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Beef it up BBQ-style

Grilling outdoors and eating al fresco with friends means happy days for Jonny Nicholson, chef-owner of The Sail Loft in Southwold

When the weather is hot, beautiful sunshine blazing and cloudless blue skies, it’s time to break out the charcoal.

Simple and gourmet rarely go hand-in-hand, well for most chefs, but when it comes to barbecuing and spoiling your guests with a summery treat, you need to do so little to serve up wonderful local steak, transformed nto something delicious for all ages and tastes, well so long as they’re carnivorous I guess.

But as it always, it starts with the right local, seasonal ingredients, in this case good beef, or should I say very good beef and a great butcher. I am lucky to have one of those, Jeremy Thickitt, who supplies both my restaurants at The Sail Loft and at The Bell in Saxmundham. He grazes his own happy herds of heritage breed cattle on lush pasture next to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Darsham Marshes near Yoxford, and you can find his aged, marbled beef at his nearby butchery counter at the family’s Emmerdale Farm Shop. Alternatively visit their other shops, Clarke’s of Bramfield or Creasey’s of Peasenhall, all part of this quality third generation butchery.

Wherever you live, I really urge you to visit a local, independent butcher for all your meat but especially beef, you won’t find properly matured, farmyard beef in your local supermarket. With little exception, they all buy their livestock too young, don’t hang it long enough and cut it too thin. Local independent butchers are ideal, you get free, wise advice and exactly what you want. In this case, you can ask for a nice fat steak –  I often cook a big piece, perhaps two inches deep and then carve it for my guests. That way it can be griddled well on all sides, charred to crusted, savoury perfection on the outside but still enjoyed it at its best inside, cooked rare to medium-rare, juicy and flavoursome. Now this is quite pink for some people but if you can get over the bloodiness, you will have the maximum tenderness and flavour. If however you want to eat it medium or even well-done, then quickly brown it well on each side and then put it into a 180c oven to finish cooking to your liking, that way it won’t become leathery on the outside. But you have to accept it does toughen as you cook it more.

My personal favourite is rib-eye steak, it has great marbling and flavour. You do have to trim it as you eat it but it’s worth the fuss for that superb taste, it’s seriously recommended. A classic sirloin is the easy choice, still juicy and halfway for flavour. Rump steak is the best on a budget, but cooked more than medium-rare, it’s ruined basically. If money is no object and you want soft, fat-free steak, push the boat out and invest in fillet steak, but to be honest, it doesn’t taste of much and hardly worth eating.

There are lots of other obscure steak cuts, a cattle carcass is a huge, fabulous thing and if you are prepared to experiment, your butcher can save you lots of money by suggesting much tastier, toothsome pieces of beef to grace your grill bars, with interesting names like featherblade, bavette, skirt and hanger.

In terms of which barbecue to cook on, there are many helpful websites to help you choose.

Gas is more reliable and quicker to start cooking on than charcoal, you have to wait a good 30 – 45 minutes before you start but it does make it more of an occasion, full of atmosphere and smells. A good friend griddles in a chargrill pan inside a wood-fired clay oven, that really gives flavour and a sense of culinary cabaret.

Here are my top ten tips for great barbecued steak:

1.      Safety first –  a handy hosepipe or bucket of water and lots of sun cream. And no tiddly chefs!

2.      Make sure the grill bars are very hot first and if using coals, make sure they are mostly white not still glowing red.

3.      Lightly oil the meat (not the barbecue) and then season well at the last minute so the beef doesn’t dry out.

4.      After you have browned the meat on one side, turn it over and sprinkle it with a dry spice mix for added flavour. Repeat on the other and then continue cooking slower in a cooler part of the barbecue (keep one side on a lower heat or less loaded with charcoal).

5.      Cook thicker steaks and then carve them in vertical slices, you will get juicier results.

6.      A herb butter or a creamy sauce such as peppercorn and brandy really adds to the flavour for a special occasion. Or if you like it more Tex Mex, how about a zingy, spicy chilli salsa.

7.      Marinating the meat in advance also enhances the end result – try a dollop of French mustard, a tablespoon or two of Worcestershire sauce, chopped-up thyme or rosemary sprigs, lots of black pepper and a drizzle of rapeseed oil, whisked together and massaged in before chilling for a good few hours beforehand.

8.      If cooking over charcoal, adding wood chippings on the hot coals as you grill, will add a smokier, fragrant taste.

9.      If you love barbecued ribs like me, dry marinade them in spices, slow bake them in your preferred BBQ sauce in the oven ahead of time and then finish them outside on the grill.

10.  For the best sausages, poach them first in simmering water for 10 – 15 minutes whilst for safe, moist chicken thighs and drumsticks, roast them foil-covered in a medium oven until cooked through and then take them out to your barbecue.

It is lovely to be outside, enjoying the great British summer, but do keep all your loved ones, especially young children and pets, safe and away from the barbecue area…

Enjoy! Jonny

Jonny Nicholson, Chef – Proprietor, The Bell At Sax’


The Sail Loft, Ferry Road, Southwold IP18 6HQ
Our beachside café-bar-restaurant, proudly using local, seasonal, Suffolk ingredients – find us by Southwold’s dunes near the campsite and lifeboat station. Book for our daily specials: Monday Madness – two courses for £10; Curry-tastic Tuesday; Wednesday Burger Bonanza; Friday Steak Night
W: www.sailloftsouthwold.uk   T: 01502 725713