Summer is time to braai. For me that means a grill tightly packed with lamb chops and that mouth-watering smoky smell of sizzling meat that fills the air. Cooking over an open fire can be regarded as the birthplace of all things culinary – long before recipe apps, molecular cuisine, Michelin guides, reality TV… But has becoming a restaurant trend, made the braai into something scientific?
Of course open-fire cooking never completely went out of fashion – in South Africa we even have a Braai Day! – but this culinary discipline, if you can call it that, was mostly limited to backyard get-togethers and a few Argentinean restaurants. Still, self-proclaimed braai masters take their art very seriously and have strong opinions when it comes to the choice of wood, packing the fire, to marinade or not, spicing before or after, height above the coals, heat of the fire and even whether one should add a squeeze of lemon or not… But these preferences are usually made out to be personal rather than science.
Chefs are now taking up the debate, adding another dimension to the braai. It is especially the type of wood that seems to be a burning point. Knowing what wood to use has always been important. In South Africa we use Pine to start the fire, the dense and dry Kameeldoring, Sekelbos or Mopani for a long-lasting coal, the invasive Black Wattle when you are eco-friendly, Blue gum if you want a really hot fire and Rooikrans will do the trick as an all-rounder if you are in the Western Cape. (read more) Choosing the wood based on the flavours it adds, however, has mainly been reserved for smoking and winemaking. With wood fires being used in mainstream restaurants today, however, the flavour components of wood are considered more carefully. Just as with wine barrels, the type of wood and how it has been processed have become important and companies such as the New York Firewood Company works closely with restaurants to get the aromatics just right.
Flavour and innovation is what it is all about in the competitive restaurant business and cooking on an open fire is right on trend. In my opinion, much of the charm of the open fire lies in the feel, the heat, the smoke and the company. Is the new breed of barbecue restaurants – some quite sleek and sophisticated – all about the science of the braai? Are we, between wood selection and beautifully plated portions, losing the ambience and the ‘warmth’ that makes the open fire so special?
Perhaps not! Chef David Higgs of Johannesburg restaurant, Marble says: “It is the timeworn ritual of cooking on wood fires and gathering with friends, the shared experience in the preparation…” and he is echoed by Tom Bayless, the chef of Urban Cowboy’s Public House in Nashville, “Unlike a sous vide machine or a Pacojet ice cream maker or a deck oven, a wood-fired grill is a sensory experience, not only for the cooks but for everyone in the room. You see the flames. You smell the smoke. It feels like real cooking. And maybe once in a while, it even makes you feel something.” (read more)
This is what braaing is all about! This is also why, in this instance, I am very relaxed when it comes to making wine choices. Fresh and fruity whites are always popular in South Africa’s hot summer temperatures, but, if rather than contrast, you want to match wine and ambience – that full-on hot and smoky affair outside around the fire – a bold New World red might be more to your liking. When one takes the environment out of the equation and focus on the food, however, how do the charring and smokiness that come with open fire cooking impact wine choice?
Victoria Moore of The Wine Dine Dictionary suggests: “The big flavours of meat cooked over smoky coals or burning wood demand wine with substance and courage. If you’re picking Bordeaux, go for one that is young and vital….a northern Rhône or a New World red: for instance, a smoky syrah from South Africa or an exuberant Barossa Shiraz.”
“The mere fact of cooking over coals doesn’t create problems for wines. It simply gives the ingredient – fish or meat – a charred edge which possibly calls for a wine with more intensity but no different in essence from one you’d chose if you’d pan-fried the meat or cooked it under an indoor grill,” says Fiona Beckett of Matching Food & Wine.
“When looking for wines to pair with grilled fare, there are two characteristics you want to search out – fruitiness and oakiness. Ripe, fruity wines match the enhanced sweetness of grilled food. Oaky wines will match the smokiness. And if you find a wine with both characteristics, all the better,” is the opinion of Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson in eatingwell.com
There is some science involved in getting open fire cooking just right – from the choice of wood, the combination of ingredients, the wine selection… But there is also plenty of reason to relax and enjoy – a certain intangible quality and feel that makes braai so much more than cooking. And this is why I am not going to be too scientific about it this Summer!