Chef Guy Owen of the Idle Rocks has recently been cooking up a storm with Seafood Legend Mitch Tonks, learning the joys of cooking over charcoal in a Josper Charcoal Oven. On a recent shoot down at St Mawes, Guy shared some of his chargrilled secrets and told me how a campfire in the woods can help recreate some of the Josper’s classic smokey taste.
Installed in 2015, the Josper was a very welcome addition to the Idle Rocks. Once hot enough it cooks fish, oysters and scallops very quickly and to perfection: “We did a dish during the summer last year where we were doing mackerel fillets – just small ones. We literally just put them in, closed the door, counted to six, took them out and they were cooked.” Epic.
Mitch is such a firm believer in the power of the Josper that in the kitchen, at The Seahorse – his lovely seafood restaurant in Dartmouth, it is his preferred way to cook seafood.
While the fish is cooked in a flash, success with a Josper is all about being patient with the coals. Guy explains that you need to know: “exactly how much air intake you need to get the right levels of heat and how much charcoal should be in there. You know most men pile in loads and loads of it and get a massive fire. But you just want a very fine layer of charcoal on the base to stop the coal from actually choking itself out.”
Just like a BBQ, the coals are ready to start cooking on when the charcoal turns grey as: “it holds that temperature. If it drops, and you put your fish on, it will just glue itself to the bars.” Reaching this optimum state can take a couple of hours – the Idle Rocks fire their one up around 5.30pm ready for evening service.
Guy recommends oily fish, like whole Mackerel, that will achieve beautiful bar marks on the skin. Meaty fish like Monkfish work well and even Ray and Skate, but avoid flaky white fish as the flakes simply fall apart, and crab as it’s a very fine meat. Otherwise go nuts for shellfish – lobsters cut in half flesh side down and oysters are a must. “It’s about cooking the fish quickly. If it’s too cold, it takes too long: you’ll end up with very tough fish.”
So without getting too technical I wanted to find out how I could recreate some of this charcoal action when cooking over a fire in the woods. I have a wood fired brick oven that I use mainly for pizza, but being an Aussie, I wanted to find out how to use those coals.
Guy explained how a Josper is an open chamber with really thick walls so that once the door is closed, the heat bounces around and a core temperature is achieved. A campfire is like an open-top charcoal burner, where you constantly turn the meat/fish over as the heat is only coming from one side. So one idea would be to use a thick cast iron pan – heat it right up and then place this over the grilling seafood like a cloche. You’ve then got the heat all around it, just like in the Josper. I will try this out when the weather warms up a bit down here in Cornwall.
“It’s really important to add flavour. Try cumin, fennel and coriander seeds or a sweet honey and soy glaze. Mitch is all about rustic Italy with his style of cooking, so it’s very much rosemary and garlic and very good fresh pressed oils. I’ve never seen anybody cook with breadcrumbs over hot coals, but he did with Monkfish. It was awesome: a crumbed fish inside a red hot Josper grill.”
Sounds pretty good to me.