Well, it’s been stinking hot here for the last couple of days. Believe it or not, but England can actually get stinking hot, just not that often. The thing about a hot day here is that it is usually accompanied by a large dose of steamy humidity and that tends to make a 30°C day feel more like a 40°C day. Yesterday was 31°C and my office is without air conditioning, so it was with great pleasure that I exercised my contractors’ right to leg it early, leaving all the other suckers to duke it out in the sauna that is the development department.
All I wanted to do was get home, slap on some shorts and cool down. The thing is, I am South African. I think there must be something programmed into us saffas from childhood that compels us to braai when the weather is warm. If only a fool would willingly stand around a blazing fire in the steamy heat of the afternoon, then I guess that makes me a fool. So after grabbing a few things from the supermarket (beer, ice, coal, food – in that order), I headed home to satisfy my compulsion.
I’ve been living in the UK for going on five years now so I’ve long ago become accustomed to the strange looks I get from my neighbours at firing up my barbecue mid-week. The English tend to barbecue a handful of times a season, in my experience almost exclusively on a weekend and during the day. The concept of braai’ing mid-week is outlandish to say the least, here it’s generally considered a Saturday or Sunday lunchtime activity and even then only when the weather is fine and the sun is shining (hence about twice a season).
Also, most Englishmen I’ve met tend to favour the gas barbecue. It’s easy to see why – it’s quick, easy to clean, simple to operate and cheap to run. However, I think it lacks the smokey character that you get from a proper coal fire which to me is the raison d’etre of the barbecue, so I have eschewed this societal convention in favour of a good old fashioned coal braai.
As I may have mentioned before, I live in a terraced house. What this means is that one large building is built and then subdivided into a number of different houses, separated by common walls to form a row of semi-detached townhouses, commonly double-storey with long, narrow strip gardens the same width as the house. This is typical of the UK where space is at a premium but the disadvantage is that you live extremely close to your neighbours which means you have to be careful what you say in your garden as your neighbours will most likely hear it (I speak Afrikaans to K if I don’t want anyone else to understand).
The other issue is smoke. Due to the close proximity to your neighbours, any smoke tends to prompt a flurry of window-shutting from the the adjoining houses and can illicit an annoyed, if not angry response, especially if said neighbours have any laundry out to dry. It took me a while to work out the solution to this, based upon lessons I learned as a boy scout in South Africa. The principle is this: very dry wood burns without smoke.
The problem with this is that wood is fairly hard to come by here. Also, while I happen to live in one of the driest regions of the UK, you would be forgiven for doubting this if you’d ever come to visit me. This means that any wood you do find will likely not be very dry. To make this worse, you can only really buy wood (logs) in winter as people burn them in their hearths to warm their houses. The only real solution to this is to stock up at the end of winter and keep it somewhere dry yourself, then chop it as needed once dry. Sound like a pain in the arse? Well, it is, but it’s worth it to be able to make a proper wood fire.
Anyway, so I got home early, poured myself a beer, swept the patio deck, emptied the ash from the last fire and chopped some kindling. I then built a fire using the time-honoured cross-hatch method, filled with slivers of wood, old egg boxes and some newspaper, with charcoal briquettes scattered around the base of the fire. Then, while having a slug of beer and admiring my handiwork, I felt a drop of water hit me on the head. Then another. Then there was an almighty roll of thunder before the heavens opened, monsoon-style. I just had enough time and presence of mind to put the lid on the barbecue before taking cover.
The rain only lasted for about 10 minutes at most, but so much water came down in those ten minutes that everything in my garden, including the pet rabbit, was absolutely soaked. K arrived home from work somewhere in the middle of all this and made a comment to the effect of, “Oh, so much for the braai then”.
Well, it takes more than a few hundred litres of water to put me off my braai so as soon as the torrential downpour ceased, off came the lid and we were in business. The meal for tonight I hear you ask?
Smokey, Sticky, Barbeuced Poussin
One fresh poussin / Cornish game hen
Freshly milled black pepper
Wood chips soaked in water
Kettle barbecue and coal
For the basting (approximate measures):
4 tbs Mrs Balls Original Recipe Chutney
1 tsp Balsamic vinegar (A good quality, aged vinegar is best)
1 tsp Soy sauce (I prefer the salty taste of light soy)
½ tsp Jalapeno Tabasco Sauce
2 drops Toasted Sesame Oil (be careful, this is REALLY strong flavoured)
1 small bunch fresh coriander / cilantro, chopped.
First, start your fire. You can use firelighters if you like, but as I mentioned above I prefer to keep things natural by using wood and other tinder to get it going before adding charcoal briquettes which will be used for the actual cooking.
While the fire burns down, prepare the poussin by rubbing salt and ground black pepper into the skin (you can use a small whole chicken, but I prefer poussin as it’s so succulent and one is perfect for two people sharing). Stuff a few sprigs of thyme into the cavity, drizzle a little olive oil over the bird and you’re done. I also like to slash the skin between the breast meat and the leg / thigh as this allows the skin to get really crispy and allows heat to penetrate to the thick part of the breast meat. You can stuff a bit of thyme in this gap if you like. Be sure to allow the bird to come to room temperature before cooking to prevent the centre being undercooked.
Once you’ve done this, prepare the basting by combining all of the ingredients listed above. If you like, a little crushed garlic adds some extra flavour but I didn’t want garlic breath at work the next day so I omitted it. Taste it and feel free to tweak the amounts until you’re happy with the flavour. Be careful of the sesame oil, you only need a single drop, maybe two and no more or else it will dominate the flavour.
Once your fire is hot, move all of the coals to one side of the barbecue. You want to end up with an area on one side of the barbecue that is free of coals so your poussin doesn’t cook from direct heat. This is really important as you want the bird to cook via the oven effect of the lid being closed. Ensure you have enough coals to cook the bird in its entirety, you don’t want to have to rebuild the fire half-way through cooking.
I like to make a little tin-foil dish to hold my wet wood chips, which is then placed on the hot coals. Place the poussin on the grid as far away from the coals as possible and then close the lid. Ensure the vents in the lid and the base of the barbecue are open all the way so the fire doesn’t go out. The vent in the lid of mine is a bit small so I leave the lid slightly ajar while cooking to ensure the fire gets enough oxygen.
Cooking should take about 30 mins or so for a small bird but will take longer depending on the weight. Check on it after 15 minutes and rotate the bird, then once the skin is all crispy and brown, apply the basting liberally all over and close the lid for a further 5 minutes to allow it to go all sticky. Allow the bird to rest somewhere warm for a few minutes before carving (I just take the lid off and leave the bird on the grid), before carving into pieces. Serve with a green salad and some potato salad or garlic bread (I had neither, so had to settle for coleslaw).
I like a glass of Rhine Riesling with this meal but it will go with just about any white wine. A hoppy ale would probably work nicely too.