Birthday dinner on the fire

Matawinie - June 2021. After inviting his sister, his brother-in-law and his niece, Vincent will choose two beautiful pieces of Scottish beef. We know an artisanal and responsible breeder, who is also a butcher. His oxen are outside and grass fed. Knowing about our project, Robert, the breeder-butcher offers us two beautiful pieces of meat. A "Tomahawk" and a thinner "entre-côte" steak to make sure the five party attendees will have enough. We will complete the meal with vegetables - mushroom, red and orange peppers, French onion and tomatoes - also grilled on the fire.

Cooking at the North American backyard BBQ has never been of great interest to me. I have always preferred to flee into the woods or to the other side of the world, and simply eat at the bivouac. But having shared bivouacs with nomads and natives of several cultures, I also tasted the simple and unadulterated food that makes up their daily lives. Inspired by Argentinian chef Francis Malmann, I evolve my technique of forest traveler and rustic bivouac towards the more elaborate basics of ancestral cooking on the fire.

The Malmann method is rustic and raw. It uses thousand-year-old methods of cooking in a natural environment that suits me well. It is nevertheless imbued with complexity in the choice and preparation of food. These come from local farmers and breeders. I have known some of them personally, like Robert, for several years. Malmann is a chef trained by the great French masters, but who, in his forties, turned to the rustic and intuitive cuisine of his native Argentina. He has abandoned the traps of haute cuisine and instead focuses on a primitive style of hospitality whose core boils down to one-syllable words: smoke, fire, air, stone, salt, rain, vegetables, meat, wine.

Once our portage is done, we settle down near the river. So we have a source of water to cool off, keep mosquitoes away and especially for fire safety. I put a red wine in the river, the bottom of the bottle wedged between two rocks. The live fire is started and we are feeding it in order to accumulate a nice layer of embers when it comes time to start cooking. Slightly apart, the two surfaces - a grid and an iron plate - pivot on a metal rod stuck in the ground. The embers will be moved and spread under the surfaces while the fire is maintained next to it.

For cooking, we send to hell the oven thermometer. We assess with our senses. How far the grate is placed above the embers depends on how many seconds I can endure with my hand two inches above the cooking surface. For a medium-high heat, I have to leave my hand 3-4 seconds.

While Rosalie plays with her mother on the riverside, Jean-Christophe and Vincent give their opinion on the evolution of the cooking of the centerpiece, the Tomahawk. Towards the end of the first step, I add the small rib steak, then I rotate the grid out of the cooking zone and lower the metal plate. While we grill the vegetables, the meat rests and continues its slow cooking process. Once the vegetables are ready, the plate is immediately rotated, too. I bring the grill back over the area and sit it directly over the coals for a minute per side.

Now's the time to serve. The wine, which came out of the river a few minutes ago, is just fresh enough. Here again, we are guessing with our senses.

You will notice that I do not have pictures of the meal. We were too wrapped up. No need for a steak knife. Our teeth are enough. They cut the pieces like a hot knife cuts a pound of butter. The grilled vegetables are still crunchy and juicy.

- Hmmm this is the best steak I've eaten in my life, says the birthday boy.

- Yeah you're right, add his brother-in-law.

Even Rosalie wants more.

After the meal, the two brothers-in-law go sit down in the middle of the river. Joanie and I chat while sipping our wine and Rosalie learns to keep a fire above which sits the pot of water for late night herbal tea.

With my friend Yves, I spent hundreds of evenings at the bivouac. After the silence in the action, the rest and the discussions in front of the fire. This ritual is part of our history, to Yves and me. The campfire in the wild, unties languages, leads to confidences, meditation, introspection. He hypnotizes and charms to send me in the projection of future projects. It also helps a rare thing. Silence. At the heart of a conversation, freed from the artifices of the modern world, we do not have to respond immediately. The fire gives us permission to think about what we are going to say, what advice we are going to give. The dance of the flames is reflected in our eyes which, they say, are the gateways to access the soul.

At dusk, we put away the equipment, carefully drown the fire and resume the portage path.


Adhering to the "code of responsible adventure", I do not geolocate with precision the places I explore, except in a few rare exceptions such as my trips to the Arctic or during a relevant historical reference.


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Texts, drawings, videos and photos © Marc-André Pauzé - all rights reserved

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