14 . 11 . 17
Cooking with Fire
Sky, sea and flame are all the same. Image and writing by Julia Georgallis.
‘The sea and a fire’ my mum and I agree, whilst doing some clandestine cauliflower smoking in my dad’s garage using my portable wood oven. I’m not supposed to light my fire there because it alarms the neighbours. But we’re doing it anyway, hoping no one notices. The sea and fire, we say, with their meditative qualities, are the two things that we could watch all day, waves lapping at the shore and fire dancing on a bonfire. I think of a couple of other things too while we watch the fire puff away under the cover of darkness. Mainly about how preposterously middle-class the situation that I was in was, (‘darling, I just MUST smoke my cauliflowers this weekend, but I simply don’t have the space to do this!’). But also about the importance of fire. Not just to the task at hand but to everything. Like language and our opposable thumbs, it is the thing that helped us move from unconscious to conscious beings. What a shame that nowadays we city dwellers are just so unused to it, afraid of it even whereas in many other parts of the world it is still an intrinsic part of daily life – to cooking in particular.
Since starting TBC, teaching myself how to bake with fire has been a steep learning curve. It’s not just knowing how not to burn things, of how long things take to cook, how to prepare food before throwing it to the flame but even basic things – I didn’t even know how to light a fire at first, let along cook with one. And it’s painful too. The preparation it entails, of knowing when to light it and how hot to keep it, of hair and clothes and eyes always being full of smoke and of being left without feeling in the ends of my fingers having burnt them so many times.
I think back to the other instances of fire-cooking that I have been exposed to throughout my life. Growing up, with a Cypriot background, we would make souvlas (meat spit roasted on charcoal) for most special occasions, where our house would become full of relatives and smoke, billowing in from the garden. My own first experience of cooking with fire solo, I suppose, was in Nepal when I was working on a 6-week design project. We were taken to my boss’s spectacular goat farm and had been given some very good (very precious) goat meat. But no one knew what to do with it. So we made a fire pit, found some sticks and I squatted over the flames, rotating the sticks every now and again, watching the meat sizzle, as I had watched my uncles do on all those special souvla days. There is nothing like the taste of meat cooked on an open fire. In fact, there is nothing like the taste of any foodstuff cooked on an open fire, as I further discovered one summer when two Norwegian chefs turned up at the camp I was catering at and cooked us all a meal of vegetables prepared in my wood fired oven, roots, leaves and all – some lightly singed, some buried for hours so that they went all fally-aparty in the charcoal. Both my Nepali cooking experience and the Norwegian veggie feast, were absolutely not something that could happen every day – they each took time to prepare and patient stomachs. In most everyday cases involving fire cooking, it is simply used as a heat source, for pots of boiling things and sizzling pans – all that is required is to keep the cooking aparatus as hot as possible. Taming an open flame however can take hours and a specially trained hand. In Morocco, take the example of faraans, or communal bread ovens, on which the TBC project was inspired by. In the morning, families take their baked goods, be it bread or tagine or biscuits, to their local faraan to be baked by an expert baker. These bakers are the ultimate fire tamers, with the delicate task on their hands to bake their community’s home cooked meals and loaves, deciding carefully what needs to be baked when and organising the heat accordingly. In days gone by when all bread was baked with fire, bakers had to be sympathetic to this relationship to food and heat. Different things were baked at different times of the day. Early morning was the time for flatbreads – focaccia and ciabatta in Italy, fougasse in France (which are made in the shape of the flames with which they are baked). Some bakeries used these flatbreads to test the heat of their ovens – they would know how hot the oven was depending on the time it took to cook the flatbread. Once the oven heat had stabilised, bread would be baked and as the heat died down further it was time for the more delicate cakes, pastries and biscuits. The pace bakeries of the past was set by the fire and, just like making dough, required the patience, organisation and intuition of the baker.
Fire does a lot for our food, mainly it makes it taste delicious. But also, when we heat certain foods up, it unlocks lots of nutrients – some foods can’t really even be digested unless they are cooked. It also helped with parasites and kills bacteria that might otherwise cause us problems. But as is the theme for the TBC project (which is to feel good about baking bread and making our own food) fire is also good for our minds. Cooking with fire has taught me the value of preparation and temperance – it’s been a very luxurious way to cook actually, slowing me down and making me think, when many other things have to be hurried (I haven’t missed the irony that though this is luxurious to me, it’s a necessity in many other places). If we take the Italian word for fire, ‘fuoco’ or the Spanish ‘fuego,’ both these words come from the Latin ‘foco’ which means ‘to focus.’ Fire and focus are one in the same, not just because of the sort of trance you enter as you stare into the flames, but because it both demands and deserves your full attention, your sympathy and your logic and in return it will cook your food and keep you warm.