Cooking Outdoors

It’s been a bit quiet here at bun scuffle HQ but that’s because we have been off on a bit of a road trip. Martin and I spent two lazy weeks roaming The Lake District in our (occasionally) trusty VW Transporter. Now, I should start this piece by telling you how much I love The Lakes – if I didn’t live in Cornwall this is where I would live. Life by the sea has its many compensations but I do miss mountains and like to get my “fix” at least once or twice a year.

No one who visits Cumbria does so for the weather but this was truly the wettest holiday I have ever had. Summer 2012 will be remembered for The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, The London Olympics and the rain which reached biblical proportions. Friends of ours recently called their baby boy Noah and I am beginning to think it was prophetic; camp sites were flooded, roads became impassable and it was hard to see where lakes ended and the fields began. None of this stopped us from walking the fells, cycling, taking boat trips or generally exploring the wonderful towns and villages we love but it did make a difference to what we ate.

When talking about our VW the phrase “Camper Van” is probably a bit misleading suggesting built in cupboards and maybe a sink and a cooker whereas what we actually have is a comfortable bed, some under bed storage and a new awning. Everything else happens outside – under the new awning.

This is the part of camping that I love best, setting up a table, taking out the single burner stove, pouring a glass of wine and creating something tasty from whatever local ingredients we happen to have found that day. On this trip we did manage to cook outside a few times (and I’ll come back to that) but more often than not we were driven inside by the weather and indulged in hearty pub meals, vast quantities of tea and cakes and an occasional nice meal out in places posh enough to have good food but laid back enough to tolerate our soggy clothes and wellies.

I just used the phrase “hearty pub meals” and I used it for a reason. For the most part Lake District pubs are catering for walkers and rock climbers, for people who have expended energy on a windswept fell and who are hungry. Menus consist of the ubiquitous Cumberland sausage with mash and onion gravy, steak pie and chips and, on one glorious occasion, a roast dinner served inside a giant Yorkshire pudding. If you still have room after all that there is always sticky toffee pudding to be had for dessert.

It is wise to stick to these mainstays. One night, feeling I had overdosed on red meat in one guise or another, I chose the vegetarian option – a Thai green curry. I should have known better. This normally delicate dish was also given the Lakes Pub treatment and was full of root vegetables drenched in a green (almost) curry sauce made with double cream instead of coconut milk.

Please don’t think I am complaining because I am not. There are smarter places to eat, and I’ll write more about these another day, but Cumbrian pubs are usually wonderful places where you are made to feel welcome. Most have stone floors which can cope with the dirtiest of boots, staff who can cope with the worst of moods and beers which can raise the dampest of spirits. I have never left a Lake District Pub feeling worse than when I went in.

But this is a piece about cooking outdoors and I have digressed enough.

Morning tea, when we are on holiday, is Martin’s domain, just as it is at home. He brings water, assembles the table and generally indulges his inner hunter as he engages in the ancient ritual of building and lighting the trangia. I think it’s a boy thing. I can see the appeal, a trangia is a beautifully clever piece of design encompassing stove, fuel container and stowaway pans – and therein lies the problem; I can take it apart and use it but I can never remember how to put it all back together again. I think it’s a girl thing. I find our one ring burner much simpler; fuelled by a small gas canister (the size of a can of hairspray) it is stable, has an integral lighter and no liquid fuel to spill. But each to his own and so long as I get my tea…

Breakfast is also within Martin’s fiefdom. He cooks bacon and eggs because he likes to eat bacon and eggs. I do too but only for a couple of days and then I am bored, resorting to cereal and fruit or yoghurt in a vain attempt to save my arteries. Cooking breakfast is also a holiday ritual and judging by the bacon smells wafting across the campsite it is one we share with many others. There is something elicit about frying foods you would normally grill and a carefree decadence about piling it all into one pan and frying eggs alongside bacon and tomatoes so that it is all about the taste and not at all about the appearance – no food styling here. Add to this the experience of eating outside, on the edge of a lake or surrounded by trees, and you have the ultimate multi-sensory experience.

When it comes to the evening meal I finally come into my own. I take great joy in making a stir fry (something I have never mastered on the Rayburn) a wonderful one pan meal full of flavours and textures and the perfect antidote to the pub meal overdose. On cooler evenings a bowl of curry accompanied by some (admittedly bought) naan bread, toasted over the naked flame, warms and satisfies after a long day spent outdoors. When we are lucky enough to have found a good butcher sausages or steaks are cooked in minutes and are perfect accompanied by a salad dressed simply in olive oil and lemon. On colder evenings soups and stews are served up with hunks of crusty bread from a local bakery.

It’s not just the cooking that is enjoyable, sitting outside to eat is, for me, a really enjoyable experience. At home we only really do it on the sunniest of days. When we are camping we eat out in all but the very worst of weathers.  Eating outdoors also makes me hyper-aware of my surroundings, I slow down and notice the variety of birdsong around me, the formations of clouds, the multiple shades of green in a nearby wood and the stunning array of colours in a sunset. Martin and I take time to talk and relax and reflect on the day. We dream about what we would do if…

Eventually the washing up needs to be done and we wander across the campsite (ok dash through the puddles before the heavens open again). We chat to our fellow campers  about the weather like pensioners with war stories, each trying to outdo the other with tales of how bad it was and how we survived.  Dishes done we return to the van for just one more (ok make it two) glasses of wine before bed.  Every day, and every part of every day, an event, just as a holiday should be.