Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Earlier this summer, each time Ken and I planned to have a cookout, the weather refused to cooperate and we were forced to cook and eat indoors. But August has turned into a fantastic summer month this year and we've been able to use the grill.

The concrete backyard BBQ grill.

We used to barbecue a lot back in California. I started out with the standard charcoal grill, but moved on to gas grills pretty quickly. The window of opportunity for grilling where we lived in San Francisco was small; no time could be wasted waiting for coals.

Here in France, grilling is also very popular. Many people have gas grills, and some, like our neighbor, have electric grills (which are great for doing up sausages). There is, of course, the standard charcoal grill. I have two: a Weber Smokey Joe that we moved from California, and a backyard bbq that we bought at a local hardware store.

My only problem has been with the charcoal. In France, you cannot find the typical American charcoal briquettes (is that a French word?). What they sell is bags of charbon de bois (wood charcoal). It's actual pieces of wood that have been burned into charcoal. The theory is that you light it and it quickly becomes a bed of hot coals, much in the same way that briquettes do.

The wood fire is almost ready.

I say theory because, while the charbon de bois gets hot fast, it also cools down very quickly, and I've not mastered the art of cooking on the stuff. Especially because I like to cook things like pork and chicken on the grill. They require low and slow cooking, and my coals end up either too hot or too cool to do the job properly.

After a few years of frustrating grilling experiences, I discovered what might have been obvious to someone more quick on the uptake than I: wood fires. In the big concrete bbq, all I have to do is build a small wood fire. When it burns down, I end up with a bed of hot coals that last through the cooking process.

The added bonus is that we live in wine country. That means there's an almost unlimited supply of old grape vine trunks to burn. All the people we know tell us that grape trunks make the best barbecues. The wood burns hot and makes great long-lasting coals, and the flavor of the smoke is greatly appreciated.

Callie brings home BBQ fuel.

And we're even luckier in that we have a dog who loves to bring old vine trunks home after her vineyard walks. She made a nice pile of the stuff for us last winter, and we're looking forward to another haul as the pruning season gets under way later this year. It's great to have a working dog!

So I'm a convert. The wood fires are easy to build, and they don't take much longer than traditional briquettes to be ready for cooking. Now, is that meat marinated yet?


  1. Great post! Looking forward to my next visit and some great BBQ! And as if it weren't enough that Callie is beautiful, she is a major contributor to your BBQ success!

    Please post your recipes for your favorite marinades... this gas BBQ'er would appreciate it!

    verifiction: tiding -- seems like a December verification to me.

  2. Walt

    While starting reading I was going to suggest putting wood in lieu of "charbon" and then I saw that you have discovered the solution at the end of your billet. That's the way we used to cook when I was growing up when it was too hot on the island. Start a fire with wood in a corner of the courtyard, and then you can "slow cook" what ever meat you want or even some exotic rice-based meals mixed with beef or lamb.

    I hope that Callie gets to partake some of the BBQ after working hard to bring in the wood :-)

  3. My sister uses wood too with her BBQ. Whole sardines are really delicious and depending on the kind of wood they use, it makes a difference. To get off subject, I saw that you have a visitor from Mongolia. Do they have a blog?

  4. I used our (gas) BBQ last night for grilled pineapple slices that I'd soaked in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red chili flakes, fresh cracked black pepper. Delicious grilled.

  5. Great post, Walt! We are looking forward to "Travels with Callie".

    Our daughter Cathy's moyen poodle pup goes to work with her every day. She is in training to be a therapy dog. So far, so good.

  6. Charcoal has gotten pretty highly evolved in the U.S. The Kingsford company (accept no substitute) offers eight different kinds, including - I kid you not - "competition briquets".


  7. Interesting, I hadn't even thought of a wood fire for grilling.

    We occasionally enjoy a charcoal grilled summer dinner. Thank god for Matchlight brand!

  8. I think in France that charcoal briquettes are seen as some sort of chemical, artificial product. A real barbecue is done over a natural wood fire. It's an interesting cultural difference.

  9. What could be more natural than charred waste from lumber and paper mills, with a little coal (yes) tossed in, soaked in petroleum distillates, and ignited?

    I will never understand the French :-).

  10. John H., how true! LOL! MDR!

  11. I would have thought the French would pooh-pooh such things as American cooking including barbecue.

  12. cheryl, yes, a bbq would be fun! We'll pencil it for... when?

    beaver, the only time we had wood fires was when we went camping when I was kid. Even then, my dad would dump a pile of Kingsford briquettes onto the fire just before the meat went on!

    nadege, I didn't notice that visitor, I'll have to back to look again.

    alewis, that sounds tasty!

    evelyn, we are looking forward, too!

    john, haha! Competition briquets! We are certainly a gullible nation.

    mark, so I'm not the only one!

    chm, I assume you're back in Paris now? What's MDR?

    urspo, ah, but you forget that France (and most of the world) cooked on wood fires and bbq'd their meats long before the invention of the Wolfe Range! ;)

  13. Yes I'm back for two weeks and then I take off again for the States this time,

    MDR means either Mort De Rire or à Mourir De Rire. Same meaning anyway.

  14. nonsense
    all BBQ originates in Texas. Every Texan I have ever met tells me it is so.

  15. RonW said:

    The only way to slow down a lump charcoal fire to get a long slow cook is to starve it of oxygen. So with your open grill as pictured, you're SOL. Google "german grill" for another take on charcoal grilling. You can grill almost anything with charcoal if you have the right equipment and by using different types of smouldering wood chips (soaked in water beforehand) you can tailor different types of smoke to different foods. It's a lot of fun.

  16. ronw, I removed your link. I do not accept advertising links here.

    urspo, well, you can't argue with a Texan. What's the point? You might get shot.

  17. Sorry, Barbecue originated in North Carolina, which existed when Texas hadn't even been imagined yet.

  18. I guess you can't argue with a North Carolinian!

  19. ....and my question is where can I get one of those really cool brick/cement open air BBQ Grill set ups like the one in your pictures?

  20. blog author(s), or is it herbie? The bbq grill is in France, bought at a local hardware store.


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