Friday, September 4, 2009

Spit Roast Recollections

From the day I first heard Shakespeare's line about picking parsley to stuff a rabbit I have had a fascination with roasting whole animals.

Any book I read that concerned itself, even in passing, with rustic methods of cooking rabbits and hare and venison or fowl or goose had me salivating at the thought of slowly turning the spit by a riverbank as I waited for my herb anointed supper to roast.

Spit roasting as I grew up was not in vogue. Ox roasts may have been, before that time, as fund raisers, and pig roasts became so afterwards, as the ubiquitous football club bonding booze up, but my father took some persuading at the end of my first year of university to allow me to have a lamb spit roast at our sea side house as a break up bash.

My brother Tony, as a chef, was my adviser and together we dug the pit to take the fire and erected the spit we constructed from star pickets, steel rod and wire. No mechanical drive was involved in 1970 and we largely had to work things out for ourselves.

The pit was about a metre wide and 1/2 metre deep and the star pickets were crossed so as to provide a forked top on which the steel rod, which was passed right through the lamb, was placed. At one end the rod had two right angle bends to form a turning handle.

The pit was filled with wood and burned down to coals before the cooking started. The lamb, which was stuffed with chickens, was turned by hand for about three to four hours. The turning was done in shifts by my brother and numerous guests between trips backwards and forwards to the beer keg, actually still wooden in 1970.

My brother's best cooking aid was a (new) dish mop tied to a broom stick which was repeatedly dipped in an oil based marinade and used to baste the rotating beast. I have since learned that better than a marinade is warm salty water which constantly applied via a dish mop leaves the skin crispy and the flesh moist.

After that first year the spit roast became a regular end of final term break up function for my law year. They were much looked forward to for the eating and drinking and the warmth of the fire, the joy of the spectacle and above all, the anticipation of feasting on the turning beast to be served with potatoes baked in the dying coals and a simple green salad. In later years we became mechanised with various motors but the thrill of the hand turned spit is with me still and the experience was by far the most satisfying.

In 1982 Mary, (who with the help of my father had secured my affections at one of the seaside spit roasts), and I travelled to Greece for the first time. Being in Athens on Holy Thursday of the Greek Easter we saw many people walking through the streets carrying dressed whole lambs under their arms, loosely wrapped in butcher's paper, heads dangling. It was something of a mystery to us until Easter Sunday when, after we boarded the train from Athens to Patras amid the traditional greeting of
"Christos anesti " and the response " Alethos anesti" - "Christ is risen" - "Risen indeed", we observed, as we rattled past backyard after backyard of suburban Athens, families gathered around their hand turned spits waiting for the lamb to roast for their festive lunch. It was me who was in heaven!

In more recent times I have used more sophisticated spit roasters designed and built by my friend and colleague Peter Barker who for years had a Boxing Day lamb roast at his home under Mt Wellington. In about 1994 I had a rites of Spring party in Mary's lovely garden and a lamb was duly hoist on the spit by Tony and I and cooked and consumed with a string quartet playing as our guests ate.

The picture above was taken at a New Years pig roast in 2006 when I lowered my standards and used a gas fired "static" spit oven, but, I must confess, with very good results from a crackling point of view.

The rather strange expression on my face and turn of wrist is emulating the pose of Rino Codognotto, uncle of the late and legendary Mietta O'Donnell. Mietta's Uncle Rino was a master of the spit roast and his detailed descriptions of constructing the pit and the spit and of the cooking methods involved for pork and lamb are set out in
Mietta's Italian Family Recipes, a great book and a must read for anyone wanting to get started in traditional spit roasting.

So get to it.


  1. Another great read Stephen. I said to George Biron the other day that you two had better get working on the books that are obviously bursting from you both.
    My 'weird' comment was about the link between spit roasting & AFL players, the former, a way to decribe the coupling of two or more players & a single female in the act of 'Football worshsip' commonly played out in hotel rooms.
    Yes I know, I can always be relied upon to drag a theme into the gutter....
    During the 2007 Symposium in Dover, the committee decided to spit roast a Berkshire pig as a tester for the actual event. All of us 'experts' deliberated the best way to appraoch this. It was revealing to observe the players of the Hobart Food scene jostle to get their method across without bruising egos & was an exquiste excercise of diplomatic deftness of touch.
    Once its was safely away roasting, of course we got seriously stuck into the grog, which was generously supplied by Peter Althous.
    At about 9pm, stomachs grumbling, our collective attention turned toward the porcine roman candle outside which had combusted specatacularly due to our negligence!
    You should have been there as spit roast Foreman.

  2. That's very funny Steve.Thanks. I don't think I know George Biron. Is he a friend?

  3. Well i'd like him to be but we're cyber mates.
    Here's a link-He's one of the pinoneers of paddock to table chefs, a bon vivant, learned gastro scholar & fountain of knowledge,

  4. Stephen you never cease to amaze me with your vivid memory of your life around food, what a fantastic history of your culinary experiences so far, I cannot wait for the Tasmanian style hangi. cheers

  5. Haven't forgotten about the Hangi Tone

  6. I remember spit roasts as a small child, a group of us running around a paddock playing, hungry, waiting for the meat to be done. Eventually the outsides were sliced off and fed to us kids to stop our complaining that we were hungry. Unlike the adults, we didn't have anything to keep our stomachs full in the meantime!


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