The age-old and once essential craft of charcoal burning is slowly disappearing from the Central European and Hungarian mountains, replaced by factory operations.
A few years ago, when traveling in the Bükk Highlands, the Mátra Mountains, or the Cserhát Hills of Hungary, it was possible to come across charcoal burners, men who carried out this centuries-old activity, tending the mounds of covered wood which were being reduced to charcoal. It was a craft that was even then practiced only by a select few.
A Family Affair
Dénes, his wife Rosa, and extended family of his sons and their wives worked day and night, tending the large earth-covered mounds of oak logs. They lived on-site in battered mobile vans, in the Cserhát Hills of Hungary, but their roots were in Erdei, Romania. Dénes originally trained to be a bricklayer, but he learned the craft of charcoal burning from his father in Transylvania, and he spent the summers making charcoal.
The Craft of Charcoal Making
The oak logs must be split, then built into large circular mounds approximately three meters high. Each of the mounds takes almost two days to build. The wood is then covered with hay, and the whole lot is covered with four centimeters of soil – the top layer – that stops the oxygen from reaching the wood. The hay is to stop the soil from falling through onto the wood, which must smolder, not burn.
Takes Eighteen Days to Burn Down
To start the fires burning in the heart of the mound kindling is put into the middle; it is set on fire, and the wood is left to render into charcoal. Sixty cubic meters of oak, the amount which makes up one of the mounds, takes approximately 18 days to burn down into charcoal, and the mounds require constant checking, day and night.
Colour of the Smoke Gives Indications of the State of the Fire
During the day, the color of the smoke that drifted from the various draft holes told Dénes how hot the fire was, where one section of the mound had to be dampened off, or another opened up, using the various draft holes. If the smoke was too blue, it meant that the charcoal was starting to burn and the fire must be cooled. At dusk and through the hours of darkness, the eerie glow of the fires shining through the straw gave the same information.
Hot and Grimy Work
It was hard and grimy work. As the charcoal forms, the mounds start collapsing and the wood must be beaten down using large wooden mallets. Visitors were rare but warmly welcomed, and Dénes was happy to talk about his craft. Although the constant smoke meant that the charcoal burners had to set up their camps in the depths of the forest, far from any villages, it at least, as Dénes wryly commented, kept the mosquitoes away.
Future BBQ Fuel
When the wood was rendered down, the mounds were opened, and the lumps of charcoal shoveled into plastic sacks, becoming future BBQ fuel, ready to lend its distinctive aroma and taste to a myriad of dishes over countless fires.
Nothing was wasted – even the dust was sieved and packaged to be used as a garden soil supplement – it enriches the earth and acts as a natural pesticide against certain bugs. It’s also used for other things: charcoal sticks are used for a distinctive style of drawing, it can be used in filters to sift out impurities, and it is also an ingredient in gunpowder.