Ahead of the Big Grill Festival in Herbert Park this month Andy Noonan talks to us about going back to basics, hanging out with your mates and observing the age-old tradition of cooking with live fire.
How did you first become interested in the smokin’ world of BBQ?
I’ve always had a fascination with lighting fires and I love cooking so having a fire-pit in the back garden and getting mates over is something I’ve always done. When we were younger my family used to go fishing with friends on Lough Corrib and Lough Mask, and we’d always have a cooler box full of meat, build a fire and cook our food. It was simple and looking back now that’s where I developed a taste for food cooked with fire. When we started the Big Grill people were like, “I don’t get it, a barbecue festival?” but you know that feeling when you go over to a mate’s gaff and whether you’re just having some sausages or eating expensive dry aged steaks it’s about being outdoors and talking to each other. It’s a communal thing and I think the fire really helps that.
Do you think cooking with fire is more ingrained in other societies?
If you go to the south of Spain you see boats with the asada and sardines and you can smell the oak or the olive wood they’re cooking off, so barbecues are things we usually associate with holidays. Ireland has some of the best beef, shellfish and lobster in the world, so it’s mindboggling that we don’t really have a culture of live fire cooking here. In Germany they’re big into smoked meat and in places like Sweden they’ve a huge culture of cooking with fire, even in the winter. In America it’s about smoking meat low and slow and I’d classify Buenos Aries as the live fire cooking capital of the world.
How important is the choice of fuel?
You can get extremely nerdy about types of wood and charcoal, but how it burns and turns into coal really matters. Certain woods are quite pungent and the different flavour profiles have a definite bearing on the food. Oak has a strong smoky taste and it goes quite well with poultry and beef while hickory tends to be better for pork. A friend of mine in Oxford makes charcoal from a Seville orange tree, which gives this wonderful light fruity zesty flavour. Mostly I use oak because it’s readily available and that’s how it works around the world. Each culture has adapted the particular recipes and the way they cook them based on the wood they have around them. In Sweden they use birch wood, coconut charcoal in Asia and hickory in Alabama and Tennessee.
You always have an eclectic lineup at the Big Grill. Who’s on the bill this year?
Hangfire Smokehouse, two amazing ladies from Wales, will be doing in depth demos over the four days on how to smoke meat, do rubs and make sauces. Neil Rankin will be doing a Persian middle-eastern style of cooking so we’ll be building him a giant schwarma, a stand up spit like you’d see in a kebab shop. We also have pitmaster John Relihan who was Jamie Oliver’s head chef in Barbecoa; now running Holy Smoke in Cork and André Lima de Luca, one of the best live-fire shows guys I’ve met. Mark O’Brien helped us out in the first year of the Big Grill and we’re bringing him back to cook fish and show off the skills he’s learned since become a sous chef in Barbecoa.
Beyond the cooking what else is happening?
There’s a Banter talk with Jim Carroll and three meat superstars; Master Butcher Pat Whelan, Richard Turner who runs Meatopia and the Hawksmoor steak restaurants in the UK and Peter Hannan who has a herd of beef up North and uses his own Himalayan salt chamber to produce absolutely mind-blowing beef. Under twelves go free into the festival, and it’s really nice to get positive emails every year from parents about how great the kids area is.
Drinks-wise there’s plenty to look forward to as well. Founders are doing All Day IPA, and Arquel are doing their tank beer, an unpasteurised pilsner, which is cloudy and really nice. Whiskey and barbecue go hand in hand so Jameson are doing “The Barrelsman’s Feast” which fits the vibe really well and we’ll also have delicious gin and tonics by Dingle Distillery.
What do you have planned after the smoke clears?
I’ve just opened Fowl Play in the Square Ball pub where we cook really good Irish free-range chicken over a natural fire using Irish oak and natural lump wood. We’re all about cooking everything on the fire and one of our most popular dishes is grilled baby gem, which develops this wonderful flavour and meaty consistency when you cook it. We’re also doing smoked Christmas dinner this year, where we’ll be barbecuing the turkey and ham.
I like to think what we’re doing here is developing an Irish style of barbecue, so next month John Relihan and myself are heading to Churrascada, a Brazilian barbecue festival in São Paulo. We might try to do a take on bacon and cabbage using fermented cabbage and a nice quality cured pork. Cooked over just the right amount of turf it’s delicious.
The Big Grill takes place in Herbert Park from Thursday 11th to Sunday 14th August. For details and tickets, see biggrillfestival.com.
Words: Martina Murray