Text & photos — Élisabeth Anctil-Martin
As far back as I can remember, my most beautiful meals have been enjoyed in nature. It feels like time slows outdoors, and everything just tastes better.
When I was little I often wandered between my family’s country home and our fishing shack. I also went to summer camps, where I discovered canoe camping. From Camp Minogami in Mauricie, we traveled across the Gouin Reservoir, the Baskatong Reservoirs, and the Bazinand Saint-Maurice Rivers. During those 23 days in nature, fire was the most essential tool for feeding ourselves—and it provided a space of comfort and sharing. As soon as I woke up each day, I made a fire for coffee to share with the group: a ritual pleasure.
A few years ago some friends told me about Francis Mallmann, a famous Patagonian chef who cooks with fire. A proponent of the simple and the natural, Mallmann took me back to my childhood, adventure, and my desire to eat unprocessed foods.
Inspired by Mallmann, these same friends create pop-up meals outdoors using a handmade steel barbecue, the Brut Atelier. Glass in hand, I’ve experienced their joyful dinners, and photographed them cooking local, seasonal products over embers. They remind me that cooking is not a chore, that it’s a privilege to be developed and shared with others.
Anyone can try cooking with fire. All that’s required is to trust your instincts and be open to trial and error. Allow yourself to experiment, mix techniques, and innovate. There is no perfect recipe. To know if your food is ready, just poke and taste it. Some char is necessary: It’s about finding the right balance, as Mallmann says.
Here is my own little manual for cooking with fire.
The Mallmann Method
In his youth Francis Mallmann was trained by great Parisian chefs. Upon returning to his native Argentina, he applied what he learned and developed a new French-inspired cuisine, but with Argentinian products like beef, fish, potatoes, and cabbage.
Growing tired of gastronomy, he sought a simplified approach to haute cuisine, a return to basics and key flavours. A colourful and genuine person, Mallmann has been called the “King of Fire” for making this 450,000-year old cooking technique his signature.
For Mallman, cooking with fire embodies an outdoor lifestyle, an incredible setting, an intuitive approach, and respect for raw, unprocessed foods.
Watching the Argentinian chef cook, it’s easy to be inspired by his plea that we honour the food we consume with originality in the kitchen. This extends, as well, to the rituals surrounding how we make our meals, and of course, how we share them with those we care for.
Take advantage of a special moment with loved ones, like a stay at a cabin or a camping trip, to try out cooking food with fire. There are plenty of options:
- The classic camping fire pit
- A wood barbecue in your backyard
- A wood barbecue in a park (where permitted)
- A fire on the riverbank after fishing
- Wilderness camping
For everyone’s safety, please be vigilant and respect some basic guidelines:
- Check the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu website to determine the restrictions and rules where you are, as well as instructions one how to safely light a campfire.
- Follow the Institut national de la santé publique du Québec’s COVID-19 guidelines.
- Protect your feet. Wear closed shoes at all times; accidents happen quickly! (This is my camping mantra.)
The Right Tools
Being confident and having the right tools go hand in hand. Here’s what I like to use:
- Wood. Ideally hardwood or fruit wood. Softwood can produce resinous smoke that may alter the taste of your food.
- Metal shovel. The same one you use for snow. Hooray for multiseason tools!
- Metal tongs. You can never have too many.
- Kevlar Gloves. Kevlar is ideal, but you can also use thick, undamaged work gloves.
- Cast iron skillet. It’s time to search through the family attic: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
- Thermometer. If you want to be precise, use a meat thermometer.
- A fire extinguisher at the ready. It’s your most efficient and effective option for putting out unintended fires, but you can also use large pots of water—with caution!
- Water. Mallmann says to always always have water on hand for safety, hand washing, and more. It’s a must.
Building your Fire
Assuming that you already know how to safely build a fire, here’s how to make it right for cooking. We used a custom-made steel barbecue, but you can do everything described here with a classic fire pit.
- Find a safe place to build a fire. Choose an open area with mineral soil, free of combustible material (leaves, grass, etc.), and far from anything else that’s flammable, including vertically. There should be no branches or vegetation for at least three meters above your fire.
- Build your base fire. Start with small pieces of wood placed in a teepee formation, then build it up with logs. This will be your base fire, giving you continuous embers.
- Build a cooking fire. Assemble a grid of logs, creating natural ventilation.
- Let the logs burn to make beautiful embers: the more, the better.
- Maintain, monitor, and feed your fire. This fire will become your best friend, just be patient.
- Put your fire out properly when you’re done. Triple-check that it’s out.
