Speaking of summertime grilling, we could hardly write about the barbecue without talking about today’s word. Not only does it have cult followers who insist that it imparts a flavour unmatched by gas grilling, its presence and usage in Britain actually predate the Bronze Age. Though its importance as a fuel for industry, heating, and general cooking has declined since the 1700s, when it comes to outdoor grilling, according to die-hard fans, you can’t beat the taste of charcoal.
Ironically, for something that had been such a staple for virtually millennia, the word charcoal only appears in English in the mid 14th century as charcole. Theory has it that the term is either a derivative of the Old French charbon or a combination of the Old English words cerran and cole, (“to turn,” and “coal”), which became charcoal.
Whether it was the mid-1300s or the dawn of the Bronze Age, making charcoal wasn’t as easy as going down to the shops and simply buying a bag of Big K or Weber briquettes. For the greater part of British history, making charcoal was almost a week-long process which took place in a forest and involved stacking logs in a pile with a makeshift chimney in the centre and a covering of dirt, sand, and leaves or peat. Set alight and allowed to slowly burn and carbonize while restricting or eliminating (as much as possible) the inflow of air, the pile was diligently monitored by a collier, who would sit and watch it for periods of up to 48 hours (day and night) at a time. By weight, even the highest yields of charcoal production would only equate to 25% of the original wood weight.
Usage of the word charcoal
The first known usage of the word charcoal in English comes from the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c1390), where it is written, “A chair before the chimney, where charcoal burned.” In 1626, Sir Francis Bacon’s Sylua Syluarum discusses how, “Sea-coal last longer than Char-coal; and Char-coal of Roots, being coaled into great pieces, last longer than ordinary Char-coal.” As science has discovered newer and better products to perform charcoal’s duties, it has fallen into disuse for more utilitarian tasks, though barbecuers across the UK have been rediscovering the flavour that only charcoal can give. Beyond the smoke and sizzle, there’s a long history that comes from that little bag at the corner shop.