I’ve always loved watching Ray Mears. The way he would sleep out in improvised shelters, light fires with nothing but sticks and whittle spoons to eat his wild food with his trusty machete (“all he needs in the bush”). His programmes inspired me to experiment with outdoor cookery.
I find the idea of cooking on a real fire or in a hole in the ground really exciting for some reason. I think its to do with wanting to pare back your life to the simplest elements. Its lovely having electricity, clean running water and all our other modern comforts, but sometimes I want to just light a fire and cook some meat without worrying about all the other stuff. The smells of fat burning on the coals and real wood smoke while you look up at a clear starry night are unbeatable. It may sound overly romantic but if you haven’t gone out to a field and cooked on a fire for a while, you should do it and then you’ll feel the same.
There is one clip in particular that I love where Ray Mears cooks a whole leg of venison in a fire pit in the ground. All he needs to cook is the residual heat of a fire that has burnt down for a few hours. Its that simple! Here is the clip. Look out for what he says when he sticks his head into the pit as he’s digging it up. Classic!
So now my turn. I thought it would be interesting (and also easier) to use a chicken brick to cook underground. That way the meat is sealed safely inside. Chicken bricks are really useful anyway as the clay doesn’t conduct heat well and therefore is great at keeping the heat in once its there, and also trapping in the all important moisture. But, you can just wrap meat in foil or some sturdy, non-toxic leaves if you can find some. (Ray always seems to find some banana leaves but I never can for some reason).
The method is beautifully simple. The hardest part is probably finding a place to build a fire and dig a hole in the ground. I went out to the woods with some friends and found a spot. Just make sure to be careful not to light a fire under any trees, and make sure it is fully out and everything is back to how it was before you leave.
All you have to do is dig a hole big enough to fit your chicken brick or meat parcel. Then build a big fire in it and get it really hot and burn it for a couple of hours. At this point there should be plenty of white hot charcoal at the bottom of the pit. Take out some of the charcoal (careful its hot) with some sticks and put it to the side but leave a layer on the bottom so the meat gets heat from all sides. Then place the stuff you want to cook in the pit and put the charcoal you removed back on top.
Cover it over, as Ray did, with sticks and earth and moss, or anything that you have that will keep the heat in but not burn and that’s it. Wait for a few hours, have a few beers, and then dig it up!
The beauty of cooking in this way is the simplicity. Not only in the cooking method, but in the flavouring as well. I don’t like to add too much when cooking this way as the smoke and the fire will give the food a great natural flavouring, just a bit of seasoning is great.
The finished chicken was probably the juiciest I’ve ever had and it was falling apart beautifully. I think that was due to the chicken brick keeping all the moisture in while it was cooking for a long time. This is not easy to achieve so I was really happy with it. If you wanted to crisp up the skin, you could finish the chicken off over some really hot coals, that would also add to the smokey flavour. I didn’t get a chance though as we devoured it within minutes.