Burn baby burn: Talking charcoal with Matt Williams from The Oxford Charcoal Company
There’s more to charcoal than you might think. And no-one knows this better than Matt Williams, Master Charcoal Maker at The Oxford Charcoal Company.
In fact, there’s not much about the black stuff that Matt doesn’t know.
Matt’s background is in craft (he was a thatcher for 25 years before getting involved with The Oxford Charcoal Company where he spends his days “playing with sticks and fire”) and he uses the same artisan approach in producing the charcoal.
Unlike many of the charcoal products on the market, Matt’s charcoal does not contain and starch, sawdust or coal, and it hasn’t been sprayed with fire retardant chemicals, making it one of the purest and most natural charcoals available.
And most importantly, all the wood used in the production is sourced from sustainable woodlands.
“Fifteen per cent of the world’s deforestation is caused by the charcoal industry worldwide,” explains Matt. “But our team opposes this – we are essentially environmentalists. I work with David who is a forester, and Amy who has a degree in ecology to make sure that what we are doing actually has a positive effect on the environment.
“The woodlands we source our timber from are all managed to provide vital habitats for native birds, animals and plants, all the wood that goes into our charcoal is virgin forestry wood and it is all certified as sustainable.
“We only take as much from a woodland as grows in a year, and we create a completely closed cycle so as much carbon dioxide is released by making the charcoal is absorbed.”
While to the untrained eye, making charcoal might seem as simple as just setting some wood alight, Matt knows that creating a product fit for some of the UK’s top restaurants takes not only considerable skill, but a great deal of hard work as well.
“Charcoal making always seems to be seen as a kind of dark woodland craft,” he says. “But if you have ever set fire to wood then you have made charcoal.
“When wood flames that’s just the hydrocarbons, but as soon as the flame stops and you are left with the ember then that’s charcoal. What many people don’t realise though is that you don’t actually have to set the wood alight at all.”
In order to create the charcoal Matt has imported a kiln from the Ukraine. It consists of two chambers with a burner in between. Waste wood from construction companies is used in the burner, and the heat produced is used to turn the dry wood in one chamber into charcoal, and when this process begins the emissions then dry the wood in the second chamber.
This means that the process can run in an almost constant cycle, and no energy is wasted.
“It can take up to 20 tons of wood to produce one ton of charcoal, but with this process is only takes 3.6 tons per ton of charcoal so it is much more efficient,” says Matt.
The Oxford Charcoal Company produces a range of single species charcoal chosen for their unique flavours and clarity of taste, as well as a blend which contains varieties selected not only for their flavours and aromas, but also for their consistency and burn time.
“A single species charcoal will always be the same,” says Matt. “So if you find one which suits your appliance and the way you cook then you know it will behave the same way every time.”
The Oxford Charcoal Company restaurant grade charcoal is available from the London Log Company.