Friday, 31 August 2012

August 31st - Camp Cooking, Summer Living

Dear Nigel,

We've just been away camping in the wilds of North Wales, far away from any form of communication, digital or electrical device.

There is a kind of quietness, of stillness, that comes to rest on you in a place where there are no televisions or music blaring; no news broadcasts, no newspapers, no mobile phones, telephones or computers. Where all you have to rely on for entertainment are your imagination, a good book to read and casual conversation with a medley of assorted individuals - camping encourages people from all points on the social spectrum, like no other.

So we return with wind-blasted tans from a week of uncharacteristically favourable weather and over-indulgence in the culinary department: One of the most fundamental things about camping is, quite naturally, the food. Whether a tin of soup, or out of a tin of home-baked goodies, the food you eat camping takes on an almost religious significance.

Remembering back fondly to last year's fortnight of galeforce storms in the sand dunes of Shell Island, i exerted myself the week before in a baking frenzy. There's nothing more comforting when the rain is drumming on the canvas and you've just been banging in 14 inch stormpegs than to sit with a tin mug of hot chocolate and something homemade and gooey and baked especially for you.

Each child had their favourite, made and stored and jelousely coveted, - not a great deal of swapping and trading went on. For Sophie it was chewy flapjacks, for Hannah (newly returned from living in Spain) it was chocolate biscuit and raisin cake, and for Molly, a Honey and Ginger cake.

There are many good camping cookbooks - most of whom seem to offer the same selection in various forms, to eachother - but good, basic, well tried-and-tested stuff. Ordinary cookbooks just don't seem to do it in extreme circumstances. The ginger cake NEEDS to be stickier, the flapjack heavier and more substantial than normal.

One of the best people i know who can pull this all together - because she ACTUALLY GOES camping herself - is Annie Bell. A woman after my own heart in many respects, and the only person to have solved my quest for a folding breadknife. (If you throw things together for an impromptu picnic - bread, cheese, fruit, wine - then surely you need a folding breadknife to prevent your nearest and dearest impaling themselves whilst you're spreading the blanket? So why does no one seem to make them).

The ginger cake recipe comes from Annie Bell's 'The Camping Cookbook' and Molly gives it ten out of ten. Her 'Delicious Chewy flapjacks' are also on pg 69 and the wonderful idea that 'this has two lives, one for tea (great for the journey), and at a later date it will stand in as a crumble topping for whatever soft fruits you're warming on the grill.'

Much of our camp cooking was done on the portable barbeque. There's nothing finer than sitting by a smoking hot barbeque, a glass of chilled cider in your hand, watching the evening sun changing the hue of the sea and rolling hilltops.

Annie Bell suggest taking a basic camping marinade with you based on lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and salt in a watertight lock-n-lock box, and a few spice blends (of which she gives recipes for a middle eastern, a moroccan and jerk seasoning). From these basics she demonstrates how simple it is to create barbeque diversity without any fuss. Her 'Grilled Pork Chops with Aiole' use the basic camping marinade and middle eastern spice blend together as a marinade. There is even a convenient website - Seasoned Pioneers, who specialise in replicating traditional spice blends and make 'Annie's Camping Kit' which contains small resealable packets of all five spice blends which she uses in her book.

The morning ritual had to start with a whistling kettle and bacon frying in the morning air. It's no use being in the tent nextdoor with your Rice Krispies when the scent of sizzling bacon is wafting your way. Odd really, because a cooked breakfast isn't one i would normally choose to cook or eat at home. But camping does something to highten your taste buds and sense of smell, - in fact all your senses.

Of course the other item that you simply must take is an unbreakable cafetiere and some good coffee. There was a wonderful moment last year when we were doing some late Summer camping near Hathersage here in the Peak District. We met a lovely family of 'Glampers' with their canvas Bell tent and their VW Campervan all decked out in bunting. 'Daisy' was their summer vehicle ( - of Mr and Mrs my-winter-car's-a-Range-Rover ). Mister, having made a great play of frying up some bacon in his shorts and shiny new walking boots, then sat taking in the sun with his wife. I, meanwhile, had moved on to brewing up fresh coffee and a good book. I glanced over to see real envy on their faces. The moment was priceless. Of course i then made them a pot of coffee - but some things are worth savouring, just a little, and that moment was one of them.

I look through to see what you've been cooking lately and see the ease of Summer Living has worked into your bones too. This is not the time for fuss and bother. I pause momentarily past the tele where my older daughter is watching 'Come dine with me': All that pomp and pretence and effort - it's like watching animals in the zoo perform.

You have an outside grill and over the past couple of weeks it's been in almost constant use. Garlic prawns (pg 272), grilled zucchini with basil and lemon (pg 259), grilled chicken with lemon and couscous (pg 258). You say 'it is not unusual for the little stone terrace outside my kitchen doors to have a pall of smoke over it at suppertime...smoke imbued with thyme, garlic and rosemary that wafts around the ripening tomato plants and pots of geraniums.'

There is a recipe for four fat poussin sitting on a grill - or 'grilled chicken with garlic and lemon butter' - which i think i'm going to make. You suggest having the butcher spatchcock the chickens for you, splitting them down the middle and flattening them 'so that they resemble road-kill. Butchered this way they can be grilled rather than roasted.' In much the same way as Annie Bell's camping recipes, the poussins are marinaded in olive oil, lemon juice, chilli and garlic.

'Pudding' is Italian peaches sliced with a little lemon juice. What could be more sublime?


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