Several signs herald the beginning of an Irish summer, including the national tendency to reveal an inordinate amount of flesh, often minus sunscreen application, at the first promise of sun. The other main indicator is the smell of meat cooking in the open air and wafting across the back gardens of suburbia. Barbecue season is here once more and many of us can't wait to get grilling.
For the first-time barbecue purchaser, there are several points to take into consideration. The first is how much you want to invest in a barbecue, both as a pursuit and in terms of financial outlay. If you want to spend as little as possible - you're just in the market for burgers on a day to the beach - a disposable lumpwood barbecue (€3.49 from Tesco) could fit the bill nicely. Again, for those who don't plan to make barbecuing an everyday part of their summer, they may find something like a square barbecue and five piece starter pack (€27.99 from Argos), which is made from steel, sufficient for their needs.
But for those who plan to fully embrace the barbecuing lifestyle, as many Irish people are increasingly doing, the sky's the limit in terms of how much they can spend on top-of the-range models.
At The Outdoor Scene, one of the largest independent retailers of barbecues in Ireland and based in Dublin's Goatstown, the smallest charcoal variety starts at around €80 and it's possible to spend in excess of €4,000 on a high-end model. "The average spend on a barbecue in store here is between €600 and €700," says owner John Egan. "I'd also sell quite a few at €300-€350 and I'd sell quite a few at €1,500 as well," he says.
The bottom line is that if you're only going to barbecue infrequently, there's probably little point in spending thousands, but also to bear in mind that when you invest in a good model, it could last you up to 10 years.
Once you've picked a price point, the next big decision for the barbecue purchaser to make is to go for either gas or charcoal. Fans of gas-fuelled barbecues love their immediacy - you can fire it up at the turn of a switch - and they give you a good level of control when you're cooking your food. Charcoal barbecue aficionados point to the fact that charcoal gives food that authentic smoky flavour and that they're often cheaper than the gas varieties.
"People have the perception that charcoal is messier than gas but not necessarily," says Caroline Whelan of A Room Outside in Limerick, which sells several brands of barbecues.
"People think that you can't regulate the temperature with charcoal but you can. It depends on the charcoal or lumpwood that you're using. There's a lot of different charcoal out there and a lot of very bad grades. If you use a better grade one, you can get the temperature from it; you can get the heat from it, long lasting, for long slow cooks.
"For some people the benefit for gas is that it's convenient. It has come a long way in the last few years in that you can add things like smoking chips, even to your gas, to add flavour to it but the lumpwood we would say would give you better flavour."
The top seller at A Room Outside is the Big Green Egg, a ceramic barbecue that uses lumpwood, with Mini Eggs starting at €485 going up to €1,550 for the Extra Large Egg. Because it's ceramic, it holds in the heat and thus moisture in the food. As to how much one of them costs to run, Caroline Whelan says that very much depends on how much cooking is being done on them. "The lumpwood that we sell with Big Green Egg is a 9kg bag and costs €25 and typically people who are just doing ordinary cooking on it would probably get four weeks out of a bag," she says. "But if someone is using it every day, they're going to use more. The thing about using lumpwood is you can use and reuse what's in there from your last cook and it doesn't go to dust. Because it's natural wood it's actually quite economical to use."
According to John Egan of the Outdoor Room in Goatstown, 90pc of their barbecue sales are gas. "In a climate like Ireland where you're not guaranteed sunshine from one day to another, when you can just hit a switch and you're ready to cook, it's more appealing," he says. One trend he has noticed is that of creating outdoor cooking areas and installing a built-in barbecue, which can give a tidier look to a patio area or back garden, and are not necessarily any more expensive than a freestanding one.
This gives people the option to pipe natural gas to their built-in barbecue, which is possible with some brands like Beefeater, but bottle gas is still the more popular choice. Again, running costs depend on frequency of use. "If you're cooking two to three times a week and for extended family at weekends, your average regular barbecue user would probably use two bottles of gas in a season at a cost of about €70 so you could probably say that each barbecue costs between €1.50 and €3 each," Egan says.
