Cooking on Hot Rocks

One of my absolute favourite ways to cook is on hot rocks. It is so simple as it requires no pans or utensils, but produces excellent results. This makes it perfect if you want to trek somewhere and cook on a fire without carrying excess equipment.

Beginning the climb
Beginning the climb

It was the perfect technique for my brother and I as we climbed a hill overlooking a beautiful stretch of the Lot Valley this summer for some wild cooking. ‘The Hill’ is a favourite spot for us because its only a half-hour climb from our house but once you’re up there it feels very remote. The only signs of life are some rotting hunting platforms in the trees with shotgun shells and wine bottles littered underneath. The firepit and benches are always just as we left them from previous trips, sometimes a year earlier. This makes it feel very isolated and creates a great atmosphere for some stone-age cooking.

Arranging rocks

The first job when we arrived was to collect enough firewood for the evening. You don’t want to be doing this in the dark and you need a decent fire burning for a few hours to get the rocks ready to cook on. Next we arranged the flattest rocks we could find so that they form a cooking platform underneath where the fire would be lit. This is your grill. Then build a big fire and wait for the rocks to get hot.

All-important beer pit
All-important beer pit

While you wait for the fire to burn down, there is an excellent opportunity to make life a bit more comfortable. We dug a small pit and filled it with ice to cool some beers. If you cover it over with some leafy branches it keeps them cool all evening. There was also time to enjoy the view which one of the best parts of the experience. You get a huge panorama of the river valley with the Pyrenees mountains in the distance and the sun setting to the west. The sky is also exposed with little light pollution to obscure your view of the stars.

View from the hill 2000

When the fire has been burning for a couple of hours and there is white hot charcoal all over the rocks, you are ready to cook. We put the larger burning logs to the side of the fire to give some light and pushed the charcoal into the cracks between the rocks. A leafy twig is perfect for brushing the ash off the rocks so they are clean and ready to cook on.

Steaks ready for the fire
Steaks ready for the fire

I love to cook steak on hot rocks. It feels right to me. A big slab of red meat which will cook quickly and be tearable with the teeth. We used sirloin that was cut to a good thickness at the supermarket meat counter. I seasoned the steaks with some salt and pepper and rubbed them with oil and let the fire produce the rest of the flavour. Lay the steak on the hot rock of your choice and cook it just like you would in a pan. A couple of minutes on each side until it is cooked to your required doneness and then rest it on a cooler rock at the side of the fire.

Steaks cooking on the hot rocks
Steaks cooking on the hot rocks

The flavour is always excellent when cooking this way. The wood and charcoal give the meat a natural smokiness and there’s plenty of heat to cook the sirloin to tender perfection. I really recommend trying this technique. It would also work with anything that needs quick cooking at high temperatures, like shellfish or sliced vegetables. If you can find a place to go where you can be away from civilisation for a few hours and give it a go, its a great way to forget about life’s trivialities and remember what’s really important – good food and good company.

 

Cooking like Ray Mears

I’ve always loved watching Ray Mears. The way he would sleep out in improvised shelters, light fires with nothing but sticks and whittle spoons to eat his wild food with his trusty machete (“all he needs in the bush”). His programmes inspired me to experiment with outdoor cookery.

I find the idea of cooking on a real fire or in a hole in the ground really exciting for some reason. I think its to do with wanting to pare back your life to the simplest elements. Its lovely having electricity, clean running water and all our other modern comforts, but sometimes I want to just light a fire and cook some meat without worrying about all the other stuff. The smells of fat burning on the coals and real wood smoke while you look up at a clear starry night are unbeatable. It may sound overly romantic but if you haven’t gone out to a field and cooked on a fire for a while, you should do it and then you’ll feel the same.

There is one clip in particular that I love where Ray Mears cooks a whole leg of venison in a fire pit in the ground. All he needs to cook is the residual heat of a fire that has burnt down for a few hours. Its that simple! Here is the clip. Look out for what he says when he sticks his head into the pit as he’s digging it up. Classic!

 

So now my turn. I thought it would be interesting (and also easier) to use a chicken brick to cook underground. That way the meat is sealed safely inside. Chicken bricks are really useful anyway as the clay doesn’t conduct heat well and therefore is great at keeping the heat in once its there, and also trapping in the all important moisture. But, you can just wrap meat in foil or some sturdy, non-toxic leaves if you can find some. (Ray always seems to find some banana leaves but I never can for some reason).

The method is beautifully simple. The hardest part is probably finding a place to build a fire and dig a hole in the ground. I went out to the woods with some friends and found a spot. Just make sure to be careful not to light a fire under any trees, and make sure it is fully out and everything is back to how it was before you leave.

Teepee fire

All you have to do is dig a hole big enough to fit your chicken brick or meat parcel. Then build a big fire in it and get it really hot and burn it for a couple of hours. At this point there should be plenty of white hot charcoal at the bottom of the pit. Take out some of the charcoal (careful its hot) with some sticks and put it to the side but leave a layer on the bottom so the meat gets heat from all sides. Then place the stuff you want to cook in the pit and put the charcoal you removed back on top.

Chicken brick in fire

Cover it over, as Ray did, with sticks and earth and moss, or anything that you have that will keep the heat in but not burn and that’s it. Wait for a few hours, have a few beers, and then dig it up!

moss covered smoking

The beauty of cooking in this way is the simplicity. Not only in the cooking method, but in the flavouring as well. I don’t like to add too much when cooking this way as the smoke and the fire will give the food a great natural flavouring, just a bit of seasoning is great.

moss covered chicken brick

The finished chicken was probably the juiciest I’ve ever had and it was falling apart beautifully. I think that was due to the chicken brick keeping all the moisture in while it was cooking for a long time. This is not easy to achieve so I was really happy with it. If you wanted to crisp up the skin, you could finish the chicken off over some really hot coals, that would also add to the smokey flavour. I didn’t get a chance though as we devoured it within minutes.

cooked chicken in brick