With the sun occasionally showing its face and gardens coming to life, many people will be dusting down their barbecue. So I think it is time to take a visit down to the woods and seek out a charcoal maker or two.
If we are honest, most people don’t give charcoal much thought; it’s black and messy, it comes in a bag and it impresses people if you can light it. Even more impressive if you have thought ahead and got it going early enough so people aren’t waiting half the afternoon before you sizzle a sausage. Plus if you keep it burning long enough to cook all the burgers then you really are a barbecue top dog
However, charcoal has been around a lot longer than our modern obsession with burnt sausages. Charcoal burners and their apprentices, known as wood colliers, have been part of British woodlands since before the Bronze Age. In fact, it was charcoal that enabled tin and copper to be smelted together to create the bronze which defined the age.
Charcoal burners were not confined to any one area of the UK, so it is not a traditional regional craft but it would have been one of the essential crafts in most areas in the same way as blacksmiths and wheelwrights. So, although it is officially outside the remit of this blog about traditional regional crafts, I am including it anyway!
Charcoal ceased to be important in the process of metal smelting when people worked out how to make coke in the seventeenth century. But it has continued to have many uses and at the beginning of the twentieth century it was still in use, predominantly in the production of artificial silk. It is still essential in water purification – did you know you can turn red wine into white wine by pouring it through charcoal? Shame it can’t do the same to water. I have also learnt through investigating for this post that charcoal tablets are good for relieving wind and indigestion. I might get some for someone I know!
By 1980 production in the UK was down to a few thousand tonnes a year and things were not looking good for the wood colliers. It is only very recently things have started to pick up. Over the last twenty years there has been a massive increase in demand for charcoal for the domestic barbecue market. But as we live in a topsy turvy world, instead of sourcing the charcoal from UK suppliers, 90% of the stuff sold in the UK is produced by chopping down the endangered rainforest and mangrove habitats of South America, West Africa and South East Asia. It is then transporting half way around the world just so we can sizzle our sausages on a sunny Sunday afternoon. You can find a fantastically detailed post on Aaron Price‘s blog describing charcoal production in Namibia. Read it and see if you still enjoy your sausage cooked on imported charcoal.
To counter the issue of imported charcoal, there has been a massive push in recent years to reestablish viable charcoal production in the UK, so that our barbecue habit can be sustained in a more responsible manner. By buying from a British supplier the carbon emissions from your bag of charcoal can be cut by up to 85% due to the transportation costs being so dramatically reduced. The local product is also far more suitable for use on a barbecue as it is also less dense than imported charcoal and so is easier to light and it reaches cooking temperature much quicker. Plus, it has a carbon content as high as 90% compared to only 60% in many imported varieties which means a better burning experience.
All this can only mean one thing – If you use British charcoal you will find it easier to impress your friends with your barbecue skills whilst also collecting brownie points for not destroying the planet for the sake of a sausage. It’s a win win situation.
You could go even further and buy your own kiln and make your own charcoal but I personally will leave that to the experts and concentrate on not burning the sausages.
Below I have gathered together some links to local producers of charcoal and related products so you can find local suppliers. If you can’t find a local supplier then the large supermarkets and home stores do now stock British charcoal – impressing Sunday luncheon guests is now within everyone’s reach!
www.bmwilson.co.uk – Blacksmith who makes charcoal kilns
www.forestryfuels.com – Beds, Herts, Bucks, Northants and Cambridge
www.croydoncoppice.co.uk - South London
www.lakelandcoppiceproducts.co.uk - Cumbria
www.dorsetcharcoal.co.uk - Dorset
www.wildwoodcrafts.com - Malvern
www.nigelsecostore.com - online supplier of Sussex based WildWood Charcoal products
www.charcoalburners.co.uk - West Sussex. Website has detailed description of the process of small scale UK charcoal production
www.fourseasonsfuel.co.uk - West sussex
www.englishcharcoal.co.uk Great site extolling the benefits of buying British, plus has detailed timeline of the history of charcoal production
www.bioregionalhomegrown.co.uk Supplier of British charcoal to Sainsbury’s etc
www.charcoal.uk.com These people make charcoal tablets for help with flatulance etc
www.fao.org Document on the future of charcoal production in Africa.
www.fao.org Analysis of trends within Charcoal production industry in Namibia
NB – If you are a UK charcoal burner and would like a link through to your website then please drop me a line.