archives

Proud Member

TexMex grill
TexMex grill

St. John’s Eve: The Ancient Irish Fire & BBQ Festival

Looks like I’ll helping out with the barbecue duties at the St. John’s Bonfire Festival at Burren College of Art. 

June 23, Midsummer Night, the shortest night of the year, is celebrated all over Europe. In the pre-Christian era, Midsummer Eve was an Ancient Greek festival called Adonia. It was the first festive day (and night) when Adonis was allowed to depart the underworld to spend six months with his paramour, Aphrodite. It was considered a time to celebrate the first bliss of new and reunited lovers. Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream used the festival’s romantic theme to drive the plot of one of the bard’s most popular plays. 

In the UK and Ireland the event is celebrated as St. John’s Eve, an ancient fire festival also known as Bonfire Night. Once a wide-spread tradition, the bonfires are now most common in the farming country of the rural West of Ireland. On this night, Irish farmers prayed to St. John for fruitful growing season.

BBQ is a new addition to the festivities, but it can’t be the first time pe0ple cooked over a live fire outdoors during a bonfire party.

Here’s a description of what went on in the Old Days:

“…old people of thirty years ago and more remembered how the fire used to be lit exactly at sunset and had to be watched and tended until long after midnight. Prayers use to be said to obtain God’s blessing on the crops, then at the peak-point of summer bloom.

Round the fire gathered young and old. There was much fun and music; a dance was started and games were played while some young men competed in casting weights or in feats of strength, speed or agility. I gathered that it was mostly women who shared in the prayers for the gardens and for good weather. Neglect in this respect might lead to a bad harvest or cause “the white trout not to come up the river” as they usually did with the mid-summer floods.

Unless the weather proved too cold, summer swimming in the river began on St. John’s Day and the observance of the festival was supposed to eliminate all danger of drowning.

…in my early youth near Knockaderry, County Limerick, I remember a curious custom repeated each St. John’s Eve. The young people used to gather from the marshy ground near the river Deel the large leaf and strong stem the hocusfian as it was called and each youth armed with one of these went around lightly striking each person that he or she met. This was supposed to protect those who were struck from illness and evil influences during the coming year. Afterwards, the hocus stems were thrown into the fire. Here, too, people threw into the fire specimens of the most troublesome weeds in the district – this was supposed to protect the fields from these weeds.

Old people told me that it was customary to jump over the fire from side to side. Some wise elder claimed to be able to tell, from the manner of jumping and the flickering of the fire, whether the jumpers were guilty or not of certain misdemeanors, such as theft or misbehavior with women.

Some people used to take the ashes from the fire then extinct on St. John’s morning to scatter them on their fields. At the close of the festival too about after midnight any man who had built a new house or had nearly completed it took from the bonfire a shovel of red hot sods to his new home so that the very first fire there would be started by the ceremonial bonfire.

About the year 1905 a very old man told me that his grandfather had told him that in his young day – in the late 18th century – the young men used to walk through the fields with lighted torches and then cast these into the fire. This was supposed to bring a blessing on the fields and protect the crops from harm.

It was widely believed that a house built on a path frequented by the fairies and other such uncanny travellers would suffer from midnight noises or supernatural manifestations. Perhaps too, ill luck in the farm or personal illness might afflict the family. One remedy for these evils was to bring on St. John’s Eve portion of the blessed fire and to build with them on the path in several places small fires which would be left burning until morning.

It was also customary that small objects of piety, such as rosary beads, little statues or scapulars, when they became broken or worn out were destroyed without disrespect by being burned in the Midsummer Fire.”

While this very-much abbreviated description of St. John’s Eve still captures this writer’s imagination, it overlooks the fact that there used to be two very distinctive fire traditions. The first was the one the old school master mentions – the large communal bonfire assembled and lit by the residents of an entire townland or village – and sometimes the whole parish! But, the equally as important tradition that he doesn’t mention is the one where small fires were lit by individual households. In contrast to the revelries of the community event, these were quiet occasions where the main concern was in observing the protective rituals. About the only merry-making one might have witnessed was younger children playing around the fire.

But, enough of the peace and quiet. Back to the fun and frolic of a community festival!

For several days beforehand, children and young people went from house to house asking for donations for the blessed fire. It was considered very unlucky to refuse. In fact, at some fires, the names of generous donors were called out and the crowd would cheer. But then, the names of the miserly were also announced and these were greeted with jeers and catcalls.

