Wine will often play its part in a BBQ feast, but Alyson Murray’s tasting notes and expert palate are all about wood. Meet the sommelier of the forest and her Hot Smoked business partner Caroline Gresswell.
Lockdown meant we could not see the trees for the Zoom, but anyone who thinks different woods to create unique flavours and nuances is arboreal myth perpetuated by barbecue dryads and nymphs, needs to get down to Devon and meet the Hot Smoked team.
Suitably educated, I will now reach for beech for a subtle nutty taste with delicate fish, a pear fruitwood to go with some game, apple for that pork, a bourbon oak to enrich the beef, whisky oak for salmon, or a heavy mesquite for those big red meats.
Murray and her husband, David, in the early days of the internet, started a generic site called Useful Stuff, which did what it said on the tin, mainly around gadgets and kitchen and garden accessories.
“Then we bought a smoker, having tasted some amazing smoked food at the Game Fair,” says Alyson Murray. The site soon had a food smoking section, which took off and a previously maligned sector – think rubbery smoked chicken – became hugely popular, not least with the barbecue community.
“Cooking over wood has of course been around forever. Culinary techniques may have moved on, but it is difficult to beat the taste of wood-fired and -flavoured dishes.”
BBQ is an increasingly crowded, as well as exciting, space. But Hot Smoked carved out a niche, not only with its products and kits, but with its marketing and presentation. The company also specialises in cold food smoking.
“Everything we sent out was in colour coordinated twine. If it was maple wood, it had an orange bow; beech and it was green. BBQ can be labelled heavy, dirty, smoky and meaty, but the presentation was part of our mission to widen the audience,” says Gresswell.
Simplicity is key too and Hot Smoked’s kits offer techniques, tips and recipes.
Each bag points the novice in the right direction, while seducing you with the natural joy and ancient authenticity of wood – the fire’s friend and with so many species, be they subtle and light, strong and heavy, invited to the barbecue.
Murray defines hot smoking as cooking while infusing foods with wood smoke flavour.
“The process is slow and gentle, allowing foods to steam in their own juices. The results are enriched flavours, moist and tender textures and subtle smokiness.”
In 2019 Hot Smoked won Gift of the Year and the business is passionate about spreading the delights of both hot and cold food smoking, with its gifts popular retail items in the likes of farm shops, garden centres and delicatessens, as well as sold through its own website.
“There are people who say there are no differences between woods, or too subtle to distinguish. If you want subtle that is great, but we also know that mesquite is really strong (try it with spicy beef brisket), while the likes of apple and cherry and other fruitwoods give a lovely mellow flavour for more delicate foods. “
Hot Smoked serves up vegetarian and vegan recipes and wood and spice options and sustainability is at the company’s core, conscious of the value and provenance of its natural products and always looking to support small, artisan producers and suppliers.
“At one stage I think we had around 35 different flavours of woods, including the likes of gorse and heather from Scotland.”
Murray says always use pure hardwoods or fruitwoods, avoiding resinous softwoods or treated wood.
“Take care not to over-smoke, as this will mask the natural flavour of the food itself. Less is usually more.”
She suggests combining different woods for more complex flavour, such as adding both maple and apple to pork, and for a quick hot smoke effect on your BBQ just add a handful of chips to the heat source.
Hot Smoked started in a cold barn at Murray’s Devon farm – “layers of clothes and loads of fun” – before moving out and now working with fulfilment partners to allow the team to think more strategically, rather than tied up with the logistics of getting orders packed and delivered.
There has been endless recipe experimentation along the way – wood alchemy to pimp up your outdoor cooking.
“I have been known to shamelessly use my friends as guinea pigs when I ask them over for a barbecue!’ says Murray.
“The rise in interest in barbecue is extraordinary. Cooking outside is a great way of varying the monotony of cooking inside in the kitchen. Think of your garden as another room.”
Murray and Gresswell are delicately evangelical, committed to bringing hot and cold food smoking to as many people as possible, while supporting key trade partners such as ProQ and Cameron smokers.
I am reminded by my first visit to Marcus Bawdon’s UK BBQ School – friend and Devon neighbour of Hot Smoked.
That afternoon we passed round an assortment of wood chips, dust and chunks like spliffs at a music festival – smoked flavours to casually throw on the fire and wanting to eat the smoke as an aperitif, so good were the smells.
Needing my fix as I write this, I reach towards the Hot Smoked BBQ kit – whisky oak wood ‘tumbled and soaked in blended whisky for an intensive, aromatic smoke flavour’ and the ‘delicate fruitwood flavour and lightly spiced sweet smoke’ of pear wood. As for the Piri Piri hot spice – chilli, cayenne, garlic, basil and salt – there is nothing subtle there, but you learn it will work as a dry rub or added to olive oil for a paste or yoghurt dip.
There is plenty of versatility when it comes to smoking equipment too, be it smoker or hooded BBQ.
There are bespoke home food smokers, or you can fashion a homemade one from a barrel or even a filing cabinet, making sure there is ventilation for heat control and smoke renewal, while a stainless-steel smoker box protects the wood chips for a longer, mellow smoke flavour. Add chips and place straight on the heat source.
I am drawn back to the Hot Smoked recipes and ask for the wood list. Bring me a smoked mackerel with hickory or oak chips, followed by slow-cooked spare ribs, with hickory or maple chips. Maybe asparagus and fennel, or smoked halloumi brochettes – both with alder wood. Dear god, I’ve just seen smoked salted caramel apples with almond wood to finish with.
If you want another guinea pig for your latest Hot Smoked recipes Alyson, you’ve got my number. To the woods and don’t spare the ribs.
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