This weekend coming, with all its autumnal ambience, represents the foodie’s final outdoor “fling” of the year; eating by the bonfire warms the cockles and the taste buds before we retreat to the Aga and stay there until spring.
But Jamie Oliver, for one, won’t be swapping his mittens for oven gloves any time soon. He has decamped to the garden, and until further notice will be setting off all his culinary fireworks outdoors.
Anyone who has followed his adventures on television will know that Jamie comes to life in the fresh air, fizzing and frothing as he flings herbs into a campfire cauldron or puts an antique “spit” back into action with the excitement of a boy with a catapult. Wood smoke got in his eyes at an early age, he tells me.
“My first outdoor cooking memories are full of erratic British summers, Dad swearing at a barbecue that he couldn’t put together, and eventually eating charred sausages, feeling brilliant.
“At this time of year we’d be digging a fire pit, putting apples on stakes, dipping them in water, rolling them in sugar and caramelising them to make toffee apples, and cooking fish in foil and all that stuff. It always felt like an event, and even with my naive palate I knew that pretty much everything tasted better from fire – I just didn’t know why.”
Since then, of course, our culinary culture has leapt forward, and with the way the nation has embraced al fresco cooking in recent years – from the rise of “super barbecues” to the return of hog-roast wedding feasts – Jamie thinks it’s only a matter of time before it becomes an all-year-round activity and we’re forecasting not only “barbecue summers” but wood-oven winters too.
Now, if we had a penny for every time our Jamie got fired up about something, we’d all be as wealthy as… well, a celebrity chef. But his relationship with wood-fired ovens, what he calls his “geeky passion project”, is a long love affair that has its roots in the trips he made to Italy as a young chef at the River Café.
“What we call barbecuing in this country is actually direct grilling,” he explains. “In many countries, it also means cooking in an enclosed box with a heat source, ideally wood, all year round.
“It’s a bit new to us Brits, but in Italy every class of person has one. They get intensely hot very quickly, which allows you to cook fast, and the thick dome retains heat long after the fire dies, which allows you to cook very slowly. They’re magic.”
Historically, huge versions of these dome-shaped ovens were used to feed whole communities in Italy and Spain. Now they are creeping into culinary hot spots and top-end pizzerias, and “wood-fired” anything is the order of the day.
Unlike a domestic oven, which gets very humid, the heat that builds up in the wood oven’s dome is “dry”, so can create that light, crisp pizza base (in minutes) that tastes like a holiday. Jamie cooks everything, from bacon to bread to roasted vegetables and stews on his, building up the fire during the day or leaving it to cool, letting the residual heat slow-cook a joint of meat.