While you’re proficiently turning the rosemary and chorizo sausages on your BBQ or in my case frantically spraying water to dampen the flames and salvage what’s left, have you ever thought about what’s in the charcoal that you’re cooking with. Or given a thought to how it’s made or where it comes from?
Charcoal is made by slowly heating wood in a low oxygen environment until it carbonizes. The result is half-burnt wood that burns hot, slow and clean, hence its popularity in outdoor cooking. The best charcoal is made from hardwoods and the hardest woods come from tropical rather than temperate forests. Brazil is the largest producer of charcoal followed by Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s probably starting to dawn on you that there are a few environmental problems with charcoal. Firstly, the problem of ensuring that it isn’t contributing to the deforestation of rainforest or endangered mangrove swamps and secondly the transport miles associated with getting it here. 90% of the charcoal sold in Britain is imported and, for most of it, there is little due diligence as to the source of the wood. Many suppliers, including the Big K, rely on the assurances of the governments of the countries they buy it from.
But it’s not just the source of charcoal that bothers me, it’s also what’s in it. After a bit of research however, I’ve concluded that, unless you buy the ‘easy-light’ varieties which contain paraffin, most charcoal and briquettes contain few toxic additives. This means that buying premium charcoal is more about protecting tropical forests and achieving unusual flavours on your BBQ than about health concerns.
If you want to ensure that the charcoal you buy isn’t from endangered woodland then buy it with the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) logo which certifies that it’s from sustainably managed forests. Argos sells an FSC labelled charcoal and the Big K also have FSC varieties of charcoal and charcoal briquettes (the latter are available from Ocado).
For those of you where environmental credentials come ahead of budget then there are a growing number of British charcoal manufacturers. Not only does buying British solve the rainforest problem but it also resolves transport emission guilt – homegrown charcoal has 85% less CO2 emissions compared to imported charcoal .
One that I’m particularly fond of is the Oxford Charcoal Company which uses wood with the Grown in Britain certification; doesn’t use any nasty chemicals or petroleum products; and they have built their own kilns which have as low emissions as possible.
Another is the Four Seasons Fuel Ltd which uses coppice from West Sussex woodlands and reclaimed wood from local saw mills. Bioregional Homegrown FSC Charcoal is another worthy brand of charcoal and can be bought online from the Ethical Superstore and Sainsburys.