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Brisket and Brexit

What do you talk about when you put a leading European politician and the Europe Editor of ITN in the same ‘newsroom’? Barbecue of course. Rupert Bates reports

 Rupert Bates   Spring 2021

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The headline is misleading. These men of politics and media definitely covered off the brisket bit. But the B word was restricted to matters of barbecue.

Fabian Picardo is chief minister of Gibraltar, a position the barrister and Oxford University graduate has held since 2011, as leader of the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party.

Journalist James Mates joined ITN nearly 40 years ago as an editorial trainee and is currently the news channel’s Europe editor. His broadcasting career has seen him as correspondent in Tokyo, Moscow and Washington, as well as a spell as diplomatic editor. His global assignments have covered the wars in Kosovo and Rwanda, as well as South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 when Nelson Mandela became president.

An interview aligned when, through BBQ magazine’s social media channels, it became clear both Picardo and Mates shared a huge enthusiasm for BBQ; live fire cooking with a marinade of politics was the brief.

So I tentatively raised Brexit, but was politely shut down with weary smiles which translated as: ‘We’re not going there.’ Not least because we’ve all been going there seemingly forever.

“The last time I interviewed you Fabian was just after the Brexit referendum,” says Mates.

“Goodness, that long ago!” the reply.

And with that the chief minister’s fire alarm went off. It reminded us why we there on the video call. There was Sunday lunch to cook and Picardo’s internal pizza oven was calling.

Mates sensed a scoop when Picardo informed us he was in fact a ‘pyromaniac’ but a fire starter for all the right, legal and safe reasons.

“BBQ combines my two favourite hobbies – burning and eating! And living in a climate like Gibraltar we can cook outdoors most of the year,” says Picardo, despite the restrictions of a population largely housed in apartment blocks, rather than homes with gardens.

Mates was speaking from the Italian Lakes where the family had cooked their first Christmas turkey on the barbecue, even if Mates was far from impressed with the size of the Italian bird. “But it was simply delicious cooked on the Kamado.”

 

 

Mates assumes the position of head chef in his house when it comes to live fire cooking outdoors; no mean feat considering his wife Fiona is a professional cook (www.barkplacekitchen.com).

“Fiona did most of the cooking in our married life until we discovered the Italian Lakes and we rented a wooden hut with no indoor cooking appliances. Unless we went to restaurants the only way to cook was to barbecue and that is how my passion for outdoor cooking really started and in the summer months I am in charge – or like to think I am!”As his love grew, so did his collection of BBQ equipment. A disposal grill soon gave way to a Weber, together with a fire pit, a Monolith Kamado and an Ooni pizza oven.

“I love the communal aspect of pizza making; the family tearing off dough, tossing it in the air and everyone making their own toppings,” says Mates, son of the former Conservative MP Michael Mates.

Picardo’s Gibraltar balcony is a shrine to the noble art, with his Chesney for roasting, a LotusGrill XXL, a Swiss Grill for quick gas-fired food, a kettle barbecue and a fire pit for those pinchitos, as well as the indoor pizza oven, which can be fuelled by wood or gas.

“There is a heavy Moroccan influence to our BBQ food in Gibraltar, so a lot of cooking with spices. After all, we are only across the water from Morocco and also have a lot of Moroccan butchers,” says Picardo.

“You know the barbecue season is in full swing, when the shelves are clear and, on the beach and the balconies, wood is burning and meat is smoking.”

Picardo loves the flavours he can elicit from different smoking woods. “It is a family joke the amount of wood I store and cooking tools I have, as if planning for an apocalypse!”

The Italian Lakes, where Mates has a holiday home, is a place of great beauty, but not exactly a hotbed of BBQ culture with wood, not to mention large turkeys, in short supply.

“I have been lucky on my travels to experience cooking cultures from around the world and when abroad with Fiona food becomes a massive part of our journey, always trying different markets, restaurants and styles,” says Mates.

“Fiona cooked in a Japanese restaurant for a while. Their open-fire cooking is fantastic, as it is in many parts of Asia. I’d love to go back and experience more of it.”

Both Mates and Picardo are passing on their enthusiasm to their children, even if,

as hero dads around the fire, reluctant to concede the tongs and apron just yet.

“Preparing a Sunday roast on the Chesney brings a whole new dimension to the family gathering. We love it,” says Picardo, as he pops out to check on his latest feast.

Mates says the Kamado style of cooking has transformed his cooking, allowing him to control the heat and maintain the fire over long periods for the likes of low and slow briskets.

“I cooked ox cheeks for around seven hours and, even if I say so myself, they were exquisite. I love to explore different techniques.”

I suggest that Brexit has also been a low and slow cook, but they are not buying it, so it is back to food and fire.

“Cooking is a wonderful distraction from work though. You can’t think of anything else and it occupies me completely. Yes, politics is always there at the back of your mind, but the cooking has my full conscious attention and is very relaxing. There is a primal element to it too,” says Picardo.

Mates finds live fire cooking ‘visceral’.

“I totally switch off from work. You are in the moment, reacting to what you see or what appears to be happening. It is all-consuming, but so much fun as I go full-on man, meat, fire.”

Vegetables too and both immerse themselves in the delights of charred vegetables, be they leeks, broccoli or cauliflower. I throw in Brussels sprouts, but again no Brexit bite.

We joke about how charred is now the acceptable ‘cheffy’ word for burnt, although Picardo swears by his MEATER, the wireless meat thermometer, smart cooking to take your food’s temperature.

As for their last barbecue on earth, with no fitness or health to worry about, Picardo would go full-bore carnivore with a suckling pig, a T-bone steak and some Spanish stew. Mates chooses smoked mackerel, followed by a rib of beef. “Can I throw in a rack of tender pork ribs too please?”

With that, it was time for the next meal – not the last meal. Sunday lunch called, louder than Picardo’s alarm, as smoky meat flavours wafted through the computer screen from Gibraltar, Italy and indeed England. Forget Brexit; this was Europe united by a common flame.

 


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