There is an incremental development in both success and pleasure, when cooking on open wood fires, that depends on the near divine alignment of fair weather, the freshest and finest of ingredients and, above all, on the design, construction and viability of the installation upon which one will be cooking. Last Thursday, the last day of February, was as a perfect day in June although the arc of the sun was that little bit lower and the softer light created long shadows with deeply saturated colour. Therefore, the first of the suggested trinity, the weather, was beyond reproach and, if the February weather was June, the ingredients were July: Chateaubriand, épaule d’agneau, shortrib, aile de raie, cod, poussins, quails, fennel, beetroot, green radish, kohlrabi, shallots, bok choy, aubergines ….we were submerged in a sea of mouthwatering possibility. The extensive and brutalist outdoor kitchen, furnished with fire pits and grills, perched on a hill overlooking a patchwork of forest and farmland which is the Vendéen bocage, completed the trinity.
And then the fires are burning, the fat is spitting and the spits are turning. We, in the words of Mr Tarantino, are getting mediaeval on, if not the asses, then the shoulders, fillets and ribs of a variety of meat and fishes. There is something very visceral and stimulating in this style of cooking. The various dishes being prepared are not concealed in lidded pans nor hidden behind closed oven doors; they are twisting and turning, charring and caramelising behind a curtain of flames and smoke: this is beyond theatre, this is an eruption. The surprise is that such delicate cooking emerges from this sizzling, smokefilled maelstrom.
This is world without egg timers and oven gloves. this is a world where looking, smelling and tasting are the yardsticks. Everything is hot and fingers act as thermometers while the words of Marco Pierre White ring in our ears “God would not have given you fingers if he didn’t intend them to be burned”. Down in the fire pit, away to the side and clear of the flames, sit large foil wrapped packages filled with beetroots and heavily spiced cauliflowers.
As the fires die down, after a long day of photography and cooking, and the dishes that were created in the fire and the smoke are served on simple white plates on the long oak table in the cool of the house, it takes a leap of faith to remember that this delicacy was forged in a raging inferno.
The man behind the pans and in front of the flames is Matt Clark who, together with his wife Emily, runs an exciting outfit called Big in France which offers a multitude of cookery, photography and yoga course from their properties in the Sud Vendée, near to the Atlantic coast of France. I think you’d enjoy it.