I'm The Firestarter, Twisted Firestarter
What am I doing? What. Am. I. Doing? These were the words that kept running through my head as I began to slowly and tortuously pick my way through a morass of roots, sweat dripping from my brow. I had been digging for a good couple of hours and hit a brick wall. These vines, these twisted sinews, these thick gnarled organs of a pear tree long gone where just everywhere. I hacked and hacked but they just held steadfast, deflecting the blows from my spade. My strength began to sap and I nearly started crying. "Why?!!" I screamed. "Why in fucking God's name did I ever fucking agree to do this?!" But then as I slumped to the ground, falling back with my legs dangling over a 6 inch precipice, bum getting wet, a little voice whispered in my ear and oh so quietly said "Because it was your idea you silly little prick". And so began my journey into the nightmarish world of pit barbecuing.
Actually, it wasn't all that bad really and the journey had begun months ago with a jibe and a proud boast to counter it. After receiving over 30 different meals from 30 different people as part of my side project 'Where's My Pork Chop?' some of the oiks started to demand when would they get a taste of my cooking. I could have kept quiet, let the kerfuffle die down and get on with the happy business of having bloggers and other ne'er do wells cook for me but I took the bait and thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to try out an Imu (or a Hawaiian underground oven to you and me). Besides I did have plans to say thank you to everyone who has taken part and ever since reading about it in my favourite cookbook, The Gastronaut, I've been wanting to do one. So I thought, what the hell, let's get everyone over and have a party.
The concept is quite simple. Dig a big hole in the ground in your back garden if you have one, fill it with wood, set it on fire and keep that fire fed with more wood for a couple of hours. After a period when everything is roaring hot, add some other materials to the pit that will absorb the heat such as a steel RSJ that has been chopped into pieces with an angle grinder and some heatproof bricks. Keep feeding with wood. Then after two more hours, take a lamb, pig, cow etc that has had a happy life and has been humanely dispatched, season, rub olive oil and herbs all over, stuff with vegetables, wrap in wet cotton sheets, place in a cage-like receptacle* that's been covered with foil. You then carry the lot down to the pit, place receptacle in the ground on the searing hot coals, cover with soil, leave for 9 hours or so, dig back out and enjoy some amazingly tender meat. See simples.
OK so it's not quite as simple as that, there is some serious planning involved and I would suggest that if you ever get the mad urge to have a go then do refer to Stefan Gates' neat, precise, step-by-step instructions in the book. But as my ol' mate Bob used to say "the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley" and after some reflection on the whole event, I would just like to add a few provisos of my own.
1. Choose your site carefully
Forgive me for the rush of profanity at the start of the post but seriously, when I started digging and stumbled upon the roots from the pear tree that we had chopped down a couple of months previous, I landed in my own personal hell. Yes, you are perfectly entitled to say "whadyaexpect!" but having yanked a fair old stump with root system intact from out of the ground, I really didn't expect to find that many more. I was wrong. However, it wasn't only the roots that drove me to tears but also the clay soil which was heavy and sticky. At one point I really started to worry thinking that I wouldn't get the pit dug and started considering a spit roast rather than an underground oven. Luckily I persevered, more out of fear of failure than anything else and managed to rip, saw and bludgeon any stragglers left behind, leaving clear just a bed of London clay to get through. All in all, I'd say that the pit which I dug to 1 metre depth took me 8 hours. So like I said, choose your site carefully and as Gates advises, bring in some friends to help.
