Cooking over a campfire is a skill that, once perfected, will serve you well for life.
WORDS Anthony ‘Macca’ Macdonald
Many people want to travel and experience life in its rawest form, from wild camping behind a desert dune, to waking up to dolphins rollicking in the surf outside your tent on a deserted patch of beach you call your own. But with that comes all sorts of challenges, particularly if you want to have an extended break. You’re there to get away from it all but, sometimes, that requires a bit of planning.
You’ve got a limited supply of all of life’s necessities, including gas, fuel, and battery power, so the lure of the long term stay requires a bit of thought. With solar panels and generators now so affordable, that side of things is taken care of, but it’s gas that will always be in limited supply. So it’s this part of the equation that is going to take the most thought. And, in order to preserve your meagre supplies, it might be time to harness the energy produced by your fire.
There are a number of things you need to do to cook effectively over the coals...
People often make the mistake of piling on too much wood to get the equivalent of a bonfire going. The result will always be bad, dinner will be ruined, and your shins will have melted off your legs. So it’s important to make the fire only as big as required to cook your dinner. One of the best ways to moderate the fire is to ban everyone else other than the cook from touching the fire for an hour prior to, and during, the cooking phase of dinner time.
If you have kids that are not yet fire savvy, I recommend you put a piece of rope in a ring about a metre or so from the fire and call that the demarcation line – 40 quick lashes if they step inside it!
The next thing to do is to place your fire in close proximity to your kitchen. Having it around the other side of the van is unlikely to work, but if you need to have a fire on the lee side of the van to take advantage of the van as a wind break, then I would recommend that you prepare a cooking fire that’s dedicated to just that, back near the kitchen.
When you dig your pit, make it elongated because it is easier to cook on a fire that has a variety of temperatures. A ‘cool’ fire up one end for slow braises or a stew, a hotter fire at the other end for sealing your favourite cut of steak, and medium heat in the middle for simmering your vegetables. A good galvanised bucket is perfect for keeping washing-up water on the go and it serves as a wind break so that you don’t end up with flare-ups or burnt stew.
The next thing to be mindful of is using pots and pans that have a heavy base, but it’s important that the wall thickness is there, too. Remember, your fire is generally bigger than your pot, so not only will you get direct heat from underneath, but also from the sides. Food can easily burn on to the side of a thin-walled pot or pan, so bear that in mind. There’s no shortage of good pots and pans these days, and there’s a price to suit all budgets.
But you can’t go past the ubiquitous camp oven for a great all-rounder. Camp cooks from a couple of generations ago were using these pots for all of the meals they prepared, and once seasoned, they will take on all the qualities of a non-stick pan. You can use it as a baking dish to make damper, you can fry a steak in it and the roast that is a must at least once on every camp.
But the secret to great camp cooking is still in the fire.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is that the fire is too fierce. It’s not a problem starting out with a big fire an hour out from cooking time. What you really want to achieve is a nice bed of coals between 100 and 200mm thick. So go for it with whatever size wood you like. But, under no circumstances, should you cook on it until it has died down to coals. Once you have your coals, it is only a matter of managing the heat. Keep a good supply of light timber on hand – small pieces such as you would have to start the fire.
Like I said, the secret is in the coals. A large, flaming fire is an out of control fire as far as cooking on it is concerned. You just can’t tweak it the little bit required to keep control.
With a steak, for example, heat your grill plate or pan until it’s really hot before you add your steak. You’ll find that the initial shock of cold meat going on to the pan will reduce the heat in the pan, as all that heat is transferred into the meat. Throws a couple of sticks about the size of your finger underneath the pan to bring that temperature back up. That will stop your meat from braising.
With your roast, a large supply of coals is essential. So, in this case, you might cook this one near the main fire. First of all, dig a pit that is twice the width of your pot and one-and-a-half times the height. You can, in this case, do one of two things now.
Shovel coals into the pit from the main fire or, if time allows, make a fire in the pit and wait for the coals to burn down. I usually use the latter because it heats the ground up, keeping the whole pit warm.
Next, warm your pot on the fire and seal your roast. Continue cooking the roast in the open pot on the fire until the meat gets browned. In the meantime, keep the lid on or near the fire to warm it up.
Pop the lid on and place the pot into the pit that has a good shovel of coals in it. A shovelful of coals on the top and you’re on your way.
Check the condition of the coals when it’s time to add the vegetables, and top-up if required.
Now, when it comes to your casserole or stew, make sure you can adjust the height of the pot in accordance with the heat of the fire. As this one is going to be on the fire for hours, the fire will die down and be sparked up over the course of the day, so it’s important that you can keep the pot simmering without boiling. So a chain is best for that, or an adjustable arm on an upright stake.
Whichever way you look at it, there’s something that’s really quite primal about cooking on an open fire. It’s not an easy skill to acquire and you will make mistakes from time to time – but persist. It was primitive man that harnessed fire first and modern humans have made it our friend. It helped boil the water to make the steam that set off the industrial revolution, and continues to delight today.
It’s arguable that fire was the original form of social media, where people communed together and discussed all manner of things – a bit like a forum or chat room in today’s techno world. But you never get warm that way, or see the smile on the face of your fellow companions. So, a fire should always be a constant companion in your camp, and it’s also become a fabulous tool.
Preheat your camp oven over the fire. Or, if you’re using your caravan oven, set it to 160°C.
Spread each slice of buttered bread with golden syrup and cut into four triangles. Place into 4 lightly greased ramekins.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs, cream, milk, vanilla and sugar until well combined.
Pour the mixture over the bread, then sprinkle with nutmeg and a little more caster sugar.
Place the ramekins on a trivet in the camp oven and cover the top with coals.
Cook for 20 minutes or until set and browned.