A couple of years ago, I bought a pizza oven, a proper one, one that took four people to lift into place. I burn kiln-dried logs in it, and it hits almost 500c. It cooks a pizza in about two minutes, maybe less, and those pizzas are like nothing else I’ve ever tasted. The wood is alchemical, it performs magic, its smoke and heat grabbing hold of the food, enveloping it, transforming it. Later, when the fire burns down and the heat seeps away a little, I often roast a chicken in the oven, next to the glowing coals, an hour and a half or so of gentle, smokey heat. It’s the best way I’ve ever found of roasting a bird.
I’ve been converted to wood-fired cooking. It isn’t easy, not in the slightest. Controlling the fire and choosing the right moment to cook is a balancing act, a game of judgement and skill, one which I often get wrong. But that’s half the fun, that and smelling of smoke for the rest of the day.
More skilled people than me do the same thing far better. There are places locally that really know how to command a wood fired grill. Ox Club in Leeds comes immediately to mind, but the undisputed king of wood-fired cooking is Bittor Arginzoniz, owner and chef of his restaurant, Etxebarri, in a small village an hour southeast of Bilbao in Spain.
This is a book about Arginzoniz’s restaurant, and about his approach to both his fire and his food. Some books are worth just having around because they’re beautiful things, articles that make your life richer and enhanced. This is one such book, a heavy, big book of commanding presence and gravity. It’s a serious work, a serious effort, a book that speaks of a passion and a love of simplicity and straightforwardness, qualities to be treasured and guarded.
Etxebarri is the story of a restaurant, a chef, and a fire. It’s a simple tale, one of provenance, precision, authenticity, love, a book that describes the elevation of simple fire and simple ingredients into dishes of great inventiveness and heart. The recipes here are not necessarily complex, relying instead on first-rate ingredients, but critically, they require a command of the flame that will defeat me. Arginzoniz is often referred to as The Fire Whisperer, and it’s exactly this ability to control and feel a dancing, living flame that allows him to produce food sometimes described somewhat glibly as ‘the best barbecue in the world’.
I was lost in Etxebarri, caught up in its pages. It’s a wonderful book.