Monday, 22 October 2012
With its great sweeping Georgian terraces, cobbled hills and shimmering waterfront, much of Bristol is quite disarmingly attractive. Walking from where I was staying in villagey Redland, down the dramatic incline of St Michael's Hill and through the medieval Christmas steps, it's enough to make you come over all Bristol Tourist Board, but for some reason when I lived here as a student I never stopped drinking and sleeping long enough to appreciate it. It was only last year I returned for the first time since my final exams, and found myself completely smitten with the place. And then, this summer, Grillstock happened, and suddenly it was a full-blown love affair.
The idea of hosting an authentic, US-style, Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS)-rules competition in dear old Blighty is actually nothing new. Various attempts have been made over the years to run a regular, respectable event showcasing the best of US BBQ but all have either gone under or morphed into that more traditional home-grown beast - food cooked over charcoal grills. I'm sure Laverstocke Park's Field to Fork Festival (to pick one example) is great fun, but real American 'cue fanatics hanker after the "low and slow" approach with pork butt, beef ribs and chicken thighs coated in dry-rub, smoked for hours over cherry wood chips and served with a sweet, sharp sauce.
And this was exactly what was happening, on an impressive scale, at the Grillstock festival in Bristol back in June. I was lucky enough to have been invited as a judge on one of the less important rounds (they weren't about to let a chancer like me loose on the pulled pork, brisket and chicken rounds) but would have happily paid to go; the weekend was about as much fun as I can remember having at any food event, with 21 teams from all over the UK and Europe (US competition BBQ is especially popular in Estonia, interestingly) competing for the King of the Grill title. The quality of the food was astonishing, the serious business of BBQ given due reverence, and the whole of the harbourside was hung with the smell of smoked brisket. It was heaven.
But with the Grillstock festival itself being an annual affair for just a couple of days at a time, where do you go for the rest of the year for proper competition-style BBQ without booking a flight to Memphis, TN? Well, at lunchtimes in St Nicholas Market in the centre of Bristol you can now go to Grillstock's very own stall, where a daily-changing menu of authentic American treats like brisket, pulled pork and chicken wings are served by enthusiastic BBQ lovers. I must declare an interest, in that not only was anything attached to the Grillstock name always going to make me go all-of-a-wobble, but a friend of mine Dan (better known as @essexeating and one half of Bristol supperclub sensations The Basement) is the chef. But even the most hardened cynic would be won over by the food - and the prices - of this little stall.
Beef rib on the bone, surely the best part of a kilo of meat served with a bun and slaw, was an unbelievable £6.50. Inside the dark crust of a herby, salty rub, slow cooking had rendered the meat so tender you could slice off thick, moist strips of it with even the plastic cutlery it came with. Pulled pork - something silly like £4 - was piled high and had some good colouring from the rub, and tasted like they knew exactly what they were doing. And a hot dog, appearing on the Grillstock menu for the first time, was sourced from the same butchers that hot dog legends Big Apple of Old Street get theirs, and was predictably brilliant. It came with yet more pulled pork and Dan's special 'fry sauce' which you can read more about here.
So the Grillstock stall is very good indeed, and reason enough for BBQ-loving citizens of Bristol to be very happy. And judging by numbers filing through this corner of St Nicholas Market on Saturday lunchtime it already has many devotees. But it gets better. Not only do we have the 2013 Grillstock to look forward to (11th-12th May), but next year for the first time ever Grillstock is coming to London (15th-16th June), meaning far more of you have the opportunity to go, and serious fanatics have the option of going twice. I'll be the one with the BBQ sauce-stained shirt and the delirious, meat-sated smile on my face.