Alfresco eating in Britain has traditionally been a chilly affair. It is not just the vagaries of the weather that mean we are rarely seen eating outside without a cashmere sweater to hand; our staple victuals, at least for most of the past century, have also been cold. Salmon and champagne have been stalwarts, but cold roast beef, coronation chicken, summer pudding and chilled white wines have all played their part in establishing open-air entertaining as an elegant but temperate pleasure.
At least, that was the case until the turn of the century. It may have been an unforeseen consequence of global warming, or our increasing internationalism but, for whatever reason, the well-bred Briton has now embraced the barbecue for special occasions. However, no amount of sophisticated marinades and long-handled tongs can hide the fact that, as a nation, the British are not at their best at the charcoal face, particularly when catering for large numbers.
This state of affairs has not gone unnoticed by Mark Henriques, an Old Etonian caterer and probably the school’s first pupil to have requested that his tutor teach him to cook. Henriques decided that there was a better way for the British to barbecue and for the past decade he has been experimenting with cremating meat in grand style.
He has, for example, spent 24 hours cooking a hog using a handful of rotating coals and a large cardboard box, roasted a flock of sheep over a bonfire and towed home a 6ft-high rotisserie from a French street market. And now he has marshalled his extensive knowledge of fire and flesh to design, with the help of his engineering brother Jack, what he claims is “probably the world’s biggest barbecue” (almost inevitably, a company in Texas also lays claim to the title).
“It can cook four lambs at the same time,” says Henriques. “It can manage a couple of pigs, probably a cow and certainly 200 burgers and still have space for a spatchcock chicken or a couple of butterflied legs of lamb.”
It was the wet summer of last year when this Heston Blumenthal of the burnt quadruped decided that he was fed up with cooking in the rain. “Cooking a lamb is a nine-hour process – two hours to get the fire going and seven hours’ cooking time,” says Henriques, who has turned a remote 18th-century Cotswold barn in Gloucestershire, called Cripps Barn, into one of the premier party and wedding venues south of Birmingham.
“I have had to judge the weather very carefully. When I thought it was going to be wet, I would do a barbecue in a nearby open-sided corrugated iron barn. But unfortunately, that meant that unless guests made a special journey from the main barn they couldn’t see it cooking – which is part of the enjoyment of a whole barbecued lamb. What I wanted, I decided, was a weatherproof way of cooking meat in front of the guests.”
The result was a decision to build a barbecue with a roof. But it was to be no kettle drum with a hat on. Rather, it would be a stove the size of a garden shed.
Mark and his brother Jack drew up plans for the 10ft-wide grill with removable sides and back, which would have a steel basket of fuel – either logs or charcoal – running along its back. The four adjustable flat-topped steel coal trays would be raised and lowered by car jacks and the four removable steel crucifixes, each capable of holding a lamb, were arranged in such a way that they could be tilted towards the fire and could also be moved backwards and forwards.
“It is unique,” says Henriques. “The idea of using a jack to raise and lower the coals rather than raising and lowering a cooking grid is my brother Jack’s trademark on his bespoke BBQs and, even with a grill that is heavy with meat, it gives one infinite control. The lambs on the crucifixes are cooked by a combination of radiant heat from the rear brazier and rising heat from coals in the trays below.”
The barbecue, christened the Cripps Barbecue, weighs almost a ton. It is on castors, which allows it to be turned away from the wind if necessary.
Its success has encouraged Mark and Jack, who are currently working on an even larger 16ft-wide barbecue, to market the bespoke stove. The “small” (four-lamb) version is expected to sell at around £10,000 and each one will be made in consultation with the client.
“My original idea was to sell the barbecues with branding irons featuring the crest or initials of the owner,” says Henriques. “Unfortunately, the idea still needs work. The searing wouldn’t be seen on cooked steaks. However, it might look impressive on big carcasses.” Furthermore, the fancy searing and Cripps stove might put some credible heat on the Americas (North and South), the Antipodes and the rest of the griddling great and good.