The second half of my July 2012 UK trip was a very gracious invitation by Toby Shea, founder of the British BBQ Society (BBBQS.com) and director of the International BBQ Network (IBQN.com) to cook the British BBQ Championship at the Cartmel racecourse in northwest England the weekend following my BBQ classes in Surrey near London.
This was the second of a two-contest series, first one was in the seaside city of Brighton in early July, where the two-series winner would earn the spot to represent Great Britain at the Jack Daniels Invitational contest in Lynchburg, Tennessee, in October. Because this was a Jack qualifier, I asked the officials if my score would bump any English team’s opportunity to go to the Jack and was assured that only British team points scores would count. If that was not the case, I was planning to DQ in one category by submitting a rubber chicken as I did not come all the way to England to deprive an English team from coming to America! Even though there were only seven teams due to the long drive, the top English teams were in attendance including John Hargate of Bar B Q Shack who represented England at the Jack in 2010 and 2011, and Scott and Lyndz Lane of Miss Piggy BBQ UK, the 2012 reigning European Grand Champions who would be heading to the Jack in 2012.
Getting to the Lakes District bordering Scotland for the Cartmel Championship was a challenge for me that involved a 1 ½ hour train ride from London to Leicester to meet up with Scott and Lyndz of Miss Piggy BBQ UK who then gave me a ride in their SUV for the 4-hour trek to the racetrack where the teams were set up in the middle of the horseracing oval.
Toby was tremendously gracious and kind to arrange the transport of loaner equipment (tables, chairs, canopy) to Cartmel as he was hosting the Kids Que and Ready Steady Que events running concurrent with the BBQ contest. The BBQ Fanatics team lent me their WSM-18 to use at the contest. Toby also arranged for a set of comp meats for me to use in the contest. Lee Rowlands, one of my students from the previous week’s class offered to be my assistant and took a day off from work to help me out.
A drizzle commenced as soon as we drove north despite BBC’s weather forecast of sunny skies and the rain stayed with us the entire weekend. Despite my mental stamp that cooking in Britain is cooking in the rain, my BBQ friends assured me that it was abnormal to rain in July. Hah! This must be that dry British humor, pun intended, I was warned about watching Benny Hill reruns on the telly.
We checked into an 1870’s era hotel called the Cumbria Grand Hotel about 10 miles from Cartmel in the beautiful city of Grange-Over-Sands and joined 15 pitmasters for dinner in my honor at a local Indian food restaurant. We had a wonderful time and the food was excellent and made your ear wax melt from the spiciness. They would not allow me to pay and I managed to get in one round of drinks on me.
After a fitful night of sleep in a single bed that had seen better days in a creaky old hotel that would not look out of place in a medieval movie (considered charming by tourists), we arose to a wonderful English breakfast buffet at the hotel where I got to sample many traditional breakfast staples such as English fry bread which is bread dipped in lard and then fried, sautéed mushrooms, salty back bacon, sunny side up eggs, and the omnipresent Black Pudding, a blood sausage.
Since I taught two classes the weekend before and discovered that it was very difficult to create good BBQ from English chickens, hogs, and cows, I already knew that it would be difficult to create contest-grade BBQ from UK meats. Consequently, before the contest started, I had to figure out how to overcome challenges with the British meats which are from animals bred to be lean, no hormones, no 2% chicken solution, and without fat. For example, I learned from teaching classes the previous week that 1) chicken thigh skin was tough as shoe leather and US cooking techniques did not work on it, 2) briskets had no fat and marbling and all the fat cap was removed from the point and flat so they dried out during cooking, 3) pork shoulder cuts have 1/3 the length of the money muscle of US cuts so presenting money muscle (Pectoralis Profundi) in the box would be a problem, 4) the ribs have hardly any meat as the rib meat is used to make British style back bacon, 5) the styrofoam box was about 9 X 6 instead of the 9 X 9 US version so standard presentation configurations would need to be modified.
On top of the meat challenges, I had no idea what flavor profile the judges would be expecting in England. Would the California flavor profile I was winning with work with the UK judges? Or, should I assume that a milder and sweeter mid-West profile would win? Would the judges know how US barbecue was supposed to taste? Did they know how to judge KCBS-style tenderness in ribs and pull test on brisket slices? So many questions but no answers as I had never tasted British competition BBQ before. On top of that, several UK teams jokingly told me they were looking to prove themselves by beating SYD so I was challenged to dig deep into my bag of tricks to overcome the potential issues with meat, equipment, and total lack of knowledge of judging preferences!
After setup and prep, I did some chicken testing and cooked 8 thighs 8 different ways to see what technique would result in contest-grade bite through skin. The other teams watched me and eagerly awaited the results which I shared with everyone. I tried out two categories of techniques involving both mechanical (pounding, piercing, and scraping) and chemical (tenderizers, acids, and oils). I kept one thigh as a control version for comparison purposes. One of the teams lent me their WSM to cook the test thighs. The conclusion . . . drumroll please . . . is that both scraping the skin and applying a tenderizer is needed for British thighs to create US contest-grade bite through skin.
Throughout the entire contest cook, I used different techniques to try to overcome the myriad challenges I faced such as the chicken example above, using beef fat to substitute the missing brisket fat cap, creatively trimming the butt to simulate a money muscle, and numerous other tricks. I paid close attention whenever I ate at restaurants to see if the Brits like their food spicy or salty. I quizzed my students during class the prior week as to whether they liked what they tasted in my class and what flavors were not working for them. I listened carefully and incorporated that knowledge and adjusted my flavor profiles accordingly.
Did it all work? Yes it did and I was overjoyed to win the Grand Championship at Cartmel that day with first in Chicken and first in Ribs. If I had cooked my routine California cook, I am quite certain we would not have won. For example, for chicken, I thinned out my custom-made chicken sauce, cut the salt in my rub by 1/3, and changed the spiciness. Maintaining the flexibility and adaptability to change techniques to compensate for local meat, conditions, and challenges was the key.
Congrats to Scott and Lyndz of Miss Piggy BBQ UK for Reserve Champion. Congrats to Bar B Q Shack for winning the Series Championship at Cartmel and to be headed to the Jack representing England the third year in a row. Congrats to all the teams who walked. A big thank you to Toby for helping me cook Cartmel including providing the meats, tees, and equipment transportation and loaners. Thanks to BBQ Fanatics for the loan of their WSM. Thanks to Scott and Lyndz for giving me a lift to Cartmel and helping me grocery shop. Thanks to Steve of Royal Que for giving me his yellow Frederick Dick 8-inch chef knife as I lost mine. Thanks to all the pitmasters who came out to take me to an Indian dinner. Thank you, Lee Rowlands, for being my assistant and posting our cook continuously on Facebook. I had an incredible experience at Cartmel and am profoundly grateful and thankful for the hospitality and friendliness of all the British BBQ teams. Who knows I may be back again!