August 2020. The barbecue and I have been eyeing each other warily for years, but it’s taken a pandemic to finally bring us together. When my daughters and I bought the beach house in Ciboure in 2011, we purchased a basic cheap and nasty barbecue that rusted to death in the garage during the winter. The same thing happened to its slightly more upmarket successor. After that, I was advised to invest in a Weber, which everyone told me was better, simpler, rust-free, and foolproof. That, it turns out, depends entirely on the fool.
My friend Kathy and her daughter Lara came to visit in May of 2014 (or thereabouts), and they got the thing set up and grilled us steaks. My own attempts a week later pretty much came to grief. It took four hours to get the barbecue lit and supper semi-cooked. The next summer I bought a special Weber chimney to light the little bugger, had another go, and failed again. After that I decided that the beast and I would go our separate ways. It could stay lurking in a corner of the terrace in case the children or the renters needed it, and I would ignore it.
But two months at the seaside avoiding Covid with a succession of barbecue experts have changed my mind. After observing first Annabel, then Tahar, whip up dinner from stone cold to perfectly grilled in half an hour, I made my first solo attempt when my friend Karen came to visit. It was moderately successful. The charcoal got lit with no trouble at all, but the food ended up al dente. Having figured out that I needed to add more coals (Weber’s multilingual instruction booklet isn’t all that clear), I picked up some marinated kebabs from Leclerc, got up my nerve with gin and tonic, and prepared to provide dinner for another friend. It helped that Laure had acquired a good deal of experience barbecuing on her suburban Paris terrace during the confinement. Between us we got the thing lit, added more coals, shoved on the lid, watched the temperature rise on the built-in thermometer (oh yes, all the gadgets!) and grilled the kebabs. They were delicious!
Mastering the barbecue gives one an amazing sense of achievement. There’s a sort of primitive thrill in dominating the Elements – air and fire! – and ensuring one’s Survival in the Basque seaside wilderness. Unfortunately my new next-door neighbour doesn’t think so. As we were cooking the other night, he grumbled something through the hedge about the smell. “But it smells so good!” responded Laure. “No it doesn’t,” he said and stumped off into his house to close the windows. Barbecue Envy? His yard is smaller than mine, and rather more manicured. It looks like something out of Elle Deco, and a barbecue really wouldn’t fit in there. Meanwhile my cooking smells are ruining his curated outdoor haven of Gracious Living.
I, on the other hand, have been suffering all summer from Hydrangea Envy. His hydrangeas are newer and bluer than mine, which are a kind of washed-out white. Life just isn’t fair.