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Whether you favour bangers and burgers or tiger prawns and sea bass we (or garden designer Clare Matthews) look at how to choose the right barbecue for you.
An essential part of relaxed outdoor entertaining, a barbecue comes close to the top of most people’s garden wish list. From the portable and disposable to the stainless steel and sophisticated there are a multitude of barbecues to chose from, the success of you outdoor culinary exploits not only depends on your culinary skills but also upon choosing the right barbecue to meet your needs. There is nothing more frustrating than paying for gadgets you don’t use or trying to cater for a 20 guests on a grill 30cm by 30cm. So before investing in a barbecue sit down and assess what you really need. Among the key points to consider are: your budget, the number of people you hope to cater for, the space available in the garden and for winter storage.
With a sound grasp of your basic requirements you can go on to consider the types of barbecue available. For occasional, small-scale al fresco cooking disposable barbecues, foil trays complete with charcoal and lighter paper, are incredibly successful. They are easy to light and burn well for a reasonable length of time. They are perfect for the smallest of spaces or even a picnic, but are not for the serious outdoor cook.
Charcoal burning barbecues come in a multitude of shapes and sizes, some are built to fold away, others are on wheels, some require upwards of 2 metres of patio space others less than a quarter of that. Many boast hot plates, griddles or rotisseries and areas to keep the food warm, but before being seduced by the shining metal and gadgets it is wise to go back to what you really need and consider the basics. Look at the size of the cooking area - bangers and burgers or tiger prawns and sea bass will it be large enough to cope? Next consider the size of the barbecue itself, not only do you need space enough for the barbecue but allow room to work around it, tables to hold uncooked food, tools and marinades and for the cluster of guests who will naturally gather around the barbecue in the relaxed informality of the barbecue. It is also worth remembering you will also need enough space at the back of the garage or in the shed to store it over the winter.
Like all garden equipment the barbecue should be robust enough to put up with the wear and tear that is part of outdoor life. Look for a sturdy construction, with metal work, paint and fittings that will resist corrosion. Some large barbecues come with a cover to provide some protection, if not it is well worth buying a waterproof cover, available from DIY stores, to protect your investment. Finally check on ease of cleaning and charcoal removal. For something that will be centre stage style is a major consideration, and there are plenty to chose from, contemporary gleaming stainless steel to cheerful bright colours, its all a matter of personal taste but select something that will fits in with the style of your garden or the mood you are trying to create.
For those who find the whole process of lighting charcoal, standing in billowing smoke and waiting for the barbecue to reach the right heat just too time consuming, difficult or daunting a gas barbecue is the perfect solution. Though shunned as cheating by some gas barbecues offer controllable, consistent heat at the touch of a button, ensuring that food can be cooked to perfection. Fuelled by propane gas cylinders which are available from DIY and hardware stores, a gas barbecue offers perhaps the most reliable way to cook outdoors.
If you are a dedicated to cookery en plein air it could be worth designing your own brick or stone barbecue, perhaps as part of an outdoor kitchen. This way you have the luxury of ensuring it is tailored perfectly to your needs, the best shape, size, height and style for you. The construction need not be complex, single brick walls with a tray for the charcoal and runners for the grill will suffice, or you could incorporate areas of work surface and even storage cupboards to create a real feature, a practical outdoor kitchen. The down side of a permanent barbecue is that as a permanent fixture it constantly occupies space in the garden even when you aren’t using it and you can’t follow the sun (or shade) to another part of the garden as you can with an off the shelf barbecue. As a permanent feature a great deal of thought need to go into its design so it becomes an attractive addition to the garden rather than an eyesore, as always chose something that fits the style of the garden. Few gardens can successfully carry off an imposing range or Mediterranean style construction. One solution is to disguise the barbecue, constructing it reasonably low so when it is not in use a slatted wooden top can be added and it becomes a bench. When planning a permanent barbecue always allow plenty of space for working and for people to congregate.
Increasingly popular to take the chill off summers evenings, chimineas boast the possibility of cooking over the fire in the bottle shaped terracotta body. The reality is that for the standard chimineas it really isn’t a practical option for a full- scale meal, but a fun way to toast marshmallows and your toes at the same time! Some chimineas are adapted for cooking making them far more practical, but retain the traditional terracotta form that is so popular. A new development, the Bushman Barbecue has the same appeal as the chiminea but the added benefits of sophisticated cooking systems, the resilience to withstand a British winter, the capability to burn house coal and the possibility of customising the Burner to match your garden colour scheme, however daring, with a splash of masonry paint. The options are many; all have their merits, but relaxed, successful alfresco cooking starts with choosing the right barbecue. So take some time to pick the one best for you so you can sit back with a cool drink and enjoy.
Clare Matthews Clare Matthews Garden Design Ltd September 2002.