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.


Cooking with…oil? Living with a Rayburn.

Here at bunscuffle towers we have a beautiful kitchen – I apologise if it sounds like I am boasting but actually, I can take no credit for it – we rent the house and the whole design is the work of our very tasteful landlady.

When we first saw it I was thrilled by the Belfast sink, granite work tops and huge, floor to ceiling, housemaid’s cupboard but I have to admit I was slightly daunted by the beast in the corner: The Rayburn.

This is not the first time we have had a Rayburn; we used to have a solid fuel stove in a previous house but we also had a more conventional cooker too so the stove warmed the house and heated the water. The only cooking it was used for was making casseroles – like a giant, unpredictable slow-cooker.

This time round the Rayburn is our only means of cooking so I have had to be a little more creative.

Me being me I have learned my creativity the hard way and reached a vague approximation of competence only via raw pork chops (still uncooked after 45 minutes), cakes burnt on one side but uncooked on the other and one fateful night where we drank 2 bottles of wine and fell asleep whilst waiting for the potatoes to boil.

Two and a half years on it is not a problem; I can turn out a Christmas dinner – complete with mince pies and Christmas pud, bake cakes, do a three course dinner for fourteen people at the Unseen Restaurant or make an omelette without using a super-tanker full of oil. The only thing I haven’t mastered is a stir fry – it takes too long and too much fuel to heat a wok enough for 5 minutes of cooking.

The most important lesson I have learned is to start early. It takes at least 30 minutes to get up to the required temperature and often closer to an hour. That’s clearly not ideal for spontaneous snack making but really isn’t a problem once you get into the slow food mindset.

I struggled at first with the oven temperature – the dial registers 3 heat categories – simmer / bake / roast which is a bit vague by my standards especially as “bake” can be anywhere between 160°C and 210°C in my oven – not great when you have a delicate sponge in there. Most modern ovens have a glass door so you can take a look at progress but, try as I might; I have not been able to peer through the heavy, enamelled door without opening it. Buying an oven thermometer with an external display has made a huge difference to my cooking and has given me real confidence over baking and roasting times.

The hot plate is fairly straight forward – you can’t turn the heat instantly up or down under a pan but you can move the pan around as it’s hotter on the left and cooler towards the right. Cooking lots of different veg and sauces at the same time can feel a bit like spinning plates as pans are repeatedly moved on and off the hot spots but it keeps you focussed. The real challenge is that lifting the lid on the hot plate makes the oven temperature drop so you have to plan the order and timings of your meal quite carefully.

Cleaning the Rayburn can be fun too because you are always trying to wipe a hot surface and food continues to get baked on every minute you leave it. The enamel is quite resilient so you can scrape burnt on grease off it without scratching if you are careful. Beyond that, most proprietary cleaning products give off pretty awful fumes if they get hot but you can get a really good cleaning paste from the BettyTwyford range – it takes effort but does a good job and doesn’t smell. The oven itself is much easier, put the oven shelves in the dishwasher and brush the cast iron oven out with a wire brush – couldn’t be easier – so long as you don’t burn yourself reaching into the back.

Having learned all these lessons I have to say, I love the Rayburn.

I love leaning against it in the morning, tea in hand, listening to John Naughtie berating yet another feckless politician. I love the slight element of surprise when you open the oven door onto a perfectly risen cappuccino cake. I love coming home tired to a perfectly cooked casserole. I love hanging the washing over it to dry (and then trying to get the faint smell of onions out of my T-shirts). I love that friends gather round it to soak up its warmth – even on a summers day, and I love that it has a personality all of its own.

In fact, the only question left in my mind is – Rayburn? Radio 4? When did this working class girl become such a middle class cliché?