In Siberia, barbecue season never stops, even in sub-zero temperatures. “We’d go out into the woods, clear the snow and have a party. It’s an amazing, elemental experience, being in nature around a fire,” recalls Alissa Timoshkina, a cookery writer raised in Omsk. “The key is to dress as you would when skiing: padded, layers, waterproofs.”
Partying in the woods is, of course, strictly forbidden during lockdown, but that sort of experience illustrates how – even if restricted to the back garden – Britain could embrace the winter barbecue. With restaurants closed, and even park picnics outlawed, a barbecue is one of the few ways to turn a household meal into a special occasion. And we’ve been buying the kit. Last year, thanks to lockdowns and social distancing, outdoor-heater sales were up 1,625% at John Lewis. The barbecue manufacturer Kamado Joe estimates its trade doubled around Black Friday, while Lakeland saw sales of its Cobb barbecue rise 240% in November, year on year.
Timoshkina is not alone in refusing to allow a little snow to stop a barbecue. Lithuanian-born Tomas Lidakevicius, now the executive chef at Turnips in Borough Market in London, remembers ice fishing with his grandad, and barbecuing mackerel on riverbanks, back when Lithuanian winters meant “snow up to the knees and -20C”.
Nina Matsunaga’s experience in Düsseldorf was less extreme, but, even in winter, her Japanese parents would bring huge seafood hauls back from the hypermarket and fire up the barbecue. “Scallops and clams wouldn’t make it to the fridge – we’d keep them on ice in the snow,” says Matsunaga, now the chef at the Black Bull hotel in Cumbria.
But what should we be eating when the skies are grey and the wind howls? “Anything spicy offsets cold, and gives you that fire inside,” says Timoshkina, the author of Salt & Time: Recipes from a Russian Kitchen. For example, shashlik kebabs wrapped in Armenian lavash flatbreads with home-fermented sides – sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers and the “super-punchy” horseradish and tomato sauce, khrenovina. “Ferments are simple, cheap and accessible, yet the flavours are so complex.”
Jackson Bristow, a live-fire chef at Nancarrow Farm near Truro in Cornwall, used to love heading off into the wild to barbecue in the open air. Even when in your own garden, he extols the benefits of packing stones together on freezing ground (to retain the heat) and building a fire: “With a barbecue, you can light it, lid on, go. Obviously, it’s easier. You have controllable airflow. But do you get as much fun from it? You’re warming yourself making a fire, and food always tastes better because it’s more effort to get to that point.”
Grappling with cold-weather barbecuing will, for most of us, be challenge enough. First, you will need a barbecue with a lid. Rain and fire do not mix; and wind is…