Imagine what it must have been like. Around the fire were assembled all the people of the locality – from the smallest children to the oldest men and women. As the sun set, the fire was lit. Usually, this honor was given to a knowledgeable elderly man who would say the traditional prayer for the occasion. One verse of this prayer is:

In the honor of God and St. John, to the fruitfulness and profit of our planting and our work, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Newton Castle, Burren College of Art

Local Flavors: Irish Charcoal

A year ago, while eating a pulled pork sandwich at the Eatyard in Dublin, I noticed the name “Irish Artisan Charcoal” on a steel plate attached to a barrel smoker.

Since I moved to Western Ireland in January, I have sorely missed my Texas offset smoker. And I eagerly await the day when I can ship it over. Meanwhile, I bought a Weber on Amazon.

Looking for fuel for my new Weber, I realized that instant light charcoal is about all you can find in the barbecue section of Irish supermarkets. You might get lucky and find some regular briquettes, but no hardwood lump charcoal or wood chips like you see in Texas supermarkets. 

So I looked up the Irish Artisan Charcoal Company on the internet and sent an email asking where I could buy the stuff.

Founder Colin O’Loan called me in response. Most of the company’s charcoal is sold on the internet, he said.(It’s 12.50 Euros for a 3 kilo sack and can be delivered anywhere in Ireland.)

Londis Supermarket in Kilcolgan, which is close to his house, also sells it. That was quite convenient, since that store is close to my house too. It turned out Colin lives just up the road from me. He agreed to meet me for a coffee and I quizzed him about the charcoal business.

“It all started when some foodie friends and I started meeting up at a friend’s shed for barbecue and beer,” said the head of the sales department at Irish Artisan Charcoal. (The company has two part-time employees, counting Colin.)

Live fire cooking was trending in Europe at the time and Colin and his foodie friends were on the cutting edge. “We starting getting all nerdy about barbecue,” he explained. Finding exceptional meats and interesting barbecue sauces became borderline obsessive. “One guy was a beekeeper and he brought his own honey to drizzle on the ribs for a glaze,” said Colin.

“After a while, we started talking about the charcoal itself. Instant light charcoal is loaded with chemicals and it smells awful. We wanted fuel that enhanced the flavor of the meat.”

It turned out that no one in Ireland was making and selling charcoal. Colin studied the charcoal making process and began exploring the possibility of making his own charcoal. “I was introduced to a forestry manager from Limerick and we started talking about it. He was very interested.” You don’t need trees to make charcoal, you need branches about the size of your arm, Colin said. Those kind of trimmings are refuse in the forestry industry. And forest managers are always trying to figure out how to get rid of it.

With plenty of wood available, the guys from the shed pooled their funds and imported a kiln from England. It’s not as big as industrial charcoal-making kilns. “It’s like a two meter long tube—it holds 500 kilos of timber, which yields 120 kilos of charcoal,” Colin said. The men make their charcoal out in the country near Athalone.

It’s an excellent product, I cook with it all the time. It is lump charcoal made from a blend of hardwoods and it burns hot–great for searing a steak directly over the coals. For Texas-style barbecue, I like to put a couple of split beech logs around the coals and cook roasts, chickens and the larger cuts on the far side of the grill with indirect heat–smoke from the beech logs adds flavor.

It’s the only charcoal you can buy that’s made in Ireland. But the men aren’t exactly making a killing in the yet. “So far, it’s an expensive hobby,” Colin said with a laugh.

Cinco de Mayo Q at Texas Joe’s Smoked Meats, London

If you find yourself near the London Bridge on Saturday May 5, stop by Texas Joe’s BBQ joint for a Cinco de Mayo brunch party! I’ll be signing books and hanging out all afternoon.

Moving the BBQ Smoker to Ireland

Dear Friends:

On December 31, my entire family (including Frances, the Basset Hound) will embark on a one-way flight to Europe. After toasting the “Happy New Year” aloft, we will land in Paris, hop a flight to Dublin, rent a van, and drive to Ballyvaughn on the West Coast of Ireland.

Herself

On January 8, 2018, my exceedingly talented wife, Kelly Klaasmeyer, will begin a 4-year PhD program in studio art at the Burren College of Art, which is affiliated with the National University of Ireland at Galway.

For the first 6 months or so, God willing and the creek don’t rise, we will live in Abbey View House, an 18th century stone dwelling in Oughtmama, a stone’s throw from the ruins of three old churches and an abbey from the 10th century.

The Burren in Springtime

The house backs up to a cliff of karst, part of the weird and wonderful geological formation and Irish National Park called The Burren.

Hopefully, the kids will attend school in the nearby fishing village of Kinvara. That’s where we may eventually end up living.

My cell phone number will change, so texts will be unanswered for a while.

