
In the days before the television took its place, the kitchen hearth was the centre of family life. As well as being the place where food was cooked, it was also the main gathering point, the focus of all that went on in the family; in fact focus is the Latin word for fireplace.
Although things are very different today, there is nothing quite like relaxing with family and friends in front of a log burning stove. It is a very different kind of warmth from the warmth you get from central heating. It is focussed warmth, and something to focus on visually, and it creates a very special feeling of being relaxed and content. That welcoming warm glow from those slowly burning logs penetrates through to the very soul.
A recent symposium in Leeds was about open stove cooking. It was called ‘Open Hearth Cookery’ and covered such things as the Roman technique of cooking over ashes and recreating ancient English dishes cooked over a ‘chafing dish’ which is a sort of portable grate; something like a cross between an old fashioned grate and a modern charcoal barbeque.
Cooking over an open hearth is a craft that in many ways has influenced cuisine throughout Europe and most of the recipes that we use today were first created for cooking over an open hearth. Only recently have they been adapted for cooking in a modern kitchen. Modern cooking is far easier that it was back in those days, but there is little doubt that the flavours are not so good.
The Leeds Stove open hearth cooking symposium included advice on how to control the heat, which requires a knowledge of how the fire operates along with a knowledge of how different kinds of wood burn. Not all woods are good for cooking; generally hardwoods are best. Oak, ash, and hard maple are good, though any woods that generates an even intense heat and many red hot cinders and coals will do. Blazing fires may look good, but they are not very useful for cooking.
Perhaps it is certain nostalgia for the taste of cooking on an open stove that feeds our passion for barbeques. Cooking over hot charcoal is certainly the next best thing to cooking over an open
hearth. According to a famous online encyclopaedia, barbecue originated in America in the 1800s when cowboys on Western cattle drives used them to slow cook tough cuts of meat such as brisket. (If you have never eaten brisket that has been slowly barbecued for 24 hours, then try it; it is tender and perfectly delicious.) Unfortunately, today charcoal barbecues are being replaced by gas barbeques, which are not the same at all.
One technique that we learned at the Leeds stove cooking symposium was to cook on the hot surface of a wood burning stove using a Dutch oven, which is a cast iron cooking pot with a tight fitting lid. You can monitor the temperature using a stove chimney magnetic thermometer. We intent to try to slow cook a joint of brisket this way; we’ll let you know how we get on.