Recipe: Use local and sustainable charcoal to cook pizza on the barbecue

Ian Loasby. Picture: Kerstin Rodgers

Ian Loasby. Picture: Kerstin Rodgers - Credit: Archant

Kerstin learns more about the 30,000-year-old cooking technique before sharing a delicious recipe for a char-grilled pizza.

Pizza cooked on the barbecue. Picture: Kerstin Rodgers

Pizza cooked on the barbecue. Picture: Kerstin Rodgers - Credit: Archant

Despite our unpredictable weather, most British people will have the same attitude to a barbecue as they will to a British beach – grin and bear it; keep calm and carry on.

We aren’t going to let mere rain and cold prevent us from eating al fresco.

Unfortunately, a barbecue can also be environmentally unfriendly.

Most of the charcoal we buy in this country is from unsustainable sources.

It is of poor quality, glued together with binders, heavy and damp.

Good charcoal is light and tinkles in the bag, almost like glass.

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Archeological evidence shows that charcoal has been made for 30,000 years, and Britain had hundreds of coppiced forests (a system of woodland management whereby trees are cut down and offshoots regrown cyclically), which provided wood for the makers, known as colliers.

There are now 500 ‘burners’ in the UK, many of them in the National Coppice Federation.

In north London, if you want to buy local, Ian Loasby is your man.

A former computer programmer, he was so influenced by John Seymour’s seminal ‘bible,’ The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, his wife booked him onto a weekend course in coppicing.

Drained by the prospect of working at a desk, he then took a two-year course at Capel Manor in woodland management.

A Tottenham resident, Ian runs regular woodland and education projects in Queens Wood, Muswell Hill.

I went to see where he makes charcoal at the enormous, belching, smoking ‘Exeter retort,’ which is reminiscent of a steam punk contraption.

Why make wood into charcoal?

Ian explained that effectively you are drying the wood, eliminating all moisture, so it can achieve a higher temperature when burnt.

Charcoal was originally used by blacksmiths to smelt iron but is also excellent for cooking purposes.

Local char burns steadily, produces less smoke and fewer dangerous vapours.

Forty per cent of British woodland is under-managed, so we have the capacity to make more of our own charcoal and it would be a good source of employment.

It is a time consuming craft.

The retort is filled with wood, and Loasby uses hornbeam, hazel, silver birch, sweet chestnut, oak and ash.

The oxygen is eliminated as the retort is heated for between eight and 12 hours to 450 ºc (it requires careful tending as gaskets blow off and dents form in the metal sides).

When first opened, the cooling charcoal gleams with iridescent colours, such as blue and gold.

To buy local charcoal, contact Ian Loasby at

He charges £8 a bag of charcoal. He also builds hazelwood hurdles and supplies biochar for fertilising gardens.

Pizza on a barbecue? Not only is it possible but it is particularly delicious.

The trick is to put the toppings on at the last minute.

Barbecue pizza recipe (makes two)


For the pizza dough:

250g strong flour or XXXXX flour

1 packet 7g of fast acting yeast

150ml lukewarm water

1/2 tsp salt

1tsp sugar or honey

3tbsps olive oil and more for brushing

2tbsps coarse semolina

For the toppings:

3tbsp olive oil

500ml tomato passata

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 fresh bay leaves

4 mozzarella balls, torn up

Fresh herbs such as basil, oregano.

Freshly ground black pepper

Sea salt


Olive oil for drizzling




Make the dough by mixing the flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar, olive oil together. Leave to proof for an hour or more.

Light your barbecue, wait until the coals are hot but with no flame.

Ideally your barbecue will be between 210 and 260ºC (400 to 500ºF).

Make the tomato sauce by putting olive oil, passata, minced garlic and bay leaves into a medium saucepan and simmering for 15 minutes.

Scatter the semolina onto a chopping board, roll out your pizza into a thick circle and brush one side generously with olive oil (I set up a little pizza station next to the BBQ).

Place the pizza on the BBQ, oil side down.

Close the lid.

Allow the pizza to cook for five minutes.

This is a bit like a pizza oven with the lid on, and the dough will puff up.

Turn the pizza over and quickly add the toppings.

Spoon on the tomato sauce and spreading it with the back of a spoon all over the pizza.

Distribute the mozzarella, scatter the herbs, grind on the black pepper and add any other toppings.

Add a drizzle more olive oil and some sea salt.

Close the lid again. Leave for five minutes. Serve immediately.

Book for msmarmitelover’s cookery book literary festival at her house in Kilburn on September 3.

Tickets £25.