Cave man cookery.
How to cook a gourmet meal on an open fire. Reproduced by kind permission of Land Rover World.
It seems an odd fact now, but more food has been cooked over an open fire than on all the cookers in the world. In evolutionary terms the cooker is a relative youngster and the purpose built barbecue is barely out of nappies. From the moment man discovered fire, he has cooked on it and with a view to getting back to basics I thought it was time to bring a Jamie Oliver meets Ray Mears touch to this summer.
We always seem to take the easiest option when it comes to what we eat when away in our Land Rovers. Grab an pre packed barbecue selection on the way out of town, stuffed with saturated fats, then cremate it on a disposable barbecue, shove it in a cheap bread roll and wash down the charred remains with a few cans of warm lager. In a bold experiment I decided to see just how good a meal I could knock up given the most rudimentary equipment. Picking up a bagful of ingredients at the local supermarket, I chucked them in the back of my 80 inch and headed up to my son, Matts, place in Derbyshire. Matt has the big advantage of owning his very own wood so lighting a fire there would not upset anyone and it has a handy steam running through it for a plentiful supply of fresh water.
The weather had been very wet so the risk of starting a woodland fire was minimal, but I still took care to position my fire well away from anything flammable and close to the water in case of an urgent need. First step was to arrange some stones in a circle to contain the fire. Then I built a wigwam shaped construction with the driest wood I could find, around a core of screwed up newspaper. The wood came mainly from the higher ground where it had a chance to dry out in the wind. Into the centre of this, I eased in a couple of fire lighters. Life being too short to rub sticks together or play around with flints. Soon there was the evocative sound of crackling firewood and a plume of grey smoke drifting up through the trees.
As the fire settled down it was time to crack on with the food preparation. First job was to lower a bottle of Pinot Grigio into the chilling waters of the stream for later. Whilst kneeling at the water’s edge I filled my pan with water and put this on the fire. A supply of hot, soapy water is essential when preparing food to keep your hands clean. I’d brought along an old camping table to work on, though the tailgate of the 80 inch would have been fine with a chopping board. It’s best to be off the mud! The secret of cooking on an open fire is to wrap the ingredients in foil. Not just one layer, but at least two. Both quite loose to allow a bit of an air gap around the food and act like an oven. If there is a supply of clean pebbles around, a layer of these could be put in the outer package to keep the food away from the direct heat. I had none.
First course was to be monkfish wrapped in Italian prosciutto ham. I cut the monkfish into man-sized bite portions, wrapped each piece up in the ham and skewered it with a cocktail stick. These done I poured about a teaspoon full of Olive Oil onto each square of foil and wrapped up the parcel once, then again slightly looser. Putting those to one side I did similar with the chicken breasts, slashing a gash in the side of each one, then pushing a generous dollop of garlic cheese into the gap, adding some lemon juice and more olive oil before double wrapping them all individually. Finally I sliced up a selection of green, red and yellow peppers for the same treatment. I’d chosen baked sweet potatoes and boiled broccoli to accompany the main course. Water boils very quickly on a hot fire so the greens would not take long and I had par cooked the potatoes in the microwave at home so they just needed heating through.
Calculating the actual cooking time is the skilful bit and for that I like to grade the fire in three categories. Starting from the top there’s; ‘S**t! That’s bl***y hot!’ (S.T.B.H.), which after fifteen minutes becomes ‘hot, but perfect’ (H.B.P.) graduating to an eventual ‘almost gone out’ (A.G.O.). I used the S.T.B.H. fire to boil water, but let it burn down to H.B.P. before putting on the first course. As the fire was at the top end of H.B.P. I guessed they would take 10 minutes moving the packages around every few minutes to even out the heat. My winch gloves came in very handy for this. A quick peak inside one of the packages revealed they were done to perfection so I slung on the chicken, potatoes and peppers to what was now a fire at the bottom end of H.B.P. I served up the monkfish on a bed of rocket straight out of the packet with a little squeeze of lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil.
Playing with fire.
Matt and I sat down on the seat squabs from the 80 inch to enjoy the first course with a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio. As we ate we noticed the fire, with so many packages on it, was turning from H.B.P. to A.G.O.. We munched on, planning what to do next. Drastic action was required so, licking our lips, we put the packages around the stones at the edge and rebuilt the fire with fresh, dry, wood. A lot of deep lunged blowing from both of us soon had it roaring again and the main course was back on. As there was a danger of it getting too dark to take the photographs we rushed a bit and put the food on a S.T.B.H. fire, but moved it all around a fair bit to avoid burning. The beauty of the double wrapping is that none of the smoke, ash and general mess get in even when the packages are fairly mobile. The broccoli took no time to boil and after 20 minutes I took a quick look at the chicken. It looked done so we took the first one off and dished up a plateful. Matt got stuck in as I served my own ample helping. I have to say it was perfect and chucking a few more sticks on the fire we sat back and enjoyed a splendid meal and the rest of the bottle, as evening turned to night and a distant owl started to hoot.
With that, all that remained was to sling all the dirty plates in a bag, in the back of the 80 inch, make sure the fire was safe and slither up the muddy track out of the woods. As I drove the 50 miles back to Leicester with the roof off under a star studded, moon less, sky I had plenty of time to reflect on the occasion. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have initially piled more wood onto the fire to produce a really deep bed of hot embers. It would take about two hours to get the fire just right to cook all the food I had planned, plus the cooking time. Despite this we had enjoyed really good food in an evocative setting and whilst it was a more refined menu than our caveman ancestors would have enjoyed, the campfire banter, huffing and puffing was probably very similar.
Old saucepan (it will get very black!)
Washing up liquid
1 x Monkfish tail (scallops make an excellent alternative)
1 x pack of prosciutto (bacon would do)
1 x pack of rocket
Salt & pepper.
Red, green and yellow peppers.
Garlic cheese spread
Ample white wine.
Shortcuts and compromises.
It is easier to prepare all the food at home in a kitchen, wrap in in the foil and label it, as it all looks the same in foil!
Transport it all in a cool box with the chilled wine.
Microwave the baked potatoes at home so they just need re heating.
If you can’t light a real fire try lighting one in an old free standing barbecue. It will be smaller, but okay for a one course meal.
Charcoal would do instead of wood.
Take care not to over cook the food. You can always bung it back on again if it’s not fully cooked.
Please be sensible about where you light a fire.
Don’t use petrol to help it along. It explodes!
Copyright words and pictures Land Rover World. IPC Publications.