When it comes to barbecues, we in Britain have a problem. I’m not talking about our summer’s unreliable sunshine quota, but rather the charcoal we choose to buy.
Unfortunately, the bulk is imported, much of it from developing countries where sustainability is often a second thought. As well as this, there are welfare concerns over those who make it – commonly among the poorest in their communities. When you factor in the huge carbon hoof-print which comes with shipping the charcoal here, and the whole thing doesn’t add up to the smartest choice for your barbecue.
These ethics aside, there are other good reasons for buying British. Simply put, choosing native charcoal gives a leg up to our working woods and is a welcome revenue stream for our woodsmen. It allows them to make profit from the smaller diameter material which is often a by-product of thinning programmes or other management practices they are engaged in – stuff which may have previously been left to rot.
The consequence of a viable woodland economy means our woods and hedges can be managed for the long term, with all the benefits this brings. Worked coppice woods, for example, are more bio-diverse and offer a haven for dormice and butterflies. Laid hedges provide sheltered nesting sites for small birds – wrens seem particularly enamoured.
Despite these positives, it’s important to understand such work is labour intensive and the woodsman cannot work for free – certainly, the British charcoal burner cannot survive on the same wages as his Namibian counterpart.
At the end of the day, it is a deal you strike with your own conscience: to go with a cheap bag of imported charcoal, or pay a pound or two more for the British equivalent.
How it’s made
Charcoal burning is the reduction of wood to its base constituent, carbon, a process achieved by heating wood to high temperatures in the near-absence of oxygen. Think of it as wood being baked.
Today we do this in large steel kilns, as this allows us to control the process more easily. Prior to this, charcoal was made in woodland clamps, vast conical stacks of wood built around a central flue and covered with earth, making them airtight. This was skilled work, and physically demanding too, burners working over several days and nights with little chance of sleep.
While the modern kiln has certainly made our life easier, challenges remain. Charcoal burning is an imprecise art because there are so many variables. From the species of wood one is burning, to its state of seasoning; from ambient considerations such as local soil type, to the vagaries of wind and rain. With experience, one gets a feel for things and can hope to achieve consistent yields. But some burns just don’t work very well and I’m still left scratching my head why.
I make my charcoal in the spring and summer from wood cut two years previously. This allows the material to season, producing a better charcoal yield. Most of the wood I garner from hedge laying – small diameter material such as hazel and blackthorn. This is excellent for my means as it carbonises whole and does not require splitting.
I keep several kilns. The largest, Big Jim, is eight foot in diameter and remains at my yard. I use him to make charcoal from wood I’ve stockpiled there over the winter. Two smaller kilns are transported around a patchwork of local woods which I’ve either coppiced or thinned during the dormant months. This itinerant practice is more in keeping with the old ways, where charcoal burners would follow the wood cutters, rarely leaving their green bounds all summer.
While burning remotely, I live in an old bow top and cook outside over a fire. This is enjoyable for a variety of reasons, not least the simple human pleasure in a change of scene: no two woods are ever the same.
Where to Buy
My charcoal is sold in 3kg paper bags, enough for three average-sized family barbecues. Inside each bag you will find charcoal made from a mixture of species, most typically: oak, ash, hazel, beech, maple and thorn. This blend heats fast and is ready to cook on almost immediately. It also lights freely – a match and a few twists of newspaper are all you need.
With so natural a provenance, it should come as no surprise nothing artificial lurks inside these bags. Unlike charcoal briquettes, which are formed with chemical binders, traditional charcoal is simply carbonised wood – what would you prefer to cook on?
You can buy my charcoal at the outlets listed below, or direct from me at my Nettlecombe workshop. My charcoal retails at £7.50 a bag, with discounts for multiple purchases. Regarding wholesale, if you’re interested in stocking my charcoal, I’d be happy to talk. Please fill in the contact box below.
Ben’s Workshop, Nettlecombe
Brassica Mercantile, Beaminster
Charmouth Stores, Charmouth
Chideock Stores, Chideock
Felicity’s Farm Shop, Morecombelake
Guy Mallinson’s Crafty Camping, Holditch
Ryder & Hope, Lyme Regis
West Dorset Holidays, Eype and Golden Cap
Colyton Post Office, Colyton
Miller’s Farm Shop, Kilmington
Uplyme Garage and Stores, Uplyme
Have a question?