Meat Feast

This morning’s post is a slight deviation from my usual topics – it’s a guide to cooking a hangi.  My main reason for posting to be honest is that I don’t keep a diary and my memory is terrible, so this is a way of ensuring I have a record somewhere of what I did in case anyone ever convinces me to do it again.

A couple of months ago we had a big party and I agreed to cater for the 100-150 people we were expecting. I had a few ideas before I realised exactly how big a task catering for that many people really is when you’re in a field, when the idea of a pit roast struck me.  Hollie and I had been to a hangi in New Zealand about 4 years ago, and we were both quite big fans.  Meat, roast veg, what’s not to like?  The premise is that you dig a pit, put a load of hot stones in it, backfill the pit with meat and veg, then seal with dirt again.  leave it a few hours, then dig it all up and have much nom.

I did a bit of reading around on how to go about making a hangi work, but the concensus on most websites seemed to be ‘make sure it’s hot, make sure it’s covered, leave it in the ground for as long as you like’.  However, a few points struck me as important to sort out.

1. What volume of pit was I going to need to feed that many people

2. What dimensions of pit would that require

3. How were the rocks to be heated

4. Where on earth was I going to get enough suitable* rock without bankrupting myself

The volume of food issue was actually something I didn’t really nail down until the day.  In the end I just specced a 4′ x 6′ whole to be dug 4′ deep, and one of Hollie’s multitudinous relatives obliged with a digger.

Next up was the fire.  To heat the rocks you need about 4 good hours of burn time, and a normal fire is not really practical for moving rocks around in.  Also, building a fire on top of the rocks didn’t seem to be to be a very effective way of heating them.  Instead, I plumped for the ‘funeral pyre’ type build, and instead of having to transport the rocks betweent he fire and the pit built the fire over the pit.

The first problem associated with this is that the size of the hole meant we needed firewood that was well over 4′ long in order to span the pit.  Hollie’s dad was tasked with tracking down a couple of cubic meters of branches, at which he excelled.  In hindsight I would recommend putting the extra effort into finding seasoned logs, as the relatively new wood we had didn’t burn as well as would have been ideal.

The only remaining problem was stone.  Rather than trying to get hold of masses of granite in the middle of the Somerset Levels, we instead decided to give engineering bricks a go.  These things are designed to have very little water absorption, so the chances of them having much internal moisture (which would lead to cracking and shattering on the fire) was fairly low.

With the pit dug, the pyre was build on top up to about a meter in height, with the bricks piled on top of that.  As the pyre burnt, the bricks would eventually collapse with the alst of the fire into the pit, at which time we would put the food in and cover it.  7am on the day of the party the fire was lit.  We had about 2 barrow-loads of bricks, which was probably at the lower end of what would have been ideal, but it was certainly enough to cook the….

46 kilos of meat. Now, when you are catering for this many people you need to provide a bit of variety, so although we’d talked about putting half a pig in there, we wanted some flexibility.  So instead, I found a local wholesaler who supplied us with two 10 kg pork shoulders (£30 each), a 10 kg beef chuck (£75) and about half a dozen  chickens.  On top of that I found a supplier who got us a 5 kg halal mutton joint (about £20).  My calculations had been based on about 300g of raw meat  per person.  If I were to do it again I might allow a bit more – purely because the bone-in joints have so much trim.  As far as what joints to use, this stuff is being stuck int eh ground for anywhere upward of 4 hours.  Not only are cheap (read fattier or tougher) cuts much better able to cope with this type of cooking, but they actively benefit from it, and taste better.  Don’t waste expensive cuts.

The meat prep was straightforward, but still took an hour or so simply due to the volume.  beef was simply seasoned (I may have put some thyme in with it), the pork shoulders were covered in garlic, sliced apple and onion, bay, and a bit of rosemary, the mutton was done with fistfulls of rosemary, and a large head of garlic.  The chickens each got violated with onion and garlic, and everything got a double-layered airtight seal of tin foil.

