The origins of the BBQ

Our BBQ at the Chateau got me thinking about the origins of barbecue culture. Because humankind has no doubt been cooking meat since the discovery of fire, it’s impossible to point to any one person or culture that “invented” the barbecue method of cooking. Neither do we know when, exactly, it was invented.

No discussion of culinary history would be complete without the French stepping in to assert their hegemony. Many claim the word goes back to Medieval France, stemming from an Old Anglo-Norman word, barbeque, a contraction of the old-French expression barbe-à-queue (beard to tail), referring to how a whole animal was speared before being spit-roasted over a fire.

The Spanish word barbacoa was first used by the explorer and historian Gonzalo Fernàndez de Oviedo y Valdés (1478-1557). On returning to Europe after nine years in the New World, he published a series of books describing the course of his voyages and the customs of the peoples he had encountered. In La historia general y natural de las Indias (1535), he introduced his readers not only to tobacco and pineapples, but also to the barbacoa, a word he claimed to have learned from the Taínos, an Arawak-speaking people, who were the main inhabitants of Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba.

But just as important to this equation is asado. A practice that goes deep into Argentine’s history, when gauchos (cattle wranglers) cooked their meals on makeshift grills which were the original parrilla grills, heated by wood or coals. The gauchos took a different route: cooking over the low, even heat generated by the embers, with no direct flame touching the meat.

How does asado differ from barbecue? In the former, the cooking of the meat takes place over a slow-burning fire using quebracho, an indigenous wood which smokes very little, but imparts a wonderful flavour to the meat which is skewered on to a metal frame. This frame is known as an Asador. Food cooked long and slow, ensuring it’s charred on the outside but maintains its succulence on the inside. Locking in all that flavour. No marinading and go easy on the seasoning.

But this is all conjecture, as no one is really certain of the origin of the word. Or, did it in fact begin in the Basque Country which has a long-standing tradition of Asadors?

I’ve eaten at a number of Asadors in the Basque Country but two stand out. Firstly, one we happened upon by accident and which fortunately managed to squeeze us in: Asador Etxebarri. The setting in Axpe seems improbably flawless. It’s a tiny Basque village surrounded by green pastures and rugged, mist-shrouded mountains. The restaurant is in an old stone farmhouse next to a 16th century church in the Atxondo Valley, in the shadow of Monte Anboto, one of the highest peaks in the Basque Country outside the Pyrenees, not far from Durango.

And the food. A meal at Etxebarri is a fire-powered tour de force, an exploration of just how far simple wood and smoke and flame can be taken as a cooking technique when they’re expertly harnessed and applied to the finest ingredients. Everything is spectacular but my favourites are the blushing scarlet prawns, cooked whole, the heat of the fire steaming the sweet meat in its shell.

This is a cuisine of deep tradition, a culture of cooking with fire that stretches back millennia and that still thrives in every corner of this autonomous and culturally independent land. There is nothing to hide behind with this style of cooking. It has the capacity to surprise you using the simplest ingredients. It can make you fall in love with Basque cuisine, with its local ingredients that have been used throughout the course of history. It has particular significance right here. There’s nothing imported or influenced by the outside, a concept that seems quintessentially Basque.

I’m not alone in holding this opinion. Asador Etxebarri is currently rated the third-best restaurant on the planet, according to the 50 Best list. Restaurante Elkano, my other favourite asador in the coastal town of Getaria, is ranked number 30. Here I always have the grilled turbot, it’s divine.

Elkano, in fact, is the perfect illustration of the living history of fire-powered cooking in the Basque Country and the interesting links that this intensely local cuisine has to the Basque passion for exploration and movement. The restaurant is named after Juan Sebastián Elcano, a Getaria native who became the first sailor to circumnavigate the world. It was Elcano and his peers, the Basque sailors and fishermen of 15th and 16th centuries, who would cook their catches at sea on wood-fired grills, and who brought this practice home. Today, coastal villages such as Getaria, Orio and Bermeo continue to lead the charge of the asadores.

Much later, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a wave of Basque migrants would travel to Argentina, taking with them their txapelas (classic Basque berets) and their agricultural skills, sparking a parrilla obsession in that country. Others set sail for the US, adapting grilling techniques they’d witnessed in the Caribbean and helping create the strong barbecue culture found across the States today.

Meanwhile, returning travellers from Latin America sought to recreate the wood-fired boom in the Basque Country in the 1960s, inspiring a resurgence in interest into what had become a home-style kind of cooking, and indeed a progression in terms of fuel and technique as local chefs began to tinker with an age-old tradition. So while the Basques quite possibly didn’t invent BBQs or Asador cooking, they were responsible for its spread.

In these times of restricted movement, grilling is a style of cooking that can be enjoyed without travel; trialled and tinkered with at home. Take fire, add produce. Simples.