Food is my favourite way of bringing together friends and family. There is something primal about the act of sharing of food with people that helps to create lasting bonds.
Fire pits have been used as a method of cooking large quantities of food since human history began.
They are still used today in some traditional societies.
You may well own a perfectly good fan oven. But if you have lots of mouths to feed, and want something sociable to get your friends and family working together, a traditional fire pit is an amazing way of cooking.
An earthen oven, created with hard labour, and used to produce mass amounts of steaming, beautifully flavoured food, with very minimal equipment.
A firepit will produce a very hot, even, cooking temperature, for many hours. Because it is sealed from air ingress, and usually incorporates green vegetation to protect your meal from burning, it also generates high humidity in the cooking region. This keeps the food from drying out, and seals in added flavours.
The lack of equipment needed also makes it hugely cost effective. If you are baulking at the cost of hiring someone to do your hog roast, maybe you just need to grab a spade!?
All types of meat and vegetables lend themselves to this fantastically paleolithic cooking style. From Native American style Clam Bakes, to Polynesian Feasts incorporating whole pigs, it is really only limited by your imagination.
For our latest gathering we got the local farmer to deliver a lamb. Grass fed, and raised merely spitting distance from the cooking spot. It would feed all of us, and then some.
Find a safe spot to dig and burn, then excavate a suitable sized pit in which to site your feast. It will need to be at least a foot bigger in all directions than whatever you intend to place in it, and deep enough to ensure most of the earth can go back in and seal up your oven.
Next, create a large fire in the pit. You want to end up with lots of smouldering embers, so hard wood like Oak or Ash is best and most cost effective.
While the fire burns down, prepare your food.
We halved the lamb, then removed the hind leg and fore limb from the carcass, and placed them inside the rib cage. This is not essential, but hugely reduced the length of pit we needed to dig!
This was then rubbed generously in a mix of olive oil, garlic, red wine, sale and rosemary, with some whole garlic cloves and shallots placed inside the body cavity as well.
To keep this as traditional as possible, we soaked hessian sack in water and red wine and used this to tightly wrap the lamb. Tin foil would work also, just ensure the opportunity for ingress of earth is minimised.
In order to hold temperature, hot rocks are used in the fire pit around the meat. These can really be any large chunks of stone you can lay your hands on. We found two large pieces of sandstone that fitted nicely in the bottom of the pit, and several old brick with which to line and cover the meat. We placed these in the embers and re-fired the pit to get them red-hot.
Once you have embers and hot rocks, lay a thick layer of green vegetation down on the bottom of the pit to protect the meat and humidify the oven. Place your cooking parcel on top, then sandwich it again with another layer of vegetation. Arrange the hot bricks or rocks around and on top of this, then cover it back up with earth.
Calculating the cooking time is not precise, but because of the humidity in the oven, overcooking is less of a problem. The meat will just continue to tenderise. A fire pit created in this way can stay hot for days, so err on the side of caution and open it back up when you feel sure it is ready. As a guide, half a lamb, weighing roughly 20 kgs, was falling apart after 5 hours in our firepit.
With optimistic excitement, open back up your fire pit, carefully lift out the food, un wrap and serve.
As a centre piece for a celebratory feast, or gathering of family and friends, this really takes some beating!
We served with a spicy bean stew, cooked on the dutch oven and sweet potatoes charred in the fire embers.
Obviously, waiting for a meal to cook in this way creates ample social time. In this instance, liberally lubricated by a variety of real ales and ciders.
The finished result was local lamb, saturated with garlic and rosemary flavours and so tender it required little chewing. Everyone ate their fill, and it made for amazing eating the next day as well.
The only equipment needed to do this was a suitable patch of earth, a spade and some rocks. Next time you need to cater for lots of people, or have a gathering with your fellow Men, why not speak to your local butcher or farmer, then get digging!
Not only is it a very economical way of feeding everyone, the process of cooking in this method creates a social event in itself!