“Cooking with a wood fire is like going on a first date. It’s something that you look forward to with great anticipation and a little anxiety. . .” — Francis Mallmann
Techniques and Raw Ingredients
Here are three Mallmann-inspired techniques, with a few suggestions for trying them out. Remember to choose local and organic ingredients and make sure your meats are responsibly farmed.
1.The Rescoldo method
Rescoldo is Spanish for ember.
The technique involves cooking food by placing it over embers or covering it in hot ashes. It gives your food a lovely smoky taste and helps retain its flavour.
Option 1: Vegetables charred on embers
Use tongs to handle the embers and place your vegetables. The outside of your vegetables will blacken, but what you want is what’s inside. Don’t be surprised if your potato takes two hours to cook: patience is key. When they’re done, cut them in half and eat the inside. Add butter and fresh herbs to taste, if you wish.
This method is perfect for potatoes, peppers, various squash, cabbage, fruit, or anything with a skin or peel.
Option 2: A Wild Pan-full
- Le Frère Chasseur organic raw milk cheese, by Au Gré des Champs
- Québec oyster mushrooms
- L’Orpailleur Blanc white wine
- Cherry tomatoes
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
Place all the ingredients in a cast iron skillet. Set it on the embers and carefully place more embers around your skillet. Leave it to cook until the cheese seems runny, then drizzle the liquid that’s gathered at the bottom of the pan over the cheese to warm its crust. If you can, cover your skillet to keep the heat in and help the cheese soften. Your gloves will come in handy for getting your cast iron off the embers!
2. Cooking with a Chapa
Chapa is Spanish for plate or sheet (as in a broad, flat piece of material).
You cook your food on a flat piece of metal set over flames. A Chapa sears your food very quickly, forming a beautiful, fragrant crust. Pre-oil your chapa and flip your food only when it doesn’t stick when you try to lift it.
Option 1: Toasted sourdough bread
Make your own bread. I make mine with organic, unbleached, all-purpose flour and my own sourdough starter (which I got from a friend in the Magdalen Islands). Try Catherine Lefebvre’s recipe or simply buy a loaf from your favourite bakery.
Cut the bread into thick slices. Place them directly on the chapa, just like you would on a wood stove at a chalet—the classic cabin toast.
For breakfast, top with a touch of sweetness; for dinner, add a little savoury. I love these seasonal combos:
- Garlic scapes and salted butter
- Rub your grilled bread with fresh tomatoes and olive oil
- Homemade strawberry-raspberry jam
- Autumn honey and apple butter
Option 2: Salmon on a cedar plank
This variant of the Chapa technique is perfect for camping, because all you have to do is set a cedar plank directly on the metal sheet. The fish cooks slowly, but the result is delicious.
- True North farmed Salmon (Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick)
- Marinade: green alder pepper from Lac-Saint-Jean, fresh dill, garlic scapes, fleur de sel, and olive oil
- Limes for cooking
Soak the board (weigh it down so that it’s fully submerged) in water for a few hours before use. Marinate the salmon for two hours. Heat the board over your fire, but don’t let the flames touch it directly. Cook the salmon directly on the cedar board, wetting it with lime juice. Have water on hand, just in case the plank catches fire. When its flesh flakes easily with a fork, your salmon is done. If necessary, cover the fish with a pan to evenly heat.
3. The Asador-inspired Method
Asador is Spanish for rotisserie.
This slow-cooking method traditionally relies on an iron cross that holds the meat near the flames. A simple spit can be used as an alternative.
- Quebec Chicken Wings
- Marinade: Cheval & Campagne honey (from Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges), Maison Orphée Dijon mustard, and fresh herbs from your garden
- Olive oil
Vegan variation: I recently tried marinated tofu (tasty and easy to carry around when camping).
Marinate the chicken wings (or tofu). Brush a stainless steel skewer with olive oil, then slide your wings or tofu onto it. Set the skewer over the fire, turning it frequently so that it cooks evenly.
If necessary, finish cooking with the Chapa method.
“I believe that the ability to cook meat over a wood fire is inborn in all of us.” — Francis Mallmann
In brief, experiment with cooking with a fire. With practice—and good instincts—you’ll develop a taste for this ritual, figure out your own recipes, and create memorable meals with your loved ones. If your first try doesn’t win you over, just pull out some marshmallows. They’re a surefire way to rekindle your satisfaction with food cooked over a fire.
Note: Thanks to Thierry Poisson from Brut Atelier for his advice.
Élisabeth Anctil-Martin is a photographer. She’s had her mother’s camera between her hands ever since she was a child. An outdoor enthusiast and fan of simplicity, she’s inspired by nature and human beings. She writes for the pleasure of seeing her ideas take shape. Anctil-Martin has been working in the world of communications, advertising, and events for 11 years. She likes to go adventuring abroad but enjoys also setting her roots down in Québec.