Email: robb@robbwalsh.com or walshrobb@gmail.com

Please follow @robbwalsh on Twitter and Instagram.

And /robb.walsh on Facebook.

Forwarding address, should you wish to send Valentines or unmarked Euros:

Robb Walsh
1321 Upland Dr. #8928
Houston, Texas 77043

I’ll be returning to Texas frequently for gigs including my annual talk at BBQ Summer Camp at Texas A&M Meat Science Center. I will also be continuing my affiliation with El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, including some intensive recipe testing this summer.

Otherwise and for the most part, I intend to roam the island and the continent blogging about the emerging European BBQ scene and other good things to eat and drink. (A surprise, I know.)

Blogs:

Philosophical musings and Tex-Mex stuff: Robbwalsh.com

BBQ discoveries: here at ZenBBQ.com

Tips for food tourists in Ireland: IrelandEats.com.

Also, watch for my many upcoming articles in the world’s most prestigious newspapers, magazines and literary quarterlies. (Right?)

Above all: Don’t be a stranger!

Texas Monthly’s Top 50 BBQ Joints in Texas

Every four years, Texas Monthly publishes their list of the Top 50 BBQ Joints in Texas. I don’t envy my friend Daniel Vaughn, the Texas Monthly barbecue editor, in the period following the big reveal. The announcement is inevitably followed by mean-spirited second guessing and accusations of bribery and bias. (Just read the comments section at the end of the post!)

Here at ZenBBQ, we don’t take rankings, ratings or Top BBQ lists seriously. We are more interested in the history and culture of barbecue and its role in the world’s culinary scene. But we are apt to join in the hullabaloo following the big Texas Monthly list announcement, because, after all, arguing about barbecue is part of the culture too.

The number one barbecue joint in Texas, according to the Texas Monthly list this year is Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, a lovely little joint that serves barbecue for a few hours on Saturday mornings. This is the second time Snow’s has made the top spot on the list.

Food Network at Snow’s

Last October, in a profile of Snow’s lovable pitmaster, Tootsie Tomanetz, Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor of Texas Monthly quoted me making disparaging comments about the last time Snow’s was named number one.

Galveston-based food writer Robb Walsh wasn’t as enamored of Snow’s as most. He criticized the pick because of the short hours. “The average barbecue fan has a snow cone’s chance in hell of getting anything to eat there,” he wrote. He later elicited a quote from Kreuz Market’s Rick Schmidt, who scoffed, “Anybody can make great barbecue for a few hours on Saturday morning.”

Note that I never questioned the quality of Tootsie’s brisket or ribs. It’s the idea of leaving my home in Galveston at 3 in the morning and driving 5 hours to get to get to Snow’s by 8 am to take a chance on maybe getting something to eat that makes me think of this number one ranking as cruel and unusual. And I suspect that a whole lot of barbecue fans who attempt to visit Snow’s on Saturday mornings for the next few months will agree as they drive away hungry.

And as for Rick Schmidt’s observation, let’s consider another question. If a barbecue joint that is only open one day a week is eligible, how about a place that is only open one day a year? I am thinking about the annual community barbecues that are held across the state, of course.

BBQ Pits at Kenney Hall

If you have never been to one, check out the Community Barbecue tab on this website. The Fourth of July BBQ in Kenney is amazing and so is the Millheim Father’s Day Barbecue. Are these wonderful historical gatherings being considered in the media’s “Best Barbecue” ratings?

If not, why not?

Mopping and turning the meat at Millheim Father’s Day BBQ

Millheim Harmonie Verein’s Annual Father’s Day Barbecue
Father’s Day, June 18th
Millheim Harmonie Verein’s Dance Hall
3384 FM 949 Road (15 miles east of Cat Springs)
Sealy, Texas
BBQ 11:00 am Beef, Mutton, and Pork.
Cake Wheel, Silent Auction, Music
One of the last of the old-fashioned open pits!
Don’t miss this one!
Information: 979-877-4408

Pitmaster C.H. Shayne Carter at the Kenney 4th of July BBQ

Kenney 4th of July BBQ
Kenney Agricultural Society Hall, Keeney, Texas
(Off 36 north of Bellville)
July 4th
BBQ 11:00 am Beef, Mutton and Pork
Plates, $10 with sides and desserts

(Meats also available by the pound)
Cake Wheel, Silent Auction, Live Music
This barbecue is over 100 years old.
For info: call Keeney Post Office (979) 865-0329

Portrait of Irish BBQ as a Young Art

The Pitt Bros Barbecue Test Lab is a repurposed shipping container in the incredibly hip EATYARD, a gathering spot for food trucks and other street food vendors in Dublin. Pitt Bros BBQ restaurants has two brick and mortar locations plus the food stand at EATYARD, making it the largest barbecue chain in Ireland.