Veg prep was deceptively easy.  20kg of potatoes were put into wet hessian sacks.  Another hessian sack got a lod of carrots into it, another got sweet potato (and I think squash and onions).  In total I would guess about 50kg of veg, which altogether cost less than a single pork shoulder.  A friend was providing salads to go with the dinner.

At about mid day (after continuous poking and readjustment of bricks) we decided it was time to get everythingin the pit.  The young wood had not burnt brilliantly, but certainly well enough.  The vast maority of the pyre had burnt awway, with the solid closely-spaced raft of logs at the base being the only significant remainder.  The problem now was how to get all the hot stuff int he pit, as it was apparant that the fire wasn’t going to burn itself through these largest and most stubbornly young and sap-rich logs for at least another 2 hours.

Enter Dave And His Magnificent Chainsaw.  I’m sure there must be photos somewhere, but for now I simply want you to imagine the Herculean masculinity of three men trying to cut a fire in half with chainsaws and spades in a desperate effort to cook meat.  Sparks flew (largely towards the fuel tank on the chainsaw), logs severed, and the remains of the pyre collapsed into the hole.  Fire, meat and chainsaws.  Chuck Norris eat your heart out.

Now this bit has to be done quite quickly.  The trick is to get the hole prepped, filled and covered as fast as you can so as little heat escapes as possible.  First, a bucket of water is poured onto the hot stones to try and flush out some of the remaining ash.  Next, pre-prepared chickenwire baskets with all the foil-wrapped meat are lain onto the hot stones.  I chose to put the pork in first as it was likely to be the most forgiving of direct contact with searing bricks.  On top of the meat went the sacks of veg, followed by a layer of wet hessian, which was then covered with topsoil.

What I will say here is that this last process would probably be easy in any normal soil.  south of the Mendips, however, where all we had avalable was the clay that had been scraped out of the hole by the digger, it was more akin to that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know the one.

Now the thing with cooking is that you usually have the opportunity to open the oven and see how things are going.  A pit roast is unique in that once you’ve sealed it you can’t put any more heat in, you have no control over temperature change, and you can’t risk diggging it up early as once it’s dug up you can’t put it all in the ground again as you’ll have lost a huge amount of the residual heat.  Furtunately, pit roasts are also incredibly forgiving.  If the meat is cooked in 4 hours, you can still leave it in there for a further 12 and it will be just as well cooked without drying out.
At about 8.30pm, after an afternoon of debating whtether the small plume of stuff coming off the pit was mostly smoke or steam, we finally got the guts together to dig up the pit. Remove the clods of (now very hot) earth, peel back the hessian, and lift everything out. This is where you discover how good your food baskets were.  Invest the time in doing it well is my advice.  Lift it out, hoist it all back to the tables int he marquee and then Dave and I set about it all with carving knives.

Every single piece of meat was cooked perfectly.  How you manage to put a chicken and a 10 kg beef joint in the same oven for the same amount of time and for them both to come out perfectly cooked, moist and delicious is odd to anyone who has cooked in a conventional oven. I would show you pictures but everyone was far too busy shoving meat into their faces like Neanderthals to operate anything as modern and sophisticated as a camera.

What’s *really* a mystery, however, is how – after 8 and a half hours in a steam-saturated environment, in which a hundredweight of meat has cooked beatifully, the potatoes were basically raw.

So, I would highly recommend it to anyone as an experiment, and it’s a great way of mass catering.  My only problem was with the potatoes, which I think may have suffered from being too tightly packed; many smaller bags of halved potatoes would probably have fixed the isse.


* You have to be a little bit picky about the type of stone you use.  Limestone, for example, will potentially turn to quicklime in the heat, which has a whole host of really nasty implications.  Sandstones tend to disintegrate, and a lot of metamorphic rocks will have a tendancy to shatter.  Basically what you want are igneous rocks.


About Pete Rowley

Earth Scientist with a background in volcanology and sedimentology. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and games. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
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3 Responses to Meat Feast

  1. Pingback: Loch stock and a smoking barrel « geologygeek

  2. Pingback: Loch stock and a smoking barrel | lithics

  3. Pingback: Culinary intermission | lithics

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