The great outdoors

I'm too wussy for barbecues - except when it comes to sardines

Am I imagining it, or are advertisements for barbecues unusually rare this summer? At a time when ecological unsoundness is the new sexism, a charcoal-burning outdoor stove is as politically incorrect a possession as a Playboy calendar. Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Littlejohn are barbecue men, I bet.

Yet I doubt whether a modest blaze in the back garden contributes a great deal to the warming of the planet. And barbecues do not appear to be near the top of the lists of concerns of environmental campaigners - although the Mail on Sunday of 1 April did manage to fool a few readers into believing that barbecue owners would have to buy carbon offsets. Makers of gas barbecues claim that their products use no more fuel than do normal cookers; and some people argue that by burning wood from sustainable forests, you are returning to the atmosphere the CO2 that the wood has absorbed.

If I were instructed never to use my barbecue again, I might even be relieved. I like the taste of barbecued food, and I get satisfaction, to a certain extent, from cooking food in this way. But I am a bit nervous when I approach the process. A bit wussy, Clarkson and Littlejohn might say.

I find that starting to cook is rather like starting to write: there is a part of me that fears failure. I carry on as if it is all going to be fine, because it has always been fine in the past and because the only way to get anything done is by feigning confidence. And it always is fine, albeit with varying degrees of quality. Nevertheless, raw ingredients and blank pages can appear to be similarly unlikely to be transformed into anything worthwhile. When I barbecue, I am conscious of adding another element of uncertainty.

Our barbecue is a pleasingly basic arrangement, consisting of a brick fireplace in the garden.

Sometimes the coal on my barbecue is all glowing after 20 minutes. Sometimes it shows little sign of being ready to cook food after 45 minutes. Sometimes it threatens instantly to incinerate whatever is placed on the grill. Sometimes the heat is not strong enough to tenderise a chicken leg, and I have to take the food into the kitchen to finish on my cooker. I never risk cooking anything substantial, such as a spatchcocked chicken or a boned shoulder of lamb, in case the coals lack the energy for the job. Then there are the health issues: charring food can produce carcinogenic substances, apparently. I barbecue seldom, relying on my ridged grill pan, sometimes along with my oven.

I'll always make an exception, though, when the fishmonger has good sardines. A grilled sardine is one of the great gastronomic pleasures; and keeping the smell of it out of the house is worth a little extra effort, too.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins