A passion for fire and heat

We called him our ‘Renaissance Man’!

Need a DJ for a  party … call Giovanni. Need a website building … call Giovanni. Need a BBQ firing up … call Giovanni!

And so, with the United Kingdom celebrating National BBQ Week, who else was I going to call, but … Giovanni.

Also known as Blushu, Giovanni lives in Pescara, Abruzzo, a small city overlooking the Adriatic Sea on the coast of central Italy. After graduating in Architecture in Milan and working as a designer in France and the United States, he dipped his toe into the world of food with a BBQing blog. Three years later he popped up in my 2019 Masters class where we spent a year studying Food Culture & Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, the Slow Food university and a place fondly called ‘Hogwarts for Foodies’.

So, I contacted Giovanni as he was firing up the BBQ at his lockdown family home in Pescara seeking to learn what’s so special about fire that sparked his interest in cooking with flames.

“What has always fascinated me about the world of BBQ is the desire to be together in front of a fire and cook, for hours and hours, spending the whole day together, between a beer, a joke and why not, even some serious talk,” says Giovanni. “There is also something special about cooking with a live flame … you cannot completely control it, you have to talk with it, discuss, make compromises … Every time is a different experience”.

But before we dive fully into a BBQ master’s skills and thoughts, a quick introduction into Abruzzo and the region’s gift to BBQing, arrosticini. Abruzzo is rugged mountainous region in central Italy bordered to the east by the Apennine mountains. To the west is the Adriatic Sea, warm waters where a youthful Giovanni spent his days break-dancing, stake-boarding and surfing. Lucky guy!

The Abruzzeri, notes food writer Anna del Conte, love a good feast and celebrations and residents in the regional capital Aquila are famously associated with a panarda, a gourmet’s meal of 35 courses.

Meanwhile, arrosticini are finger-sized kebabs once made with meat of castrated sheep, but today are a mix of lamb and mutton, square cut.

Traditionally the hills and pastures of Abruzzo have echoed with the tinkling bells of flocks of sheep and arosticini are thought to have evolved as portable food for their travelling shepherds. Skewers have also evolved are the same length (10 cm) and width (1 cm) and preferably wooden.

A rustelliera filled to the brim with red hot coals

Giovanni was a popular sight at student parties as he poured charcoal into his rustelliera, a narrow gutter on legs where the meat is placed in line over the the red hot coals. The limited width prevents the wooden skewers from burning.

So Giovanni …

What was it that first attracted you to BBQing?

In Abruzzo, we love cooking outside, cooking meat on the grill: here, immediately after breast milk, the first thing your palate is exposed to are the arrosticini! I would say that every holiday (and in Italy we have many) was an excuse to grill, firstly with my family and then with friends throughout my teenage years.

Abruzzo has a strong culinary history, do you have a special food memory of living there?

We are lucky enough to have the mountains on one side (Gran Sasso is the highest mountain in central Italy) and the sea on the other, so my memories range between these two places. When I am asked for a dish or memory, I always say at least two, precisely because of the diversity of the territory: From the east, Linguine with Clams eaten closeby the sea, accompanied by a fresh white wine, preferably a Trebbiano and from the east, Pasta alla Chitarra (a spaghetti-like egg pasta) with sauce with pallotte (meatless meatballs in tomato sauce) in the national park, with a full glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, the popular local red wine.

Who or what is BBQ da Blushu?

BBQ da Blushu was born as a blog where I could share recipes related to the world of BBQ and where I can give vent to my narrative delusions, hahaha! Slowly, it evolved into a series of recipes loaded onto Youtube and an Instagram page. In these past four years, however, I have changed a lot and many themes that I previously gave for little importance (sustainability, and ethics, er example…) are now indispensable for me. So now the blog is left on hold for a moment, while I’m looking for the best way to convey these new values in the most interesting format possible.

You’re a fan of Texas BBQ cooking techniques? What attracts you to this style of cooking?

I was in the United States on vacation with my family and remember stopping by this BBQ joint in the state of NY. Do you believe in love at first sight? The smell, the colours, the taste … it hit me deeply! Then, once back in Italy, I started looking for more information and I found an off-set smoker on amazon for just over € 100 … instabuy! I have always been fascinated by off-sets (typical of the Texan style) because they use wood: having to use logs instead of simple charcoal has always fascinated me in a primordial way. Fundamental to my delving into this cuisine is book of Aaron Franklin, perhaps the most famous Texan pitmaster. Once you use an off-set, simple charcoal grills lose their charm! 

What does a host need to host a great BBQ party?

This one is tricky to answer!

Of course you have to be inclusive: everyone is welcome! We must not deny the BBQ experience to anyone, since nowadays there are recipes suitable for everyone (vegetarians, vegans, people with allergies etc …). We should not stick to the basic idea that BBQ = Meat.

The second piece of the puzzle is timing: we cannot bring everything to the table immediately! You need a minimum game plan (did I also mention Giovanni is a super fan of NBA, the top tier of American basketball), in order to get everyone enough food and always at maximum deliciousness. Apart from these two points, if there is good company and enough ice cold beer, a good time is guaranteed!

What are your three top tips for hosting a BBQ?

Ok, on this question I could create havoc with my fellow villagers, since in Abruzzo, every 10km you have completely different traditions and methodologies! ahaha 

My three tips are: 

– use the right grill! The traditional “ratella” is created especially for cooking arrosticini, minimizing the waste of embers and optimizing cooking. 

– wait for a light white patina to form on the coals. If the charcoals are still red, it means that it is too hot and the falling fat will ignite, burning the arrosticini.

– halfway through cooking, take the arrosticini and give them a little, firm shake, dropping the excess fat onto the embers, creating a cinematic cloud of smoke. It helps make the meat more digestible and tastier.

How do you see BBQ da Blushu developing in future?

At the moment I am working on a MANIFESTO that reflects my thought on the BBQ, which goes slightly against the current BBQ scene. I will post it soon on my Instagram profile! 

I am also working on the development of the second season of my show on Youtube, where I will expand the narrative with a more global outlook, sustainability, ethical meats production, for example. 

In any case, I hope to be able to cook again soon for my friends, Covid-19 permitting.

When there is a need to end a conversation and we do not know how to do it, we must remember that there has always been someone who has said it better than us, so I would like to leave you guys with these words of Julia Child: 

“The comforts of life’s essentials. .. food, fire, and friendships … “

For more info:

Giovanni … aka BBQ da Blushu (@bbq.da.blushu on Instagram)
Abruzzo ... www.abruzzoturismo.it
University of Gastronomic Sciences … www.unisg.it

Bruce McMichael

Food writing, discovering food stories, meeting producers, chefs and food enthusiasts are all part of desire to inspire, inform my readers and fellow food lovers. I am a freelance writer, journalist and published author focusing on the international world of food and drink, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy with a Masters in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing. I am now a visiting Professor at the university teaching Food & Drink Writing. Based in London I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur. In 2017 I won an episode of the ITV (the UK-based national television channel) cooking competition show, 'Gordon Ramsay's Culinary Genius'. I took my children on holiday to Sicily with the prize money. As an experienced farmers' market manager and operator of a small marmalade/ preserves company, I am very familiar with the issues surrounding local food, farming, enterprise and the environment.