The menu at the BBQ Test Lab featured buttermilk fried chicken and fried chicken with waffles. The only barbecue on the menu was a pulled pork sandwich.

The pulled pork was smoked in the restaurant’s honest-to-god Texas-style smoker, the vendor told me.

I bought a sandwich and gave it the sniff test. The meat had no smoke aroma. And there was no juicy fat either. It tasted like dry roast pork with sweet barbecue sauce poured over top.

What brand of barbecue pit they were using, the man inside the box couldn’t say. European barbecue folks, including the Irish and the Germans, are working on their own designs for barbecue pits. They have come up with lots of innovative rigs–including the new-fangled vertical barbecue barrel that’s becoming popular with home cooks in the U.S.

To give their barbecue a fair test, the guy behind the counter insisted I had to try one of the original Pitt Bros locations. There was one a mile or so away on George Street, he told me.

I went to the Pitt Bros mothership a few days later. After standing in line, I ordered a three meat plate with two sides and was given a number to display at my table so the food runner could find me. The barbecue was served on a cookie sheet lined with paper–the Texas urban barbecue style of presentation has evidently gone international.

The pork ribs were pretty good. The beans and coleslaw were just fine too. And I have to say, the Irish custom of serving pickled red cabbage along with pickles and onions is worth emulating elsewhere. I like sweet and sour red cabbage on a barbecue sandwich better than slaw.

But the brisket was a horrible mess–badly sliced and as dry as mouthful of cardboard. As for the link–Ireland produces some great artisanal sausages, sadly this wasn’t one of them. The link was stuffed with some finely ground meat mixture that had been badly overcooked.

The menu stated that the restaurant had a custom-made American smoker. The manager wouldn’t show me the barbecue pit when I asked to see it. This is a sure sign that the establishment has something to hide. He came to the table when I requested a word with him.  I guessed they were using a pellet smoker and he confirmed my suspicion. It was a Cookshack pellet smoker he said.

The Campaign for Real Barbecue, the organization that certifies barbecue joints that cook with wood in the Southeast part of the USA, includes pellet smokers in the wood-burning category as well as units the burn sawdust. Since they are trying to challenge “barbecue” restaurants that don’t use any woodsmoke at all, the broad definition is understandable.

Pellet smokers have their fans, apparently people are winning barbecue competitions with them. But as far as I know, no credible Texas barbecue joint uses one. Texas barbecue purists are even skeptical of “gassers,” gas and electric powered smokers that use minimal wood, like those from Southern Pride. Pellet smokers are a rung below that. None of this equipment can impart the sort of smoky flavor you get with a barbecue unit that burns hardwood logs.

The interior design of the Pitt Bros BBQ restaurant was very impressive–if you take that sort of thing into account when judging barbecue. Although I have to ask: Is a barbecue joint like Pitt Bros that displays stacked cord wood in the dining room while cooking with sawdust pellets in the kitchen engaging in false and deceptive advertising?

I made the mistake of calling the menu a Texas barbecue assortment. The manager told me that the restaurant wasn’t intended to be a Texas-style barbecue venue. It was supposed to be North Carolina style. Brisket and sausage in North Carolina? I wondered out loud.

Pitt Bros was started by two Irish brothers who visited a barbecue restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina while attending a wedding. They liked the food so much, they went back several times. The menu at Pitt Bros Dublin emulates the Charlotte barbecue joint they were so impressed with, the manager said.

I sat there for a moment slack-jawed as I considered the irony. A barbecue joint in Charlotte that served brisket and sausage? That sounds like Midwood Smokehouse, a Texas-style barbecue joint created by an innovative restaurant entrepreneur named Frank Scibelli.

“Recently, Midwood Smokehouse founder and FS Food Group CEO Frank Scibelli traveled to Texas for “barbecue boot camp.” He met with James Beard Award-winning chef and food writer Robb Walsh in Austin and Houston in search of new menu inspiration.”

http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/business/biz-columns-blogs/whats-in-store/article17281256.html

It’s quite possible that this misrepresentation of North Carolina barbecue in Dublin is partly my fault. So let’s not be too hard on this earnest endeavor. In truth, I’m glad to see any kind of barbecue in Ireland. And at least they aren’t roasting pork in a gas oven, slathering it with sauce and calling it barbecue like so many barbecue joints in North Carolina.

