Summer is the perfect time of year for barbecues – although with Melbourne weather being what it is, you're either beating off mosquitos after a stinking hot day, or huddling around the ashes for warmth. We were doing the latter when we had friends over for dinner recently. There we were, all of us with jumpers on, seven sets of hands hovering over the grill of the barbecue, talking about the weather, about the merit of holes in charcoal beads, and the weather again. We’d just polished off an indecent amount of meat and two bottles of wine. We tried to balance this out with salad vegetables from the garden, and sliced Lebanese zucchinni’s barbecued with a dash of olive oil, salt and pepper.
I must admit, I love open-fire barbecues, even in cold weather. During winter, we have an almost-weekly barbecue ritual under the porch in our back yard. My husband lights the fire (at the risk of gross generalisation, the whole fire obsession is a boy thing – read more about it here), we bring out all the stuff to go on the barbecue, along with camping chairs, plates and other miscellany, and the all-important bottle of wine. Then we sit around the ‘camp fire’ for a good few hours in our oversized coats, the kids running around the yard in the twilight, throwing twigs into the coals, or reading old Mad magazines by torchlight. For desert, we often have a few charred marshmallows eaten straight off the end of stick. Who needs to go camping when you’ve got this level of primal bonding in your suburban backyard?
On the subject of barbecues, free barbecue facilities in public parks made a lasting impression on an aunty who was visiting from Greece a few years back. She felt this was the ultimate gesture in generosity from the state. She quipped that she would never cook at home if she had a similar offering in Greece. It's a bit of a stretch, but this got me to thinking – perhaps the humble Aussie barbie has as its predecessor the communal village ovens popular in Europe only a few centuries ago? According to this website, village ovens were a popular gathering and gossiping spot for the town and a meeting place in the evening for courting couples. They were owned by nobility or the Church, who charged locals a fee to bake, or fined them if they avoided using the communal ovens.
I’m excited to say that the concept of the communal village oven (albeit without the punitive overtones, and free to boot) has been revived in northern Victoria. A big mama communal wood-fired oven has been built by council and supported by many enthusiastic residents in a local park in Albury. A specially trained gent fires it up fortnightly, and helps the hungry hordes get their pizzas and roasts and other delicacies into the oven in an orderly fashion. It’s almost worth a six-hour drive to Albury with a lamb roast in the boot of the car to see it in action I reckon. If you are keen, here’s the firing schedule.
In the meantime, we’ll have to console ourselves with our petite coal-fired backyard barbecue shared with friends-- come rain or shine.