Charcoal is ours. At least for now, since the charcoal burning profession is on the verge of extinction. There are only a few retort kilns left in the Bieszczady Mountains. There, among forested hillsides, the mists of morning fog mix with the smoke of burned beech wood.
From the outside, the retorts, with their symmetrically arranged chimneys, resemble small strongholds. Despite their somewhat steampunk appearance, these iron monsters blend well into the local woodland landscape. Inside, hour by hour, wood slowly burns, transforming into charcoal. From time to time, the chimneys spew out glimmering red sparks.
Retorts are attended by mountain people who seem to live on the verge of civilization. Charcoal burners are mostly locals, but some of them are runaways, seeking refuge from crowded and busy cities, looking for an uncompromised way of living in harmony with nature. With their faces stained with soot, and sometimes equally dark life stories, they are called “smoluchy” (sooty faces) by both the locals and tourists visiting Bieszczady.
Unjustly though. Charcoal burning is one of the last remaining traditions of the Bieszczady region. Perceived as somewhat mystic and harsh, this profession has survived throughout years of war and political turmoil.
One cannot become a certified charcoal burner. There are no training courses, workbooks nor online tutorials. Instinct and practice is all it takes. Charcoal burners do not follow strict rules – there are no measures nor feed mechanisms involved. Instead, they carefully inspect temperature, humidity and the rings of felled trees. With years of experience they simply know and feel when charcoal is ready.
And yet traders still choose cheaper products imported from Ukraine, even though they are no match for the black gold of the Bieszczady Mountains. Regardless of adversities, harsh climate and unfavorable market conditions, charcoal burners endure in their distant settlements and the spirit of the vanishing charcoal burning tradition lives on.