According to the publicity blurb that accompanies my latest book, while providing a guide to the whole process, I also share my passion for cooking over a wood fire. I do hope that’s true. If even part of my enthusiasm manages to come across I’d be happy.
While circumstances mean that I do use gas at times to cook outside, I’ve always been much happier gathering wood to prepare a meal – a few dead twigs from alongside a hedge, some dry windfall from a wood, perhaps a healthy pile of driftwood collected from where it’s been thrown high at the back of a beach. Not only is campfire cooking far easier than many might imagine, at least with a little know-how and practice, but by choosing this method Susannah and I are able to make an immediate connection with our surroundings, one that can never be obtained by turning a dial on a cooker.
Collecting fuel from close by our tent, it is the very trees that still shelter and shade our camp that provide the means to cook our meals. The energy released for that all-important heat drawn from the ground beneath our feet, stored till our arrival within the fragrant grain of the dead wood.
And at the end of the process, staring into the embers as the meal is enjoyed, perhaps following a small shower of sparks while it lifts into the cool evening air, an object of true beauty helps bind us yet further to the spot. Memories are created by that fire, each inevitably more vivid and long-lasting than a gas stove could ever provide. These recollections will endure, and then later, like embers blown upon in the morning, can be made to glow again.
For an extremely long time a fire has been something very special to us humans. It is certainly one of the first things of beauty to come into our possession. As well as providing a source of warmth and light, a deterrent to predators, a means to cook food, sterilise water and assist in early manufacturing techniques, a fire held much wider social and cultural significance. Lighting a fire in camp offers an immediate contact with those ancient and important connections, especially when the fire is also given a practical purpose.
There are also environmental considerations. Burning gas to cook in camp releases carbon dioxide from fossil vegetation, gas that was stored below grounds many millions of years ago. In providing fuel for our fire using local firewood, we add only what has been taken in by the tree over the last few decades, at most a couple of centuries, CO2 that would have been released to the atmosphere as the wood rotted anyway. What’s more, at the end of the cooking process, instead of being left with an empty gas container, Susannah and I will have just ash, and not much of it. Scattered thinly, this ash offers the remaining nutrients back to the surrounding area, back to the trees that provided them in fact.
As a result of all this, lighting a wood fire to cook is so much more than just producing a heat source. It’s a re-enactment of the domestic cooking arrangements of our ancestors. It’s a direct physical interaction with the setting of the camp, a chance to become fully immersed in our chosen temporary home. With that fire at the centre of the camp, it’s an activity bound to an object of undoubted aesthetic pleasure, a focus that has represented a draw for generations. Approached sensibly, campfire cooking is genuinely sustainable at a time when we really need to consider the wider impact of any of our actions. It’s a lot of fun too. Importantly, it’s also a great way to produce a tasty meal.
So there it is, a little of my passion. My hope is that while providing advice on selecting and preparing fuel, lighting and tending the resultant fire, cooking techniques, even a few recipes, my new book will also offer a little more. Perhaps that enthusiasm might conjure up a desire amongst those who choose to read it to cook over a wood fire too. I do hope so.
Happy campfire cooking.