The Great British BBQ – fuelled by Bronze Age burners, butterflies and bramble-bashing.
There is very little that shouts ‘British’ more than a damp bbq on a rainy bank holiday Monday. Across the country this weekend people will be partaking in two of the nations favourite activities: commenting on the weather, and cooking over charcoal. Whitsun bank holiday marks the start of summer, as May tumbles headlong into ‘flaming June’. A long weekend is the perfect excuse to get outside into our gardens, community spaces and balconies, open a few bottles and dig out the paper plates. Rain or shine, we’ll be there, it takes more than a few spots of the wet stuff to dampen the spirit of the British public. We’ll don the shorts, and the socks with sandals, dust off the deckchair that granny always struggles to get out of, and try to keep the sausages out of reach of the dog. We’ve bought in gallons of lemonade for the kids, filled the fridge with burgers, ribs, veggie-sausages, the massive bowl of salad that no-one ever eats, and the essential selection of ketchup, brown sauce and mustard… but there’s one thing we’ve forgotten. Cue the dash to the fuel garage (the only place open by this time of day) for the last bag of charcoal on the shelf!
But should we be thinking a little more carefully about the black gold we happily reduce to smoke throughout the summer? Where does it come from and how is it produced? Are some charcoals superior to others?
Pop out and have a rummage in your shed for that leftover charcoal from last summer (it’s probably tucked in the corner behind the half empty paint tins and the bike you haven’t ridden since you gave up your new years resolutions, just be careful not to disturb the robin nesting on the top shelf!). Where does the packaging state as country of origin? More than likely the bag of charcoal you’re holding was shipped halfway around the globe before it reached your shopping trolley. Up to 95% of charcoal sold in the UK each summer is imported. It might be the cheaper product on the supermarket shelf, but the true cost is far higher. Deforestation is one of the biggest environmental issues facing the world in the current day and age, and a major cause behind habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, and increasing pollution.
Burning wood in carefully controlled conditions, by excluding oxygen and forcing the wood to burn super slowly, pushes out all the moisture. The crumbly black substance left behind is what we know as charcoal, and is a useful and valuable material. In British history, the techniques of charcoal production were discovered in the Bronze Age. Since those early times, the high burning temperature achievable with good quality charcoal has been essential to the development of industry, culture and even warfare. Even though today it is largely relegated to charring a few steaks in the garden, charcoal has had a colourful history. It was a vital ingredient in gunpowder, the fuel that enabled the smelting of metals, and even loved by artists for drawing and sketching.
In the medieval era, mature trees were prized for the huge timbers they could provide for ship building and construction of buildings, meaning charcoal producers had to turn to other methods to harvest enough raw material to fill their kilns. For some families, charcoal burning was a way of life. Charcoal burners lived in the woodlands, in partly temporary camps in order to tend their kilns 24/7.
With mature trees reserved for other trades, coppicing came to the forefront as the primary method of growing timber for charcoal. Woodlands are divided into sections known as ‘coups’ and in each coup the trees were cut in rotation. The trees would be cut to a few inches above the ground (hazel, alder and poplar were commonly preferred species, whilst oak and beech were left to grow naturally for the timber crop) and the ‘stools’ would produce multiple new shoots. The shoots would be protected from deer and other browsing animals and allowed to grow for several years to reach the desired size. The rotation system means that there is always a coup ready to harvest, as well as one freshly cut and a number at various stages of regrowth, resulting in a continuous supply of material for the charcoal kilns. Coppiced woodlands also produced other valuable crops such as stakes for fencing and hedge-laying, firewood, and the stakes required for wattle and daub construction.
Coppice management of woodlands had an unintentional but hugely beneficial effect beyond the sustainable production of fuel. It created and enhanced valuable wildlife habitat and transformed the rural landscape. The dense mature growth sheltered a wide range of birds and animals, including nightingales and dormice, as well as providing hazel nuts and other food to supplement the cooking pot. Immediately after felling, sunlight flooded the woodland floor, promoting a flush of beautiful wildflowers and lush vegetation, host to a huge variety of butterflies and other insects. The new growth attracted deer and rabbits that could be hunted for food, whilst many of the wild plants were used as edible or medicinal herbs.
A change in fortunes of the British countryside, started with the migration of vast percentages of the population into cities during the industrial revolution, and was completed by the loss of manual labour resulting from the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Many once productive and wildlife rich woodlands were doomed to decades of neglect. Unmanaged, the coppice stools were left to grow unchecked, and the sunlit woodland floor was taken over by a tangle of brambles and scrub. The patchwork of habitats, and the wild flowers, butterflies and birds that relied on them, dramatically declined, until in some cases they disappeared entirely.
These days the technology of kilns and charcoal production has improved, although the basic principles have changed little. The locally based, small scale industry of times past can teach us important lessons for sustainable charcoal generation today.
Across the country small scale charcoal producers are returning to the woodlands and conserving the near-forgotten skills, whilst conservation organisations and volunteer co-operatives are turning to charcoal to help fund their efforts to regenerate our lost coppices.
Buying charcoal produced in the UK rather than imported products will help to reduce the carbon footprint of your summer alfresco dining – always look for bags that carry the ‘FSC’ label (http://www.fsc-uk.org/en-uk). Seeking out charcoal that comes from a local conservation project or small business (try your local Wildlife Trust, conservation group, farm shop or forestry business, or simply ‘google’ coppice products) will add that extra flavour of sustainability to your BBQ!