I was prepared for a Lord of the Rings vignette when Frodo sets eyes on the mysterious figure of Aragorn, with cloak and pipe, in the corner of a village tavern.
But it was not a ranger of the north I sought, but a ranger of the woods – Lord Logs. I was not in middle-earth but Quo Vadis. ‘Whither goest thou?’ To Soho and a former brothel now grand restaurant dame of Dean Street.
Mark Parr does wear many cloaks – most of them green – and the back of his van is a Mr Benn’s wardrobe depending on where his business takes him.
The nickname Lord Logs does not come from his position as a leading woodsman in the land, cutting timber and fashioning charcoal for the finest restaurants, festivals and homes – knowing every nuance of each log supplied, with the nose of a master sommelier.
No, the name has a far more prosaic origin. Returning to East Dulwich, having visited a landed estate in Kent, clad in his disguise of moleskins, check shirt, tailored waistcoat, old Barbour and tweed flat cap and carrying a shooting bag of receipts and driving a Volvo estate, saw him dubbed Lord Logs.
“I enjoyed the title and deception – for a greater part of it, the art of being hidden in plain view – although deep in rural Kent in a yard of applewood my cover was blown. I still have Lord Logs hanging up as an alter ego when needed!’
We pulled up chairs closer to the fire with the hearth framed by two baskets of logs. This was no set up, but Parr could not resist studying the texture and aromas of the wood. It’s not second nature; it’s first nature – at one with nature.
The conversation drifts onto printmaking, the Peter Pan book illustrations of Arthur Rackham, working with Cath Kidston, the art of Grayson Perry, and a shared admiration for the watercolours, ceramics and wood carvings of Eric Ravilious.
Pretentious talk in a London private members club? Far from it. Parr does not have a pretentious bone in his body. If he did, it would probably be bone marrow with Roquefort butter, caramelised onions and black truffle mayonnaise.
As a child growing up in Arundel in West Sussex on the South Downs, Parr used to cycle through the Duke of Norfolk’s estate.
“And there was a man called Les making charcoal in the woods. I was drawn by the peaty smell and used to stop, observe, listen and learn,” says Parr.
Even his school had a sylvan setting and, as an asthmatic, the fresh woodland walks cleared the lungs.
“I have the patience to watch trees grow. I love to be outside. It is so good for mental health – the rhythm of seeing the light come up and go down.”
The woods also informed Parr the artist and printmaker, with tableaux in his head and the palette to stitch together the pieces in-between.
Parr went to the West Sussex College of Art in Worthing, helping to pay for it by working for a tree surgeon. Art was a passion, with Bauhaus his movement, but he was also in love with food.
A spell in an international school in Belgium and he realised he was as obsessed with the fodder as the locals, whether it was roasting hogs, medieval-style, or watching vans flogging steak hache in the streets.
“I started cooking aged 12 and read lots of cookbooks. I love the alchemy.”
His wood merchant career began when stripping bare his home in south-east London and unearthing original fireplaces.
With a young family, he couldn’t afford to put central heating in, so he started chopping logs – lots and lots of them – in the front garden.
Far from unnerving his neighbours as he swung an axe in a Crystal Palace residential area, they were fascinated and were soon asking Parr to supply them.
“The best margins were on kindling wood. We broke down pallets every Saturday”.
And so London Log Co was born 17 years ago and now woodshed HQ is in Bermondsey, with an axe appropriately built into the logo.
Wood branched out to charcoal and nine years ago Parr started supplying to restaurants, literally fuelling the live fire cooking that is igniting the culinary scene in London and beyond.
The restaurant work kicked off when Parr was chatting with Lee Tiernan, then head chef of St. John in Clerkenwell, now of Black Axe Mangal in Highbury, north London.
“I come from a family of engineers. We like to take things apart and I’d started to turn old fridges into smokers and Lee was an early client.”
Parr was a regular in St. John, lapping up both the ambiance and the cooking techniques and the printmaker learnt that Tiernan had a tattoo of an ancient map of Clerkenwell. No wonder they got on.
Parr then met another master of live fire Tom Adams of Pitt Cue and word – and wood – quickly spread.
If this all sounds rather fortuitous, it wasn’t. Parr studied the restaurant scene forensically, watching how other suppliers – be they butchers, fishmongers or market gardeners – delivered their fresh produce to confined spaces in busy streets. “I have a fair collection of parking tickets!”
The logistics of logs is not straightforward, but the principle is simple. Parr knew
wood was a vital ingredient with unique characteristics, not just a fire-starter – be it applewood for pork, silver birch for beef.
“Cooking is regional for a reason. History tells us you use what is to hand. The vines of Bordeaux, so vine wood for Entrecote Bordelaise. You start on your own doorstep and English food pulls on so many global threads. That’s why [French chef Auguste] Escoffier came to London.”
The rise of live-fire restaurants and outdoor cooking at home means anyone from the enthusiastic amateur through to geeks and hall of flamers look to embrace the right fuel, complementing flavours, adding aromas, for live fire is nothing without smoke – the purity of smoke as an origin of cooking.
Parr says sustainability in terms of charcoal production and woodland management should be a given, not to mention treading with a light carbon footprint.
“You should only harvest what you can maintain. Cropping programmes, species, volume and traceability are all so important.”
As a rule of thumb, 100% of wood will create 25% of charcoal. Parr will source his timber locally, identifying densities and burn values, curing and seasoning and insisting on knowing the provenance of every log.
Parr exudes Englishness in so many ways, but embraces live fire cooking and fuel from around the world.
He’d kill for Billy Durney’s smoked ribs from Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn; Francis Mallmann, open fire legend of Argentina, is another hero.
Spain is a favoured destination; not least as this is where Parr sources his holm oak wood, with many trees up to 400 years old and grown mostly in dry-stone walled pastures.
The wood is hard, dense and aromatic with a long burn and harvested through coppicing. “They would never dream of felling living trees,” says Parr – not least because the trees drop the acorns that feed the pata negra pigs that become jamon iberico.
“The fire and the fuel for that fire is the last part of a beast’s journey. That is why it is important to get it right. Wood, like wine, has terroir and provenance.”
Parr is distracted. He just has to look at the logs feeding the Quo Vadis fire. Never mind talking to the trees; the trees talk to Lord Logs – the wood whisperer.
We are back in Tolkein’s middle-earth; perhaps more Fangorn than Aragorn – or rather Treebeard. I think I’ve just assigned Parr another nickname. I’m sure he’ll happily wear it.
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