To Eat or not to Eat (Well)

I have always liked my food; perhaps it's because I come from a place that obsesses over wholesome home cooking. I also like my food now more than I once used to; perhaps it's because my adoptive homeland doesn't do food particularly well (doesn't really 'get' food).

A good meal is one of those little, simple, pleasures that can put a smile on your face when there isn't much else to smile about, and this fully applies to eating in the outdoors.

My overnight ventures into the woods started at a time and a place where camping stoves did not really exist, a camping mat was something that two muscle-bound men carried to a lake for kids to float on, and a good warm (fur) kidney belt was one's most treasured possession. I think of those days with bemusement as I mentally survey my current weekend camping kit list -- we were unwitting practitioners of 'extreme ultralight' (except there was nothing particularly light about the coveted US Army issue rucksack, the cotton tarp, or the draughty sleeping bag). But back to food and eating.

My standard fare during those days was a half a kilo shop-bought tin of meat and sauce, cooked on an open fire, in the tin, with bread on the side. All in all, it made a pretty decent evening meal. (I can't remember what we ever ate for breakfast, but my lunch was invariably a tin of Soviet-made sardines in tomatoes sauce; it became a running joke, for they did not agree with me, but I couldn't resist them.)

In my early teens one of my friends found a WWII Wehrmacht issue petrol stove in his loft. It was bulky, heavy, and caused much excitement when he brought it along one weekend. It roared mightily, and promptly burned a neat finger sized hole through the bottom of his tin -- it amused us greatly, as we stirred our own tins on the fire, watching him trying to salvage what he could from his dinner.

But that was an exception. The only readily available stove on the market was a clone of the folding German Esbit. The flame was feeble, it was impossible to keep the hygroscopic fuel tablets dry, and the moisture in them made them explode and shoot burning bits all around. Every so often some younger lad would turn up with one, and we would happily munch on our warm food watching him fighting it, before giving up, and learning to cook the 'normal' way. The only time these solid fuel stoves came into play were our summer treks through the Tatras (and farther); there open fires were banned, and/or there was no natural fuel.

The week or so long treks required a different approach to food. Tins were out of the question because of the weight, and the silly stoves forced us to keep boiling of water to minimum. Our rations for the week came to a loaf of bread and a foot or so of salami for lunches (the culinary highlight of each day), oats and raisins for breakfast, and pasta (usually with sugar an raisins) for tea. The oats were pre-soaked over night to reduce the cooking time, and the pasta was only just brought to boil and left to sit till it was soft enough, meaning it was never very warm when we ate it. (We had some savoury option on the menu as well, but I can't recall what it was; I suspect my mind blocked it away for sanity sake. It might have been pasta with sardines.)

When I came to Scotland in mid '90s, I had a brief fling with ready made camping food -- all in all three dates I recall; we broke up quietly, were not a good match for each other. I did not like the food and could not afford the prices. It made me realise I like my food too much to suffer for no good reason. These foil packets offered nothing that the tins of my childhood did not offer, except with less flavour and at a premium price. And so I reverted to kind. For a number of years my basic camping food became a tin of M&S curry, cooked in the tin, and a packet of Uncle Ben's microwavable rice (a trick I learnt from a friend -- it needs no cooking, just a little hot water to warm it up).

Then one day, after a cancelled trip, Linda away, I made the mistake of heating up the tin of curry for my tea at home. It was terrible. I decided there and then that I deserved better, and so began my quest for good, home made, food on the go.

To be continued ... (with the stuff this post was meant to be about in the first place)