Parks are set to sizzle with the aroma of charcoal-grilled meats over spring and summer as more Sydneysiders upgrade their picnics with a portable barbecue.
"Pretty much everyone buying our cook-it-yourself barbecue packs is adding a single-use charcoal grill to their order too," says Alina Van, co-owner of mobile grilled-skewer restaurant Firepop.
"A lot of people are using the grill in parks and tagging us on social media. It's been especially popular with families who want to create a memorable experience through lockdown. Plus, there's nothing quite like perfectly caramelised meat cooked over charcoal."
Firepop delivers sticks (or "pops") of cumin-spiced lamb and David Blackmore wagyu Sydney-wide. An eco-friendly disposable grill made from bamboo and cardboard can be added to the order for $19.95.
"It takes five minutes to light and lasts for an hour," says Firepop co-founder Raymond Hou. "It's super easy to use, even if you have never grilled over charcoal before. Even our four and nine-year-old kids have been using it under supervision."
While numerous Sydney parks are equipped with gas or electric flat-top barbecues, many meat enthusiasts prefer the experience and taste of grilling food over charcoal, from three-bite Japanese yakitori sticks to hulking Turkish kebabs.
The taste appeal comes from meat releasing juice and fat as it cooks. Drippings hiss on hot coals to create aromatics that are transferred back into the meat.
"More and more people are getting hooked on creating that charcoal flavour themselves," says Nick Angelucci, owner of Leichhardt's BBQAroma retail store, which is set to expand into a larger showroom next year to accommodate its growing inventory and customer base.
"Skewer grills in particular have really, really taken off this year. They're easy to store down the side of the house, or throw in the car and take to the park.
"People have also been upgrading their home charcoal barbecue over lockdown – they've started off with a small, portable grill and now want something bigger for when the whole family can hopefully come over at Christmas."
Gabriel Gewargis is managing director of The BBQ Store in Preston. He says online sales have doubled for his business over lockdown as Sydneysiders look to enhance their barbecue arsenal.
"We can barely keep up with orders," says Gewargis. "People are buying everything – smokers, meat rubs, charcoal rotisseries, you name it.
"The Cobb is also becoming more popular now that people can picnic again. It's a bit like the grill at a Korean barbecue restaurant where you gather around to cook with your family."
Initially designed as a cooking system for people without electricity in rural areas of Africa, the standard four-kilogram $190 Cobb uses charcoal for fuel, but meat juices drip into a well around the sides of the barbecue rather than directly on coal.
The system is potentially more park-friendly than traditional charcoal grilling, particularly if other picnickers are nearby and less enthusiastic about a smoky lunch.
"There's not much smoke apart from the initial lighting," says David Cheetham, founder of the Cobb Cooking Australia Facebook group with 1600 members. Australian Cobb fans, naturally, are "Cobbers".
"[The barbecue] has developed an almost cult following with the Cobbers," says Cheetham. "Some are fanatics. The appeal of the Cobb is its portability, but I also use mine at home a lot as a kitchen extension."
Already selling by the pallet-load at Bunnings, Harvey Norman will begin stocking the Cobb from next week too.
Tips for charcoal grilling in parks
- Check local council guidelines before heating a charcoal grill in public and leave the barbecue at home if there's a fire ban.
- "If you want to avoid smoke and flare ups, then oil is your enemy," says Angelucci. "Fatty sausages will definitely create smoke, especially cheap ones with a high water content. The water will douse the charcoal and make it smoulder."
- Cook more vegetables: picnic-friendly produce such as asparagus, pineapple and peaches will create zero smoke compared to a big hunk of meat.
- "Don't be in a hurry to get the charcoal going," says Angelucci. "Build up a little charcoal pyramid with two or three firelighters and give it 20 minutes to engulf. That way, you're going to avoid a lot of the smoke you get from starting a burn too quickly."
- Create two cooking zones on the grill – one where you can cook at a high heat and a cooler resting spot to finish steaks or transfer meats in case of too much smoke or flame.
- Make sure the charcoal is completely cool before disposing of it and never dump used coals on parkland. Designated charcoal cooking areas and coal bins have been installed in some parks, including the Lizard Log and Bungarribbee recreation areas of Western Sydney Parklands.