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Botanicals, barbecues & bees

With a growing passion for live-fire cooking, alongside her gardening and beekeeping, it was time for AMY NEWSOME to head to The Salt Box in Surrey

 Amy Newsome   Summer 2022

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It’s a baking hot Sunday last July and my garden is on fire. Bright flames are surging straight out of the soil and shrivelling the honeysuckle tendrils above, unnervingly close to the fence. I’m staring at the scene, sipping a cup of tea, just hoping the neighbours don’t think Satan has opened a portal into west London for his summer holiday. 

What’s going on? Put plainly, I’ve been binge watching Taco Chronicles and Chef’s Table BBQ and have decided on this sweltering day to dig a pib, a Yucatan pit oven, which is the pib in the delicious dish cochinita pibil. 

I’d obtained special permission from my horticulturist colleagues at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to harvest a leaf from the exact species of agave used in Mexico to traditionally wrap lamb barbacoa, which is going in the pit alongside a cochinita pibil wrapped in banana leaves. 

The fire dies down, we wrap the meat, sit it over a tray of water, insert a temperature probe, then cover with a metal sheet and soil, before sitting back/hovering nervously until it hits a collagen melting 70c+ for a few hours, giving that perfect pulled tenderness.


I’ll be honest, growing up I didn’t think much of ‘barbecuing’. We had a cute red kettle, but it was used for boring burgers and tough sausages stuffed into dry baps and flabby chicken wings that left more chicken on the grill than the bone. I didn’t have a clue that BBQ refers to the cuisine rather than the grill itself. At that age I was too busy jumping through sprinklers and stealing sun lollies out of the freezer. In fire terms, I was much more excited by the camping stove fry-ups my grandparents used to make, backs wedged into a hedgerow against the wind, on a long National Trust walk, than anything coming off the kettle, raw yet cremated, still smelling of firelighters.

I fell back in love with fire cooking around six years ago, after leaving behind a marketing job in motorcycles and luxury fashion for the world of beekeeping and gardening. I headed to the Cotswolds to learn how to grow micro-herbs and baby veg at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons, and look after the honey bees at Soho Farmhouse. 

I returned to London to study botanical horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, bringing a kotlich tripod stove to the annual student barbecue, where I boiled and charred corn cobs, slathering them in butter and dusting them with Tajin - a Mexican chilli and dehydrated lime salt. 

The kotlich came with us on a conservation ecology field trip to the Welsh Menai Strait, where I rustled up Honey & Co’s pomegranate molasses chicken wings, and I even covertly slow-cooked cochinita pibil in a wardrobe at Kew Wakehurst – don’t ask! 

Soon I was planking fish for breakfast, obsessing over beautiful single-species charcoal from Whittle and Flame, and hot smoking the Christmas turkey in my parents’ Weber. Learning new techniques, food’s botanical origins and cultural traditions, and then sharing what I’ve learned through cooking for people, is what makes me tick. These days I’m in the middle of writing a honey cookbook (published by Quadrille: May 2023), which blends the smoky craft of beekeeping, honey terroir, and bee-friendly gardening notes with 80 recipes using honey, many over fire. 

I’ve managed to combine my gardening, beekeeping and cooking pursuits into one book and my life too, as I’m now head gardener at The Garden Cobham in Surrey, a secret walled garden and hospitality destination under development, including big plans for an outdoor fire kitchen and kitchen garden, with botanical beekeeping experiences already under way. 

 

 

So The Salt Box’s Advanced Cooking Over Fire course on the Priory Farm Estate in South Nutfield, Surrey was the chance to pick up some new skills and experiment. The Salt Box was founded by Christian Armstrong and Beckie Wingrove in 2019, bringing their successful fire feasts to a permanent home in a private woodland, offering wild feasts and fire cooking courses as sustainably as possible. After a coffee brewed – naturally – over the fire, we start the day nose to the ground, learning from Christian the art of fire lighting from foraged materials, and discovering how the King Alfred’s Cakes fungus, found on dead and decaying trees, can be used to safely carry glowing embers around by hand. 


Our first dish of the day, brunch, consists of perfecting cast iron skillet work over a Country Fire Kitchen frame, by frying off smoked pork belly and wild garlic French toast with wilted greens. 

Christian demos the dish before we go to our prep stations and have a go over our own fires. As soon as everyone has plated, it’s off to the long table to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Next we smoke cured duck in a Big Green Egg before rendering the fat over the grill, serving with labneh and charred purple sprouting broccoli. 

After a brilliant quick butchery lesson from Harry Roberts de-boning a lamb leg, we plank fillets of trout and forage for herbs with Beckie, who teaches us that cleavers’ seeds can be roasted as a coffee substitute, and that you should never pick nettle leaves after they have flowered, as they produce harmful cystoliths – microscopic rods of calcium carbonate. I’ve died and gone to botanical fire nerd heaven. 

The ground-ivy we forage goes to flavour potatoes and salsa verde as a sage substitute, while the lamb turns on the rotisserie, being casually basted by Christian using a hand-whittled rosemary brush dipped into Salmuera – an Argentinian wet brine. 

In six glorious hours we smoked, charred, grilled, planked, turned and hung, thanks to The Salt Box’s diverse set up – hanging rack grills from Country Fire Kitchen, perforated grill baskets, a Big Green Egg, rotisserie over a Kadai fire bowl, and a Gozney Roccbox for perfectly leoparded 72-hour sourdough pizzas to finish; fallow deer reuben with wild garlic kimchi and garlic fermented honey anyone? It’s a yes from me. 

Christian wears his extensive cooking experience very lightly, shying away from the term chef, despite having literally been a head chef. But it’s plain to see in his faultless knife skills, delicious recipes, and knowledgeable off-hand suggestions (while our smoked duck was cured for two hours, he recommended curing pheasant for four and pigeon just one). We go in depth on the formation of a pellicle on smoked fish, and how smoke sticks in the first place, and why there’s so much more to smoking and indeed fire cooking than sweating over the ‘perfect’ brisket. 

We take a tangent into the flavours of different fire woods, and which grills are the most fuel efficient. Each of the five dishes have wild foraged twists; as part of The Salt Box’s sustainable ethos they forage responsibly from the estate around them. The food is delicious, the tips insightful, the setting idyllic, yet the day is fun, relaxed and unpretentious, welcoming anyone to get stuck in. If you’re curious about trying different methods of fire cooking, learning expert cooking tips and foraging some unusual ingredients, this course is for you.

 


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