The fledgling Irish barbecue business is on the bunny slopes of the learning curve. At present, there are something like a half dozen barbecue joints in Ireland. Pitt Bros is the most successful. Let’s hope that one of these days they invest in a J&R Oyler smoker, like the one used at Midwood Smokehouse in Charlotte, the incredible Killen’s in Houston, and all the best barbecue joints in Europe.

“European food safety authorities are never going to allow the kind of steel pits or brick pits that we use in Texas,” Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly told me after a tour of Europe. “That’s unique to our culture and its never going to translate.” The only barbecue pits European authorities are going to allow for use in a restaurant are brand name metal boxes with UL seals of approval. There are lots of barbecue units on the market, but of the ones that actually burn logs, J&R Oylers are the most popular.

The fact is, European barbecue is on the rise. Barbecue restaurants like The Beast in Paris are turning out honest-to-god barbecue using a J&R Oyler pit, Vaughn told me. Another barbecue joint in Paris called Melt also has an Oyler pit, and is looking to give the Beast a run for their money. Vaughn reports there is also authentic Texas barbecue in Denmark and Sweden.

Make no mistake: European barbecue, Australian barbecue and the barbecue of the rest of the world is the next big thing. In an article titled “Don’t Call it Craft Barbecue” Daniel Vaughn predicted the future:

The new region is the internet where ideas are shared internationally without delay. Online videos broadcast Texas barbecue techniques to Australia or Sweden or France, and the resulting barbecue creates a style of barbecue that crosses the traditional boundaries. It permeates big cities all over the world. We’ll always have our regional barbecue in the American barbecue capitals, but this new style is likely the future of barbecue in the places where smoked meats are just now taking hold.

Its exciting to witness the early days of what may someday become the Irish barbecue boom. The challenge in new and upcoming barbecue markets like Ireland is educating the public. If your customers don’t know the difference between “gasser” barbecue and artisan pit-smoked cue, you are going to have trouble getting them to pay a premium for the real thing.

I hope to be on hand when they fire up the first honest-to-god log burner in Ireland.

 

The Campaign for Real Barbecue

Open pit barbecue in Texas

My longtime friend John Shelton Reed talked me into joining his barbecue group, The Campaign for Real Barbecue. The organization started in North Carolina to combat the sinking standards there. Many barbecue joints have abandoned cooking with wood or coals and are now roasting their pork shoulders in gas or electric ovens. They serve the chopped meat with lots of barbecue sauce and bet the public can’t tell the difference.

The Campaign for Real Barbecue sends its certifiers out to identify the good guys. Barbecue joints that are making real artisan wood smoked barbecue proudly display the group’s decal on their front window.

“Real barbecue” in Texas means burning logs–maybe in an Oyler electric-powered rotisserie, maybe in a steel pit. In Texas, we still have community barbecues that use old-fashioned open pits like the kind you see in old photos of from the Deep South. Meanwhile, cooking with logs or wood coals is pretty rare in North Carolina and the Southeast–the places that do it are well-known and widely famous.

The Campaign for Real Barbecue is about raising public awareness and creating a cadre of educated barbecue fans. The goal is to promote barbecue that is actually made with some variety of wood smoke rather than an oven. And so the campaign uses a very loose definition of wood smoke that includes charcoal, cookers that use a little wood and a lot of gas, pellet cookers, and sawdust cookers.

I put off joining the organization for quite a while. Cooking meat in an oven and passing it off as barbecue isn’t really a problem in Texas. As I told John Shelton Reed, I can’t think of a single barbecue joint in Texas, good, bad or indifferent that doesn’t qualify for The Campaign for Real Barbecue certification.

But my book, Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey covers North Carolina and the rest of the South, and the book is about the loss of our barbecue traditions. So if I was going to write about the subject, I felt like I should lend my support to the campaign. The campaign is also endorsed by Calvin Trillin, the dean of American barbecue writing.

Plus they have a great newsletter.

Update: A note from John Shelton Reed:

Many thanks for writing about our Campaign, Robb. As you say, most “barbecue” restaurants in the Carolinas now cook solely with gas or electricity. Not only that, when we do have community “barbecues” — three annual church fund-raisers within ten miles of us, for instance — most of them cook with gas, too. So do the winners at whole-hog cooking contests in eastern North Carolina, where points are given for “appearance” (smoke discolors the hog).

    A sorry state of things, and not unique to us. True, the faux ‘cue plaque is at epidemic levels here, but I’ve seen cases from most other Southern states east of the Mississippi. Y’all in the Southwest should count your blessings, be vigilant, and keep us in your prayers.

Texas Whole Hog BBQ

Pozo Barbacoa

Yeehaw! Check it out!