I am not, by instinct, a summer person. I see the benefits: the sunshine, the smell of hot pavements after rain, daylight in the morning and the evening, and so on. But the problem is that summer is, ultimately, a time best enjoyed on holiday, and that most of us have to spend the majority of it in an office. Apart from teachers, who spend it rocking back and forth and muttering things like “Class 9D, man. You weren’t there. I can still hear the shrieking …”
Our working days in the summer tend to be spent feeling sweaty, sluggish and irritable – or at least mine do. The summer months are only really any good on our days off. And the crown of the season is, surely, the barbecue.
Now, the sad truth is that, despite what anyone trying to sell you a bag of charcoal will tell you, there is no real difference between a good sausage cooked under a grill in the oven, and one cooked over an open fire, other than having to get the smell of smoke and meat out of your clothes afterwards with the latter, or being left with a great deal of washing up with the former. Taste-wise, though, the sausages are hard to tell apart.
But taste isn’t where the joy of a barbecue comes from. There’s something very satisfying about a well-cooked meal, no matter how it is prepared, but I must say I don’t exactly feel the call of the wild when I put the finishing touches to a nice ragu. When the fires are crackling beneath a couple of sausages or a burger on a open grill, however, I feel less like an everyday cook and more like a hunter-gatherer.
The other magic of barbecues, in our house at least, is that they are the only way of preparing a meal that doesn’t bring out the backseat chef in my partner. You wouldn’t have thought this to be the case, seeing as she is from the countryside and therefore closer to nature, but cooking a barbecue is the only way to split my social circle on male-female lines. The men of the group loiter by the fire, the man-in-charge turns the meat on the grill; the women retreat inside and talk about other matters.
Now, the big question, when you live in a city, is where to cook this barbecue? As readers with long memories will know, I live in a fifth-floor flat, and the council intermittently issues stern warnings about barbecuing on balconies, so that’s out. But then the council also regularly issues warning about flytipping, playing loud music and hotboxing the lift, all of which happen nonetheless with alarming frequency, so I reckon I could probably get away with cooking a few sausages on my balcony without being detected.
But instead I opt for a local park. Not my local park – which, in a surprise move, has opted to ban barbecues. (As an aside, this seems like an oversight seeing as it is home to a small collection of animals, many of which would taste great on a barbecue … what with the mounting financial pressure on local authorities, a neat sideline in barbecue-fresh goats could come in handy for the council coffers.)
No, there is another park on the other side of the borough with a special area for barbecues, though you really need a big group to do this, particularly as you will want to build a defensive perimeter against the two menaces of barbecuing in a park: dogs and other people’s children.
Something I have learnt: if someone’s dog runs off the leash and eats your sausage, the owner will be apologetic, but you will have no sausages. If someone’s child runs into your barbecue and upends it, the owner will be furious with you and you still won’t have any sausages. I recommend a reliable circle of garden furniture. They aren’t dog-proof, but they are child-proof.
If you are barbecuing in your garden, you will probably have some kind of sophisticated grill. I opt for the Bar-Be-Quick disposable variety, because I like terrible puns and because I don’t have the space for a foldable portable barbecue. On the subject of the reusable portable barbecue: I am fascinated by these devices. Who are these people who a) live in flats large enough to accommodate a device they only use a couple of times in the summer and b) have the time, energy or the inclination to use them?
The one problem with barbecuing in a park is that well-meaning passers-by will take the barbecue as an excuse to engage you in conversation about what you’re cooking and the weather we’re having. One of the reasons I am suspicious of almost everywhere outside of London is the tendency for strangers to have this kind of conversation, and I don’t approve of the way the barbecue brings this to the fore in the capital. I guess that’s another use for the circle of garden chairs.