Almost every day my cooking at home is done with firewood. The exceptions being rainy days. On those days when all the firewood is wet a small electric oven makes a useful subsitute.
Cooking with firewood is by the nature of the fuel a potentially messier business than using gas or electric would be. Having clouds of smoke exiting the oven from time to time is unavoidable. To avoid filling the house with smoke my oven is in an external kitchen.
That room also serves as a shed so the oven must share space with a motorbike and gardening tools.
There is also no electricity in the kitchen. Therefore the oven is used solely for cooking the midday meal. Cooking by candlelight would be far too much trouble, and anyway in the warm Paraguayan climate one hot meal a day is quite enough.
Using firewood to cook with does have one or two drawbacks. Most importantly a fire just has one heat, hot. It can be adjusted slightly by increasing or decreasing the amount of wood that is burning. There is however no way of judging exactly how hot it is.
This in turn means that what cooks best is whatever is simplest to cook.
That is fine with me. If a meal takes much more half an hour to cook I soon start loosing interest in it and probably would not bother with it again. I am certainly not what would be described as a Foodie. Somethings do taste better than others, but they are though all only food and nothing to get excited about.
A positive of seeing all food as little more than fuel is that it means I will eat pretty much anything that is put in front of me. As long as it is not going to make me ill I’ll give it a go.
And taste is one thing that firewood gives to meals. There is something about the taste of food cooked with firewood that is different to that of food cooked by other means. I don’t know what it is. However general agreement is that cooked that way food simply tastes better.
Before any of that can happen though wood is needed for the oven.
In these days of reducing carbon emissions some may question the environmental reasoning behind using wood as a cooking fuel. All my firewood though comes from trees growing in my garden. So I am merely recycling the carbon they have captured.
Most of the wood comes from a row of eucalyptus trees I have. Those grow by five or more metres a year and so need constant pruning to be kept in check. In addition to being fast growing they are also neither native nor rare and can withstand some very heavy pruning.
To ensure that later when the wood is used for cooking no more cutting needs to be done I cut the branches into logs the correct size for my oven as soon as they come off the trees. These are then stacked neatly and left to dry for a few months before being fed into the oven.
Other wood on the woodpile comes from dead branches I find around the garden. These I collect up from time to time. They to are cut into oven size lengths before being added to the woodpile.
As for the actual day to day cooking I find a little preparation makes the whole process a lot easier. I see no point in making anything any harder than it needs to be.
To do this I spend five or ten minutes before beginning to cook collecting all the wood I will need from the wood pile. This will need logs and sticks of differing thicknesses and through years of experience I know how much of each.
First however even before selecting the correct bits of wood I prepare something to light the fire with. The seed covers from the coco palm trees which grow all around in abundance are perfect for that. They are easy to set alight and burn slowly enough to set the fire alight.
I always keep a pile drying in the sun. If the fire is set properly just one match should be sufficient to light it.
The next stage is to build a tent of kindling which will form the base of the fire. Half a dozen small sticks and possibly a bit of bark is enough.
These I build up like a tent raised above the base of the oven by a slightly thicker stick that will take a little longer to burn through. Doing things in this manner a space is left between the kindling and the base of the oven for the burning palm frond.
Once that structure is in place the next task is collect together the rest of the firewood I will be requiring for my cooking. Over the years I have learnt how much firewood is going to be needed. I normally judge things quite well. By the time food is cooked there will be very little fire left fire left as the last of the firewood turns to embers. I always try and use the minimum wood possible.
The other wood I collect from the woodpile will be a couple of thick sticks and half a dozen thin logs. Anything thicker than about an inch would have been split so as to burn more efficiently.
This firewood I lay down on the floor in front of the oven so that once i start cooking I will not need to go off and find anymore.
Everything is then ready for the cooking to begin.
First is a match to light the palm frond. That is then placed under the tent of kindling to start the fire.
Once that has caught I next use the two thicker sticks to from an ‘A’ with it’s legs pointing out of the oven. These help hold the fire in shape and also provide a base upon which to place the logs and to stop them rolling about in the oven away from the fire.
This should all soon be well alight and using the ‘A’ as a guide I will then be able to place the first couple of logs into the oven.
All being well the fire will soon be well alight. It will then be ready for the pot of whatever is to be cook to be placed on top of the oven.
Then other than adding other logs as required and pushing things further inside the oven as the burn down the work is done.
I find cooking like this very easy. It is also far more fun than just putting something in an oven. I enjoy the close proximity of the cooking fuel.
Each day as I cook lunch I can look at my achievement. I have grown the wood, I have cut the branches and I have set the fire.