Finding Fire

I love climbing mountains, the satisfaction coming not only from reaching the summit but, more importantly, from that sense of freedom in being among the hills and away from it all. While in France, I loved climbing in the alpine ranges, stumbling across alpine goats and sheep and the occasional herder living self-sufficiently in the hills and who, when asked, would invariably share some amazing cheese he had made. I continued climbing in Spain, and Victor and I would take to the mountains on the day the restaurant was closed. As well as being an escape from the grill, it brought us both back to nature with a greater understanding and appreciation of our local environment and the many ingredients that were growing around us.

My climbing took me to Argentina, where I had a strong desire to climb Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America. At 6962 metres (22,841 feet) above sea level, it was quite an expedition with the walk into base camp taking several days. I was struck by the open pampas and the lifestyle of the gauchos who accompanied us. While we had our tents and expensive equipment, they gathered sticks and built a fire. The fire would bring them together; they gathered to cook various cuts of meat: lamb, goat or beef. I was drawn by the activity as much as the fire, so I sat with them drinking the peculiar brewed herb mate while they recounted stories from their lives.

The Argentinians favour a wood from the quebracho tree because it smokes very little. Quebracho is also one of the hardest woods in the world; its name is derived from the Spanish phrase ‘quebrar hacha’, meaning ‘axe breaker’, giving an indication of how difficult it can be to harvest. However, the density means that it burns very slowly over a long period of time, making it ideal for cooking whole animals for several hours.

Of course asado, the name given to this style of cooking, is not limited to Argentina and can be found in several other countries and regions including Patagonia, Chile, Paraguay and Brazil, as well as Spain and Portugal.

Though lamb is mostly favoured, the spit roasting of goat goes back to the time of Virgil and may well be the earliest documented example of cooking an animal over fire. It is a timeless method, but one where the animal required continuous turning to ensure it is evenly cooked. The Argentine iron cross (asado cross), a large metal structure used to hold the carcase while it is cooking means you don’t have to turn the goat continuously, as it is vertically splayed and positioned adjacent to the fire to cook slowly. The angle of the animal and its distance from the fire is adjusted in increments.

Cooking a whole animal over fire should be done slowly and cannot be rushed. The process renders the excess fat and results in succulent meat within and a caramelised crust on the exterior. The length of the process means patience is paramount – but the results are worthwhile.


Quantity Ingredient
1 milk-fed goat (cabrito or capretto), 8–10 kg (see note)
1 litre filtered water
1 litre dry white wine
40ml apple-cider vinegar
1kg sea salt
1/2 garlic bulb, crushed
1 large bunch rosemary, tied


  1. 1. Build a firepit (see note).
  2. 2. Light a large fire and prepare your embers.
  3. 3. Prepare the goat. Crack the hip bone at each side to open at the leg end. Make an incision through the spine from the inside with a hacksaw and push firmly on either side so that the animal is splayed flat. Attach the goat securely to the cross or star pickets, threading the wire through the flesh of the legs close to the bone, to create tension when tied off with pliers to the iron cross. Thread wire through the spine and secure it to the cross to ensure the goat is supported during the cooking process. Suspend the animal, head down, at an angle of approximately 45 degrees to the ground, and 1.5–2 m (5–6.5 ft) away from the fire.
  4. 4. The fire should be offset in line with the hind legs of the animal. Using a rake, distribute intense embers around the base and sides of the cross, being careful to ensure that there is no fire directly below.
  5. 5. In a large saucepan, bring the water, wine, vinegar and salt to the boil, then add the crushed garlic. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Use the tied bunch of rosemary as a brush: dip it liberally in the salt solution and slap the goat all over, releasing the aromatic oils of the rosemary.
  6. 6. Repeat the basting intermittently for the first 2 hours of cooking, giving the goat a beautiful salt crust as the fat renders.
  7. 7. Cook for 3–4 hours on the bone side, continuing to feed the fire, and rake the embers to ensure a continuous even heat.
  8. 8. After about 3 hours, you should see the shoulders start to bleed and the collagen start to give on the skin side, signalling that it is time to turn the goat over to the skin side.
  9. 9. Carefully turn the animal, placing it at an angle closer to the ground and cooking for a further 1 hour. The skin should turn a rich mahogany and have a beautiful thin crust that is hollow when tapped.
  10. 10. Using gloves, carefully remove the goat from the fire and rest it for 15–20 minutes on a large table.
  11. 11. Remove the goat from the cross. With a pair of tongs and a butcher’s knife, divide the animal into forequarter, saddle and legs and then carve the succulent meat from the bone, working with one section at a time. Serve immediately.


  • The goat should be young, milk fed and have an even coating of fat, which is necessary to withstand the long, slow cooking. Young milk-fed goat has a beautiful flavour, sweeter than young lamb, with pinkish, fine-grained flesh and a rich, even covering of milk fat. Boer goats are a South African variety that are now widely farmed worldwide and are prized for the quality of their suckling kids, aged at 40 to 60 days. Milk-fed rearing offers a tender, soft-textured and delicious red meat.


  • There are many ready-made firepits available to buy, and you can also make your own. This is something I feel you should consider as you can design it to suit your requirements.

    While this may seem like a lot of work, you will be rewarded with the unique satisfaction that stems from creating fire not derived from flicking a switch. Trust me, the experience will change your grill game forever. A home-made firepit is also the most cost eff ective option.

    However, a home-made firepit is a lot harder to move if weather causes a problem or you choose to relocate. You can buy a steel firepit that sits above ground (some people even use a metal wheelbarrow) and is movable. Steel firepits come in diff erent shapes and sizes, but too small a pit will limit your activities.

    If you have enough space, build or buy a pit that is wide enough to facilitate a two-zone fire. This allows you to have a fire creating embers that can then be moved to another area of the pit for the purposes of cooking. You can then continue to feed the fire as needed.

    A firepit is best lined with cinder blocks, stones or fire-rated bricks to retain heat and to enclose the burning area so that it doesn’t spread out of control. You can also use the bricks to protect the fire from the wind and to create platforms to support your grill.
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