Another trend Egan has observed is the increasing sophistication of Irish barbecue lovers. "Typically in the past people would have primarily just grilled on the barbecue and done fillets of beef and burgers and sausages, whilst more and more people now, probably because they're better travelled, are beginning to use their barbecues as either smokers, which is more slow cooking, or as conventional ovens and that would be called indirect cooking," he explains.
"There's a whole range of accessories for your standard barbecue that allows you to do more than traditional grilling. Grilling is like entry level stuff, but maybe 50-60pc of people are still grilling." These accessories include rotisseries, smoke boxes, fish baskets and griddle pans and can range in price from €10 up to €150.
After deciding on budget and type, it's really down to practicalities. One is how many people do you intend cooking for on a regular basis? In general a two or three burner gas or a medium-sized charcoal should accommodate the needs of up to six people but you can go bigger. "You can go anywhere from a three-burner to a four-burner to a five-burner whereas years ago you would have been restricted to a three- burner. Now you have different size grilling areas," says Caroline Egan.
What kind of space you have to accommodate a barbecue should also be borne in mind. You might really fancy the idea of a giant state-of-the-art number but that's probably not going to work in a small area like an urban balcony. Although just because you have to go small, it doesn't mean compromising on quality.
Weber's baby Q range, which are designed to be used on balconies and for caravanning and picnics, are high-performance gas barbecues that can cost in the region of €260 plus.
Whatever you opt for, don't think that your barbecue can only be used in summer.
Roger Beck with his three Big Green Egg BBQs at home in Limerick City. Photo: Brian Gavin Press 22
Argos 4 burner gas barbecue with side burner
If you want to ease your way into barbecuing, this is a relatively low-cost way to do so. It has four burners and a large cooking area, with a chrome plated steel wire warming rack to keep food warm, as well as a side burner to cook up side dishes. Made from steel, it uses propane gas (not included) and has electronic ignition. The instructions for assembling and using are easy to follow and it looks great. €139.99 from www.argos.ie
Weber Baby Q1000
This gas, portable barbecue is small and perfectly formed. The smallest in the Q range from the lauded Weber brand, it’s especially suited for al fresco dining at picnics and when camping, as well being very suitable for small spaces like balconies. Made of cast aluminium, it has one stainless steel burner and a quick push-of-the-button start, while the cast iron cooking grate is porcelain-enamelled and conducts heat evenly. €259.99 from
Big Green Egg (medium)
A ceramic, charcoal-fuelled barbecue, this is ideal for those who want to cook for two-four people midweek or serve up a rack of lamb to six-eight people at the weekends. What will you fit on it? Take your pick from an 18-pound turkey, six burgers or four steaks. Features include an internal firebox, fire ring and fire grate, stainless steel cooking grid, dual function metal top and a Tel-True thermometer dome gauge.
€850 from www.aroomoutside.ie
Beefeater Discovery 1100 Premium Built-in Barbecue 4 Burner
If you want compact and an iconic Australian brand to boot, this barbecue ticks all the boxes. Made of stainless steel, its rust-free cooking plates, with huge heat power, are easy to clean and it also has an integrated convention-roasting hood. It boasts Quartz Start ignition and stainless steel vaporisers to reduce flare-ups as well as an integrated temperature thermometer. Reflectors ensure an even distribution of heat.
€1,105 from www.barbecues.ie
Broil King Regal 590 Pro
Style marries function here with 4,032 sq cm of cooking space, solid stainless steel cooking grids, five stainless steel dual tube burners, a rotisserie and an enclosed cabinet that will fit an 11gk gas bottle. It also has stainless steel side shelves and a rear burner. Broil King is a very reputable brand and this is the kind of kick-ass barbecue that gives legendary cooking results and one that you’ll have for years and years. €1,995.00 from www.outdoor.ie
Summer is one of the best times of the year to enjoy food and while I love entertaining for friends outdoors, I am always on the lookout for interesting recipes for quick and tasty solo meals. Lunchbox saviours like my bento box chorizo scotch eggs will make you feel you're not missing out on the sunshine even if you're stuck at your desk working.