PUBLISHED: 11:18 25 November 2014 | UPDATED: 11:18 25 November 2014
Tessa Allingham meets Graham Sayell, a man keeping the ancient art of making charcoal alight, and Amy Hardingham, who's found a very modern use for it
As offices go, it’s not a bad one. Sunlight filters into the spacious work area, the air is fresh and clean, and the urgent squawk of the odd pheasant as it launches into flight is about as noisy as it gets. A gazebo gives shelter, a Kelly kettle bubbles and a couple of camping chairs offer comfort aplenty.
No wonder Graham Sayell greets us with a ready smile. A year ago he swapped the dainty world of premium ice cream (he and his partner Stephany Hardingham are the couple behind the award-winning Alder Tree ‘fruit cream ice’ – she still runs the business) for life as a woodland manager and it’s the job of his dreams. He looks after Raydon Great Wood and Tom’s Wood, a peaceful 200-acre patch of Suffolk forest near Hadleigh, for local farmer and passionate conservationist, James Buckle.
Graham looks every bit the lumberjack with his rusty beard, outdoor complexion, pony-tailed hair, Husqvarna heavy-duty trousers and braces, and the steel-capped boots that he’s rigorous about wearing ever since crushing a lightly-shod toe under a steel trailer pin. He’s still hobbling a bit, but brushes the inconvenience aside.
Physical days are spent deep in the woods coppicing areas to encourage natural regeneration of native tree species, and splitting logs – oak, ash, beech – for firewood that he sells, seasoned, to a local wholesaler. Firewood is Graham’s main income stream and neat stacks of evenly sized logs line the ‘office’ space, waiting to be collected. “It’s amazing what demand there is, I could have sold this lot 20 times over,” he grins.
But we are here to talk charcoal. Graham is one of the few charcoal-burners still working in this country, selling lumpwood charcoal, made from the wood he cuts in the forest, to local wholesalers.
Cue Amy Hardingham, Stephany’s sister, and one of Graham’s best customers. She is the brains behind Barbecube which she claims is the only instant-lighting, environmentally-friendly, chemical-free, British-made, easy to use, sustainably-sourced from coppiced woodland, lumpwood charcoal on the market.
“People think about where the steak they put on the barbecue comes from, but not the source of the charcoal. Around 90% of the charcoal we use in this country is imported from Africa where there’s a huge illegal industry, or South America where charcoal burning is to blame for lots of the deforestation. I was looking around for a convenient, ecologically-sound lumpwood charcoal and realized there was nothing on the market.”
Her Barbecube, she explains, is a simple notion, and already an award-winning one having scooped the gold award at this year’s Ixion Enterprise Awards: a cardboard box with a built-in chimney, filled with Graham’s charcoal.
“Just put the box in the bottom of the barbecue, light the bottom of the chimney, wait 15 minutes for the flames to die down, then cook. And there’s no nasty lighter fuel so food tastes better too.”
The pair show off Puffing Billy, the retort kiln that burns the wood that makes the charcoal that fills the Barbecubes. A giant cylinder on wheels with a door at one end, separate central chamber, and a tall chimney on the top, the kiln sits on some hardstanding by the gazebo looking, frankly, like a rusty old steam engine.
Graham insists that the kiln is in fact a highly-efficient and environmentally-friendly piece of equipment. “In a retort kiln the dirty smoke or wood gas is channelled back into the kiln so the burn is effectively fuelled by its own energy.”
Billy stands cool at the time of our visit, but neatly stacked with coppiced hazel and ready to be lit. Hazel, he explains, is the best wood for charcoal because of its slim diameter, though hornbeam, ash and silver birch also work well. When he’s ready to burn he simply lights a fire in the outer chamber, seals and bolts the door to create an airless environment, and waits.
“Charcoal is basically wood burned in the absence of oxygen,” he says. “I feed the fire under the central chamber for two hours. Initially, water vapour billows out of the chimney, a sign the wood’s drying out.”
Then, with the patience of one waiting for a Pope to be chosen, Graham watches for the white water vapour to change to darker wood gas or dirty smoke. Escape routes are capped off, channelling the smoke back into the kiln rather than out into the atmosphere, and the burn continues – reaching a whopping 600C – with barely any emissions.
“It roars for four or five hours on the wood gas, then starts to die down,” Graham explains. The kiln cools overnight before Graham checks the interior temperature and opens the door.
And what’s inside? The charcoal looks in form exactly as it did, but of course blackened and reduced in size because of the moisture loss. The charcoal is carefully pulled out of the chamber, bagged and sold, no doubt much of it ending up cooking fine pieces of Suffolk-reared steak on the heat of a Suffolk-made Barbecube.