Jemima Nelson Winter 2020
It would be unfair to say that Tim Reeves and Nigel Tunnicliff have been around since man first played with fire, but when you look at their Blistering biographies there is very little they have not achieved or attempted in the world of al fresco cooking.
Never has the term blazing a trail been more apposite. Together with Nigel’s wife, Kate Tunnicliff, they wrote bestselling recipe book Blistering Barbecues, published back in 2004. They started selling wood fired ovens from Portugal in 2003 and that business has come full circle as today Blistering runs PRO Woodfired Ovens, described by The Hairy Bikers as ovens producing “the best pizzas this side of Naples”.
The back story is as compelling as it is varied. Tim Reeves started in the music business with Virgin Records, before setting up his own dance label, Tomato Records. A career change took him into gastro pubs and back in touch with Nigel Tunnicliff, having previously worked for Tunnicliff’s celebrated food stall at the Glastonbury Festival.
“Nigel offered me a job as an assistant chef at Lodge Catering (the high-end London caterer) where he was head chef. After two years we developed our idea to set up a specialist al fresco catering company,” says Reeves.
Nigel Tunnicliff’s CV, starting in catering aged 14, is a global culinary tour de force, while Kate Tunnicliff appeared on the BBC series Hot Chefs and has styled food for films such as The Fifth Element and Evita.
The Blistering business, based in the East Sussex village of Nutley, has cooked for royalty and pop stars, as well as massive corporate events for thousands of people and even a week-long wedding in Sri Lanka.
“We were also doing street food over wood and charcoal before the term street food was even coined over here,” says Reeves, with shacks and stalls serving cuisine from around the world, be it Vietnamese pulled pork, French crêpes, Thai noodles, or Indian curries.
Blistering started back in 1998 when Reeves and Tunnicliff made four barbecues, initially taking their business round the country in a “knackered Ford Transit”. But before long they were catering for 14,000 over two days in Battersea Park and even 30,000 guests to feed across four locations, as well as weddings and private parties – everything cooked on the grills and ovens.
“Our philosophy was always to create dishes, full of the flavour of the grills and
out of the ovens, served in a relaxed but professional way,” says Reeves, driving
the al fresco food concept to new heights, not just of quality, but scale, delivering on flavour, colour and theatre.
“We started every party with canapes, or Blistering Bites as we called them, cooked on the grills and developed tasting plates and Blistering tapas.”
They have cooked for The Prince of Wales at Highgrove and for Sir Bob Geldof’s
50th and created the 1m-high Blistering pavlova, a signature show-stopper at weddings and parties. “No we don’t cook that on the barbecue!”
As one client wrote: “What I personally love about your food is that none of the quality is lost when you scale up to 2,000 people.”
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall praised them for “the best wedding food I’ve ever tasted” and for sourcing “the finest UK products”, while Nigella Lawson booked Blistering for a summer garden party “and I long for an excuse to book them again”.
The poignancy of these testimonials is not lost on Reeves in the teeth of a pandemic, with the hospitality industry decimated and the smallest gathering outlawed by Covid rules and social distancing.
“Although the barbecues and ovens haven’t been sparked up this year, we are desperate to get back out there doing what we love with our crew,” says Reeves.
“I guess cooking outside may well be to our advantage in the long run? Who knows, but rest assured there’s plenty more smoke to come from us yet!”
So the focus for now is on the woodfired ovens. The PRO, available in six sizes, up to a 1.24m internal cooking area, and a choice of powder-coat finish, is lightweight and mobile, perfect for pizzas, meat, fish and vegetables.
“They have been used as pop-up woodsmoke kitchens, cooking the likes of paella, slow cooked brisket and pork belly. Creative chefs love them,” says Reeves.
The Sheffield oven can be installed both indoors and out, available in two sizes and self-assembled including fire wool, fireboard, chimney and cowl.
The ovens are one thing, but with the team behind them you know you are going to get a heap of recipes too, such as the woodfired white pizza – think mascarpone, crème fraiche, thyme and black truffle oil.
You even get access to the Blistering Smoky Barbecue Sauce. “There are two ways of introducing a strong smoky flavour to barbecued food. Either use smoky flavourings in your marinade, such as smoked paprika, chipotle chillies, smoked garlic, or even ‘liquid smoke’, which you can pick up easily in some delis or online,” says Reeves.
“Or, more heroically, on a charcoal barbecue introduce soaked hardwood chips to the glowing coals and intensify the flavour from the emitted smoke by placing a lid – a wok lid is great – or foil over the food,” says Reeves.
Wood-fired hot smoked Provençal mussels, wood-roast Christmas goose with apricot and chestnuts, venison steak with sloe gin – the parties may have stalled, but not the feasts. The fire never goes out and the story goes on for the kings of al fresco catering.
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