On a lovely sunny Thursday morning I was invited by Jonathan Jones from Tregothnan to come with other food writers and local producers to see how Tregothnan make their super British charcoal. As we are heading towards BBQ season it seemed a perfect opportunity to go and see how this vital ingredient of the British summer is made.
The charcoal is made in Mereworth, Kent which is great news for me as it is a mere hop skip and jump down the road. Here they coppice around 50 acres of woodland a year and use some of that to create their charcoal with the rest being sold off as logs or into the timber trade for furniture.The wood in the charcoal is all hardwood (mainly a mixture of oak, chestnut and birch) and has absolutely no chemicals or additives, giving a clean BBQ experience. Once felled it is seasoned (left to dry out naturally) for about 18 months depending on the wood variety and is then packed into one of two huge retorts. They are sealed and then heated to push out the moisture in the wood, leaving you with high quality charcoal. Once it is cooled it is graded and packed with nothing going to waste. These guys have a use for every last part of the tree and show great respect and care for their surroundings and the product they make.
To give us a demonstration of just how good the charcoal was we were treated to a lovely lunch cooked by the Charcoal Champion Chef – Mark Parr from the London Log Company using beef from Phillip Warren, which I must admit was possibly the best beef I have ever eaten from a grill. He explained to us that almost all of the charcoal which is used in the UK is imported from South America and is normally left quite hard so that it travels the long distance well without breaking into chunks too small to use. This means that you have to burn it for much longer before it is ready to cook on and inevitably need to use some sort of chemical firelighter to get it going. The benefit therefore of UK made charcoal is that they can create a slightly more brittle product but one that then doesn’t need anything more than a match to get it going, giving a purer flavour and no danger of putting firelighter chemicals into the food.
We were introduced to the Head Collier, Jamie Sutton who explained that the wood used was coppiced from the surrounding woodland. This is essence is planting maiden trees, leaving them for up to 10 years and then felling them in a certain way to leave a stump from which multiple new trunks can grow. The new trunks are left for anything up to 20 years (depending on the variety of wood) and then felled to allow the process to start again. This gives really good yield for the ground space used and also creates great habitats to support the local wildlife.
Although it is unlikely that we could ever be completely self sufficient for our charcoal needs, British made charcoal should be something which everyone tries to look out for. You can find the Tregothnan bags available online here or you may find it in your local supermarket if you search hard but check that it really has been produced here and doesn’t just carry the union flag! There are lots of people up and down the country doing this so if you can’t get hold of Tregothnan please try to find your own local charcoal producer. It can make all the difference in the flavour of your BBQ and what’s more you will be supporting local industry as well as protecting habitats for local wildlife.