Lamb braai | part one
The build and burn of a fire
People always ask: how do you know the fire’s ready? There’s a saying that the ‘flame must be off the coal’ – not bad advice because it means the fire may be too hot to control and any fat dripping on open flames will flare up like crazy. So rather judge it with the old ‘one-Mississippi’ method: hold your hand over the coals where the grid will be – you’ll know quickly that it’s hot enough to burn flesh if you have to pull your hand away when you get to ‘three-Mississippi’!
Fire is an integral part of man’s evolution. It’s the reason we don’t have to answer to cats. But there’s nothing like a dud fire to ruin the party.
This only happens when either the fire maker doesn’t understand how fire works or the wood’s wet.
Combustion requires oxygen, and heat rises. So whatever free-form shape you build, there must be space between the logs for the fire to breathe. If it’s a vertical pile, you’re off to a good start.
Wet wood is timber that’s freshly cut and it’s surprisingly hard to detect until you try to light it. The solution is the log cabin. The open sides created by the foundation layer allows you to feed fuel (firelighters, newspaper or kindling) in at the bottom when and if you need to.
For hot, long-burning coals, look for Kameeldoring logs.
Lay two large logs parallel to each other and you, with a gap between them. Starting with only two logs at the base level, leaves lots of space for airflow and placing them in this direction makes it easier to slide firelighters in from the side (if using).
Pick a couple of split logs that look like they want to catch fire and lay them split-side down across the base logs. If you can get three side by side, that’s perfect, but make sure there’s a gap between them.
Keep building with three logs each way until it’s about four or five ‘storeys’ high. Make a ‘tight’ log cabin by putting the pieces on subsequent layers closer together so as not to ‘waste the flames’.
As you go, break off splinters and pieces of bark (the kindling), and drop them inside the log cabin – it’ll help get things going. If necessary, keep adding kindling. For example, if the wind is blowing the fire to one side and it’s burning stronger there, put some kindling on the other side to even it out.
Now light your favoured firestarter and push it through the gap at the bottom. You’ll know the fire’s born when you hear satisfying crackling sounds and you should be ready to braai within the hour.
After around 30 to 40 minutes of burn time, the log cabin will collapse as the lower layers of the log cabin turn to coal. This is a good opportunity to rearrange the logs and start turning over pieces that have not burned quite as much, so the sides that look more like blackened wood (not yet grey ashy coals) have a better chance of burning and are in direct flame to help that transformation. Once again, leave enough space between the pieces for good airflow.
The fire will take around another 10 minutes to burn down. While there is still the last of the flame, put on the grid and, using a wire brush, brush it all over to clean. Alternatively, rub with a halved lemon (or onion) and allow the flame to burn off any residue.
After about 50 to 60 minutes of total burn time, break down any logs that have only just become coals using a steel rod – we have one that came with our braai. Still using the rod, turn and scrape together the coals to make a higher and tighter mound that will form the coal bed for cooking.
Note: This is a general guideline but naturally no fires are alike, depending on the wood, the weather, the build, the braai. With the fire we filmed, there was one very big piece of Kameeldoring top front and centre on the log cabin. It took a while to burn down so on the video you will see some knocking down after the collapse but before the last flames have burned off, to get a sense of where the wood is at.