Cooking al Fresco With Aldi

We have a thing about cooking out of doors. In my case, I think it may go back to early experiences of sausages charred at the end of sticks in my “den”. Everything tastes better and smells better in the fresh air.

I’m a veteran barbecuer, using an old faux Weber that is now falling apart, fuelling it usually with lumpwood charcoal. I’m fond of doing a butterflied leg of lamb this way.

So, when Aldi (with whom I’m connected on the wine side) advertised a pizza oven for €139.99, I reacted like an old war horse getting a delirious whiff of cordite. We had to have one.

Johann, who is blessed with much more patience than I am, assembled the beast and assures me that it was pretty straightforward. It took 55 minutes, she says, in an unhurried and cautious approach.

Our first firing was fuelled with lumpwood charcoal (from the Irish Artisan Charcoal Company) which I got going with a bit of white spirit. Yes, I know that’s probably not a great idea but it sure worked.

Within a few minutes the temperature had soared to 400ºC but it dropped fairly rapidly as the charcoal settled down. Our first pizzete went in at about 275ºC and was very good indeed: thin, crisp, nicely smoky. They took about 4 minutes. A few more handfuls of charcoal, given a few minutes to get going, brought the temperature back up for a couple of little calzoni which, again, were good and took about 6 minutes.

After this, we let the temperature drop as we cooked two thick organic pork chops (from the Rhug Estate in Wales), having taken out the pizza stone. My main concern at this stage was that we would get the kind of flare-up that is the scourge of barbecuing, the sort that covers your meat with a thin, black, greasy grime. But not a bit of it.

 

The delicious pork fat dripped away, burnt at a high temperature and delivered a pleasantly smoky flavour. The crackling crackled (I placed the chops briefly on their sides) and the meat remained perfectly moist and delicious. This was not simply due to the cooking process, to be fair, but also to the excellence of the pork.

Next day we changed fuel and got an inferno going using short lengths of very well seasoned conifer wood that we usually use for starting the stoves in the house. This delivered more heat more consistently than the charcoal and topping up yielded quicker results.

Indeed, the pizzette we cooked at 350ºC (approaching the Neapolitan ideal) did in about 2 minutes and the bases, while crisp and delicious, were perhaps a little too scorched for most people.

As the temperature dropped towards 250ºC we again removed the stone and placed a spatchcocked chicken (marinated by Johann in Middle Eastern spices) on the grill. It cooked – just about – in 15 minutes and remained most. The occasional fat drip – plus a little basting with melted butter – resulted in a delightfully smoky taste.

Our final test was a Côte de Boeuf over ash and a little oak. It wasn’t an actual C de B as there was no rib-eye on the bone available that afternoon in Tallow, but we happily settled for what was, in effect, a very, very thick t-bone for two.

This could have been a disaster. The wood, very dry and more sticks than logs, went up in a dramatic conflagration throwing out heat like there was no tomorrow. The thermometer literally went off the scale, far north of 400ºC.

When the fuel had calmed down and the oven temperature had dropped to a mere 300ºC I decided to put in the beef. Now the beef had a fine proportion of fat to it and at this kind of temperature it started rendering very rapidly. In no time, black smoke was billowing from the chimney and only rapid thinking saved the meat and, possibly, the oven itself.

We shoved the glowing embers right to the back and pulled the meat forward. The shower of molten fat still ignited but not in a way that would actually carbonise the meat; occasionally I poured in a little water to douse the more ambitious flames.

When it seemed done, we took it out, let it rest for about five minutes on a Bunbury board and then started slicing. It was not rare; it was raw. Nicely charred and crusted outside, but still pulsing inside.

Back it went into the oven which by now had dropped to a balmy 250ºC for five minutes, whereupon it emerged delightfully just on the blue side of rare. It was juicy, smoky, full of taste (14 days aged Hereford, as it happens, from Bart O’Donoghue in Tallow) and we added to the general decadence by anointing it with truffle butter (the truffle having been spirited home from Borough Market over the weekend). Oh yes, there were Home Guard new potatoes from the polytunnel and a simple green salad. And a bottle of Chateau Liversan 2012, very blackcurranty and, as always, one of those crus bourgeois that are designed to be consumed young.

Is the Aldi pizza oven a good investment? It certainly delivered fun and good cooking over the few days we’ve had it and I think I may have abandoned the barbecue for good. I just hope it will cope with the heavy use we expect to be giving it.