Once again, I am stunned by the obvious. All my life I have happily grilled steaks, burgers, prawns, fish, vegetables, paellas, etc. on a charcoal grill. And while I used charcoal hundreds of times, and vaguely understood that it was made of wood, I certainly had no clue how it was actually manufactured. And I suspect that the vast majority of marketmanila’s readers were likewise clueless about this commonly used item. Often seen for sale on provincial roadsides, freshly made charcoal can run anywhere from PHP100-160 per sack, depending on the time of year and relative abundance of stocks. And after seeing how this is made from scratch, I will NEVER EVER quibble or bargain for this product again. It is perhaps taking the whole “do-it-from-scratch” mantra a bit to the extreme, but this home-made charcoal was the basis for several recent lechons we roasted and I’d like to think it made a difference!
A few weeks ago, a fairly gusty low pressure area blew through the city of Cebu. It wasn’t even a typhoon, just suddenly odd high velocity winds. And with little warning, a very large ipil-ipil tree came crashing down and destroyed an 8 meter section of a concrete perimeter wall. A few weeks later, after chopping up the branches of the tree, one of our crew said he was going to make charcoal. How cool is that? Or at least I thought it was cool. So while I wasn’t in Cebu for the first batch of home-made charcoal (nine sacks!), I did get to see the second batch at the start of the process. If I ever get stranded on a tropical forested island, I will now know the basics of charcoal manufacturing and would have a brilliant grilled bayawak or monitor lizard with sea salt and seaweed garnish to complement my kinilaw na tanguigue or ceviche with organic coconut vinegar… But I would need a WIFI connection to look up the details. :)
So here are the basics. In a roomy backyard away from neighbors that are allergic to smoke or have the beginnings of lung cancer, form a circle of sturdy branches, then create a “wall” of flattened pieces of banana trunk (in our case, also harvested on the property, from bananas that had already borne fruit) filled with soil in between. Essentially, these are the sides of the charcoal “oven” you are building…
Arrange the chopped up pieces of wood inside this enclosure, in a relatively tight and orderly manner. Once you have placed all the wood inside, cover the wood with older pieces of banana trunk so that you can imagine wood inside an “oven”.
Cover the entire top with soil and as you can see in the photo above, one should have what looks like a makeshift oven with soil walls and insulation. At the bottom are three areas where a small flame can be started and checked over the three day (yes, that is three days) smoking/carbonation process.
Arnold then lit a small fire with kindling at one of the vents or holes at the bottom of the charcoal oven, and fanned it until smoke started to billow out of the other “exits”. At this point, he checked to ensure that the walls and roof of the oven were solid and that no smoke escaped anywhere except the vents, for if it did, it would be an entryway for oxygen that would lead to a large bonfire and ashes, not charcoal.
The flames died down relatively quickly and the embers provided the heat/smoke needed to turn the wood into charcoal. I am not sure what the actual chemical/physical processes were at work, but after three days (with constant checking to see if the embers were live) the wood turns from a fresh brown with some sap to a dark charcoal grey/black!
I know this looks like a total environmental nightmare and serious carbon emission faux pas… but I look at it this way. This IS the traditional way of making charcoal all across the archipelago. Felled trees are chopped up and smoked right at the source. The materials are all available locally and biodegradable. The charcoal is used in lieu of gas or wood-burning stoves. There is no plastic packaging, much transportation, marketing, etc. This is the real deal. And it does take a bloody lot of patience and skill to pull it off. Those who sell charcoal for a living can keep several of these ovens going at the same time, and can actually produce some 20-30 sacks of charcoal per person! But this is also a significant contributor to the smog that seems to hang over the typical Filipino countryside panorama…
Here a photo of the core of the banana stalks used for the oven. If these were the right variety of bananas, the core, or ubad, would be edible thus nothing would be wasted.
The charcoal Arnold made from scratch was brilliant. Huge chunks that seemed to burn longer than store bought, or commerically manufactured charcoal. We cooked several pigs using this home-made charcoal, and they tasted terrific.
A recurring theme on this blog, whether while obsessing over a particular dish like leche flan, ensaimada, adobo or lechon, is to do things as purely as possible, to try and discover the essence of the dish, to do as much as possible from scratch, without shortcuts, and if possible, as the dish was originally concocted or made. Beyond the recipes however, I have recently been more curious about the ingredients, where they come from, and how they were raised. And I have wondered about the equipment used to cook them in (like makeshift provincial ovens for baking ladyfingers), and now, further curiosity to the source of heat, like locally made charcoal. I feel like I gain knowledge every time these serendipitous learning opportunities present themselves, and I hope that many of you feel the same way too…
Some photos on this post taken by AT.