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Bushcraft: Cook on the Wild Side

Bushcraft: Cook on the Wild Side

I am one of those people who really does think that food tastes better outdoors, and my appetite is always greater when I am out. Perhaps my being in the woods as often as possible has something to do with my ever-expanding waistline! When you think about eating in the woods you need to take several things into account, and I tend to deal with them under the categories of ‘what to cook’, ‘what to cook in’ and ‘what to cook on’. Each category influences the others. Of course, the distance you will be carrying your kit and the location and duration of your trip, plus the aims of the trip, will also have a huge influence on your food choice and cooking options.

What to cook

Your selection in the category can have a huge effect on your trip to the woods. If you are out for a quick overnight trip, you may even decide not to cook at all and by-pass the need for cooking kit altogether, or you may decide to cook a full three-course Sunday lunch, which would entail an awful lot of cooking gear. Military Ration Packs with Boil in the Bag meals and similar civvy type meals that can be prepared by just standing food pouches in pots of boiling water, such as the excellent ‘Look what we found’ meals and pouches of microwave rice are easy to store, need no refrigeration, provide quick and tasty sustaining meals and have the bonus of creating little, if any, washing up!

Dehydrated camping meals – just add boiling water – are an option if you are carrying your food for a long way, and although they have improved in every respect in the last few decades, and provide all the nutrients etc. that you need, always seem disappointing to me in terms of their being a culinary experience. For shorter trips, fresh food is a favourite choice of many and I have eaten some superb meals in camp from full fried breakfasts to amazing stews, curries and even roast dinners. Finding your food on-site can be a risky option if you do not plan on carrying an ‘emergency reserve’, but foraging for extras or having prior knowledge that such goodies will be around your site is a possibility. However, foraging greens and fungi can be risky, as there are some deadly poisonous things out there that look a lot like the good stuff, and even ‘experts’ have died from misidentifying plants and mushrooms. If you have permission, shooting or trapping your dinner is a possibility – and there is always ‘road kill’ for the brave!

Most often, my meals for a typical weekend will be a mixture of ‘retort pouch’ meals, fresh ingredients, tinned etc., with a possible day’s menu comprising something like: Breakfast – tinned haggis or bacon, black pudding and bannock; lunch – retort pack soup or noodles with foraged nettles and ransom leaves and home made biltong; dinner – stew from fresh ingredients or grilled beef, rice and fresh peas with homemade flapjacks or brownies. Or I might just eat MoD ratpacks!

What to cook in

If you are cooking simple meals such as ratpacks or dried or retort pouch meals, then your cookware can be as simple as a metal mug like the iconic Crusader cup from BCB Adventure, but for more adventurous cooking you will want a bit more. A couple of billycans such as the ‘Zebra’ range are a popular choice, along with a frying pan of some sort. I make my own billies from old stainless steel tea/coffee/sugar storage tins, or biscuit barrels with fencing wire bails and wooden ‘buttons’ on the lids. A charity shop cast iron ‘sizzler’ pan is my favourite frying pan. For group cooking, I like a cast iron ‘Dutch oven’, which is not only good for stews and curries, but has been great for baking bread etc. as well.

It is possible to cook without pots and pans, using locally found sticks to make kebabs, green stick grills, smokers, or even Haangi ovens etc., while some people happily lug in tin box ovens. For bannock baking, I like a Welsh ‘bake stone’, a circular metal plate that is heated up on stove or fire. A bake stone is also ideal for pancakes, Welsh cakes, bacon etc.

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A folding tripod of some sort is a useful bit of kit if using pans that sit over embers. Mine is homemade from strap hinges. If you are using billies, you will need some method of hanging them over the fire, such as a rail supported by two forked branches stuck in the ground, and the billy hung from this on a wooden pot hook carved to the right size – or use a ‘fire crane’ of some sort. You will also want a plate/bowl, mug, fork, spoon, and spatula selection and while metal or plastic commercial items do the job, I find wooden items more satisfying, especially those that are homemade. Many bushcrafters enjoy carving their own kit, and I was on one camp where we even butchered a pig for our weekend meals, using stone knives we made on-site!

What to cook on

For the ultimate bushcraft experience you cannot beat cooking on an open wood fire, but if this is not possible because of the permissions you have, or safety reasons, then there are still many options open to you.

There are a whole host of commercially available solid fuel, gel or meths stoves available from the tiny ‘Fire Dragon’ multifuel cooker from BCB Adventure, through BCB’s ‘Dragon Cooker System’ up to the likes of the larger Trangia meths fuelled cookers. Then there are gas canister-type camping stoves and pressurised liquid fuel stoves. Some bushcrafters swear by antique Primus and Optimus stoves. There are also enclosed wood burning stoves and ‘wood gas’ stoves that you can buy or you can make your own! It is even pretty straightforward to make your own meths burner from soft drink cans.

One of the most popular self-build enclosed wood burning cookers is a ‘hobo stove’. which, at its most simple, can be just a stainless steel cutlery drainer with a hole cut in one side to simplify feeding in pieces of wood and some legs, made from nuts and bolts, in the base. A couple of steel tent pegs slide through the holes in the top and the job is done – an enclosed wood burning stove! I have found that my coffee can billies fit inside an Ikea cutlery drainer to make my hobo set quite compact for carrying. Some bushcrafters have made some great wood burning stoves from old ammunition boxes, and I have seen folding or collapsible fire pits made from everything from folding food steamers to jerry cans.

But, as I say, for me the ultimate bushcraft experience involves an open fire. I will stress that an open fire (above all other cooking options) has to be properly prepared, not only to cook well, but to minimise its impact on the environment. A fire should not leave an ugly scar on the ground, risk starting an uncontrolled forest fire, put wildlife at risk, or over-use the dead wood in an area and impoverish the ecology of the woods. Different fire lays are more suitable for cooking on than others and I hope to go into this in more depth in future.

I leave you this month with my recipe for a bushcraft staple – bannock – the bread of adventurers!

All the ingredients can be kept mixed for a long time without going off and used as needed.

To mix, just add water slowly until you have a ball of dough that holds together without being sloppy, then pat it out onto a bake stone to about 1cm to 1.5cm thick and cook over low embers of a fire until browned on both sides and cooked in the centre. Other ingredients – herbs, cheese, egg, raisins etc. – can be added to taste and for variation. By adding fruit, extra sugar and egg you can get a pretty decent ‘cake’, while by adding ransom and nettle leaves, shredded fine, a very nice herb loaf is created. Bon appetit!

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