Monday, May 20, 2019

Outdoor Cooking - Gill Meller

River Cottage Handbook No. 17. I love this series which is fairly evenly divided into books I use a lot, books I daydream about using a lot (whilst I choose to forget how much hard work running small holding is) and the ones like this which provoke quite an emotional response.

The ongoing problems with drains in my building (most of the year without a properly working kitchen) feel like more or less the final straw. Flat life in a city centre has less and less to recommend it. I want to live somewhere with a sense of community again, have a garden, and a real fire.

Reading 'Outdoor Cooking' brings back childhood memories of beach fires, barbecues, bonfires, and the open fires all the houses I grew up in had. It's also intensifying the desire to live somewhere I could build a wood fired oven for the fun of working out how to use it. I'm on the fence about spit roasting, but everything else in here is a siren call, and I've been reading through this book with the same enthusiasm I had for Enid Blyton way back when. Probably because whatever else might now be problematic about Blyton, she was excellent on the allure of campfire cooking.

Meller's writing about food and cooking is always a delight to read, but I particularly like the format of these handbooks. They're a generous pocket size, with robust covers that make them good traveling companions. The space constraints don't allow for to many tangents - it's mostly direct and helpful instructions on whatever topic is to hand, with just enough personality coming through to make the books feel friendly.

Especially after the recent moor fires it's good to see that the first chapters are strict on fire etiquette and ethics. It is not okay to build a fire wherever you like, safety must come first, and you can't just pick up whatever wood you like (Scotland has different laws about right to roam, and I guess as long as it hasn't obviously been claimed, driftwood is fair game either side of the border). After that there are plenty of instructions for how to build different sorts of cooking fires, and going right back to basics - just how to build a fire, which is almost certainly a vanishing skill.

And then it's the recipes - which all sound great. Unexpectedly for a book about outdoor cooking it's the fruit and vegetable things which I'm really craving as I read this. I don't even particularly like Brussels sprouts, but the idea of wood roast sprout salad with apple and celeriac has my mouth watering. As does the grilled cabbage. The Cider and Fennel Toffee Apple not only sounds good, but Gavin Kingcome's photography makes it look magical (the hard caramel trails from the Apple looking for all the world like a golden flame).

Beyond that there's all sorts of projects here - fire pits and earth ovens, things baked in clay, bread twists baked around sticks, the sort of slow barbecuing that the Americans do, spit roasting anything from a whole hog or deer down to a chicken, and of course wood ovens. Most of it has the back garden in mind, and just aboutvall of it demands a bit of time and planning.

It might not be a lot of planning or time, or it could be that a whole weekend is taken up with preparing and making, but as a big part of the philosophy of food like this is to be able to share both the making and the eating of it, the anticipation that time and forethought create is part of the seasoning.

I wonder if I post my father and stepmother* a copy now, will it be a big enough hint about possible holiday entertainment next month?

*Bo, my stepmother is a cook, and has more than enough to do through the summer without somebodys bright ideas about standing her over a fire for hours at a time when she's not actually at work. On the other hand she also has valuable experience doing reconstructions of Viking era cooking... although her recollections of that sound more like horrified flashbacks of being smoked like a kipper rather than precious memories. It's a dilemma.


  1. Your last paragraph made me laugh aloud! I hope the hint works for you.

    1. I sent a copy, it's been enjoyed, but I don't think it's going to get me very far. Fortunately I have a friend who is just as enthusiastic as I am, so we're making a plan for her garden.