2. Make sure you have a fridge big enough.
For the Imu, I decided on cooking a whole lamb and sourced it through a marvelous early bird called Mark. The party was to be held on a Saturday so Mark delivered a17 kilo beast the day before and by all accounts, he found my place not via the use of sat nav but with the help of a huge crab that he thrust at me before hauling out the lamb from the boot of his car. You could say that Mark has a surreal sense of humour but the scene that followed may well have caused Dali to raise an eyebrow or two. As I carried the carcass into the kitchen, the children were full of curious excitement and demanded to know what Daddy was doing. I told them that Daddy was holding a lamb (which we named Mfannwy in honor of its Welsh heritage) and immediately they decided they wanted to give it a cuddle. Which I let them do. I tell you, watching my children hug a plastic wrapped cadaver is one of the weirdest things I have ever seen and to this day I am not sure if I should have let them. But still it's kinda educational. I then set about getting the fridge ready, taking out the shelves and whatnot. I probably could have left it on the kitchen counter for the day and it would have been fine but I was scared that the cats would make off with it. Of course, Myfannwy was just a little too big for the fridge, her dainty ankles just kept sliding out so I decided to saw them off. Telling my children that Mfannwy's feet were too big as I buzzed away with a hacksaw (thoroughly cleaned of course) also felt odd but I managed to get her in and the door shut. Some people might not be up to this gruesome task so I reiterate, make sure you have a fridge big enough.
I do have to add just one more funny episode to this part. When I was prepping the lamb and getting it wrapped up in the wet sheets that would essentially help steam it, my son piped up that the lamb was going to sleep. I replied "yes son, Mfannwy is asleep and has been for some time, look she has no head". I think this was lost on my little boy somewhat but it sent me into hysterics.
3. Honestly, seriously, consider your site carefully, I mean it.
Yes, we're going back over old ground here but there is something bigger at stake here than whinging over a couple of malingering roots. Like your house for instance. Gates states that you should really be careful as the fire will be ferocious so make sure it is well away from any other combustible materials. I ignored this at very nearly my peril. My dear old Dad turned up at 6 in the morning to help me get things started, we shifted the gazebo over to one side that had been covering the pit keeping it dry and then set about lighting the instant lighting charcoal bags that I had placed in positions beneath the bone dry wood. The fire looked very pretty at first as all fires do. Flames do have an amazingly hypnotic effect which I believe is ingrained into our psyche, a reminder of our past as cavemen. So my Dad and I were standing there, just grinning inanely before suddenly whoosh, the fires of hell were unleashed. We looked each other and then looked at the gazebo that stood just inches away and then looked at the fence panel that had already started to smoulder and then looked back at each other. I wouldn't say that we panicked as such but there was definitely a sense of extreme urgency to our reaction. God knows what was going through my wife's mind as she peered out the kitchen window and saw her husband and father-in-law running around like headless chickens in the garden, ripping a gazebo down and running around with a hose, water spraying everywhere. She was obviously pretty concerned as she screamed "what the fuck are you doing?!" I could only do that reassuring pause in front her, hold my hands up and reply "don't worry darling, it's all under control" before running off like a loon. In all fairness we did get things under control quite quickly but I repeat, seriously, if you are ever going to have a crack at an Imu, dig your hole well away from any type of fence. And definitely put that gazebo down first.
As cooking experiments go, this was certainly one of the best things I have ever done and without trying to blow my trumpet too much, I have to say that Myfannwy was the best lamb that I have ever tasted. Actually, if I were ever to do it again, I might not add so much rosemary as the oh so tender meat was a tad over fragrant in some places. And I would wrap it up more carefully too, when we hoisted the lamb out, Myfannywy's legs fell to the ground. But still I was very happy that those who came along enjoyed it. Thanks again and please keep feeding me. I might just feed you all again, one day.
You can also find some brilliant posts on the event here and here.
Myfannwy minus her dainty little feet
Look Daddy the lamb is sleeping!
A cage like receptacle
Ah pretty, pretty fire
Cutting the RSJ's
Don't mention the fire
Night night Myfannwy
Myfannwy cooked good 'n' proper #1 (photo from Meemalee's Kitchen)
Myfannwy cooked good 'n' proper #1 (photo from Meemalee's Kitchen)
Myfannwy cooked good 'n' proper #2 (photo from Food Stories)
* You can find these cage-like receptacles in most supermarket carparks. We collected ours under the cover of darkness using balaclavas and a transit van.