Friday, 20 June 2014
Grillstock 2014, Bristol
It's the smell that hits you first. Almost as soon as you step off the train at Temple Meads, you notice the air carrying a faint tinge of sweet mesquite, and by the time you reach the centre, it's unmistakeable. The city of Bristol has become a giant kitchen for three days, and an area the size of a football pitch on the waterfront, packed with hundreds of bizarre gently-smouldering contraptions resembling a nicotine-addicted Star Wars droid convention, is the culprit. This is Grillstock, not strictly the UK's only serious competition BBQ meet but, in my own hopelessly biased opinion, the best, and, for fans of American low-and-slow meat cooking, about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
As with many such festivals, it's a combination of factors that makes Grillstock so brilliant. Firstly, and most importantly, this is a deadly serious BBQ competition, using the proper KCBS (Kansas City Barbeque Society) rules, and the overall Grand Champion, as well as pocketing £1000 cash, gets automatic qualification to the American Royal in Kansas City, USA, later in the year. This is, for anyone with even a passing interest in competition BBQ, a Very Big Deal.
It's also, only marginally less importantly, a music festival, the main stage being host to a fantastically diverse range of acts loosely relating to a Deep South theme - blues/country stuff, always entertaining and effectively lending the whole affair an extra level of authenticity. When the sun's out (which it sometimes is, honest), wandering amongst the drums, barrels and grills of the competition area, clothes slowly soaking up the essence of dry rubbed brisket, with an energetic five-piece Dixieland band bashing away in the background, you could almost be in Kansas.
And then there are the festival regulars. Presiding over the food side of things is Florida-based "Dr BBQ" Ray Lampe, probably as close as you can get to the archetypal BBQ expert in human form. Wearing matching flame-decal short-sleeved shirt and shorts (always shorts, whatever the weather) and a long white beard, when the competition rounds are being judged his running commentary is essentially a free BBQ masterclass - there is nothing this man does not know about how to judge, and how to win, competition 'que.
The other attendees, judges and competitors alike, are hardly less interesting. There's John Hargate from the highly-respected World's End BBQ Shack near Brighton, a man with a whole host of BBQ awards under his ample belt and who is another encyclopaedic expert on this kind of thing. There's Jackie Weight, the first and (so far) only non-American participant to win the Grand Champion title at the frighteningly important Jack Daniels comp in Tennessee. And manning his own custom-built mobile BBQ pit is Dr Sweetsmoke, a Louisiana expat now living, of all places, in Swindon. All these people come to Grillstock to share their love of low'n'slow meat cooking and because, on these shores, there just isn't anywhere else comes close. The point is, it's as much about the atmosphere and feel of the place as it is about the plates of tenderly slow-smoked ribs, chicken thighs, brisket and pulled pork, expertly arranged in parsley-lined plastic containers (as is the tradition) and marked out of 100.
If it's the serious "King of the Grill" competition that forms the backbone of the festival, it's the fringe events, and fringe cooking rounds, that give it extra spice and colour. This year two new categories were introduced, buffalo wings, and burgers. It seemed to me that the rigid specifications of the wings round (vinegar-chilli sauce, dairy dip) produced some genuinely lovely results (though whoever it was who decided to spike their entry with naga chillies deserves a good hiding), while the rather more loosely-defined "burger" allowed some people's imaginations to run away with themselves a little more than was healthy. Well done, for example, to the Beefy Boys and their commedably MeatLiquor-a-like classic with the meat-steamed buns; less well done to whoever thought spearing a beef & seafood burger with a deep fried mussel was a good idea.
But there's one fringe event, in fact, that is worth the journey all by itself. The chilli eating competition, on the main stage, is quite honestly one of the most entertaining half hours of the entire weekend, and if you're not in tears of laughter by the time the first unlucky contestant drops out and vomits in a bucket (usually to a chorus of "we've got a puker!") then you're dead inside. Grillstock don't allow live betting on the results, at least I don't think they do, but my own tip is go for the slightest, classiest-looking female; two years in a row now the only female contestant has munched through a pound of ghost chillies like they were breakfast cereal even as her male rivals were being tended to by the St John's Ambulance team waiting patiently in the wings (seriously). I'm not privy to the number of marriage proposals she received after the event but I'm sure it must have been in double figures.
Back now in the Big Smoke after another fantastic weekend in Grillstock Bristol, it's worth noting that for many lucky northerners, the fun is yet to begin. Grillstock Manchester kicks off 28th June, is attended by many of the same teams, bands and exhibitors that make the Bristol event such a success, and if it has even a tenth of the energy, joy and carnage it'll be sure to be an absolute riot. So good luck again Bunch of Swines, Jedi Swine Tricks and the rest of the brave participants, and commiserations in advance to the first of the chilli eating competitors to reach for the milk. You have my sympathies.
Train tickets to and from Bristol kindly provided by First Great Western. Some pics (mainly of the food) courtesy of @foodstories.