Thursday, 27 March 2008

Happy Campers

Camping. Is there any other form of holiday that provokes such a range of reaction?

Many people would say that it is an idyllic break from one's hectic lifestyle; a chance to reconnect with nature, to renew your appreciation for The Great Outdoors. And what better way to do this than to sleep under the stars? We camp regularly on our holidays, both in the UK and abroad, and have had some wonderful times - a great campsite, perfect weather and good company and you have all the ingredients for a fantastic break. We have had a couple of large 'family camps' at a wonderful campsite in Dorset where we annex a corner of the field and set up 4 or 5 tents. From there we can do a lovely hike to the coast at Swanage and then hop on the steam train to take us back to the station near the campsite. The evenings are spent waving at the passing trains!

We have also had some lovely camping holidays in the Lake District... although the weather can often be a little more temperamental up there!

Since coming to Canada we have continued to camp on several of our trips. We haven't quite made it to the Winnebago stage, but have often camped, sans tent, by sleeping in the back of our large car.

However, it has been when we've been under canvas that we have had some of our best camping experiences here in North America. We had some classic camps whilst in the west of Canada, particularly in the Rockies, last Summer. We camped at two ranches, one of which was hosting their annual Indian Pow-Wow that night (good timing..!), whilst at the other ranch we ate buffalo-burgers at the restaurant... overlooking the herd of buffalo! One campsite, right on the Icefields Parkway, was directly opposite the Athabasca Glacier - an incredible view.

Of course, camping in such exciting places often has an added element of excitement because of the local wildlife... we have often heard the eerie howling of coyotes through the night, and there is a certain visceral thrill to be had when locking all of one's food into the bearproof lockers provided at many campsites.

Here in Ontario we have canoe-camped in Algonquin Park... paddling 4 of us (plus all of our equipment) out to a lakeside pitch where we were treated to an amazing sunset, a chance for some moonlit canoeing and then a beautiful misty sunrise the following morning.

One of my favourite memories from our recent trip to California was waking up at 4am to look out of the tent and see a sky more full of dazzling stars than I have ever seen in my life.

Yes, sometimes camping can be so good that you almost forget that it's a real 'budget' option for a holiday! There are certainly times when I would rather be in a tent than a hotel - although don't get me wrong, we camp in style, with airbeds, sleeping bags, etc. No backpacking for us!

But... I have recently come to realise that being a good camper is an art - and an art that is sadly dying. Camping requires a degree of consideration for others that far too many people just don't seem to possess...
Remember that campsite on the Icefields Parkway? Sadly my strongest memories of that camp are not the thrill of awakening to the sight of a majestic glacier across the valley, but of the minibus-load of youths who set up camp in the site next to ours and proceeded to spend most of the night singing and playing the recorder (badly). We politely asked them to be quiet at around midnight, and then Rob TOLD them to be quiet at 3am, insisting that they poured water onto their campfire. A small victory was achieved the following morning when we found their recorder lying unattended... I wonder if they ever found it in those bushes?!

History seemed to be repeating itself on our latest trip. We had settled into a peaceful beachside site in California and were relaxing in the evening sun, when up roared a car-load of yobs who proceeded to leap out of their car and climb trees, shouting like idiots as they did so. They then disappeared into the woods to hack at the trees for firewood. Having set up camp, I saw one of them get back into the car and start the engine. Thank heavens, I thought naively, they might be leaving... but no, he was turning the car around so that the car speakers would be directed towards them when they put their gangsta-rap CD on at full volume. It was at this point that I yelled "OI! Turn that off!!!"... They turned it down, slightly, but continued their noisy partying on into the night.

I always feel caught in a real dilemma in this situation. The self-rightous, teacher-like side of me just wants to march up and tear a strip off them for being so obnoxious, but the cautious side of me realises that there is a very real danger of causing an argument... and you feel pretty vulnerable in a tent in the dark. I wasn't sure that a 'stern word' from me would do the trick on this occasion..! So we moved our tent. Some of our fellow campers also chose the path of least resistance - I noticed a nearby camper-van driving to a quieter part of the campsite during the night.
Later in the trip we once again ended up next to a group of people playing their car stereo well into the evening. It was a very crowded campsite so moving was not an option, so we bit the bullet and asked them if they could turn the music off. Although they seemed slightly peeved by the request, they did so straight away and were quiet for the rest of the night. But I couldn't help noticing that no apology was forthcoming...

No, camping is rarely as relaxing as it could be. The incidents mentioned above were the worst of the lot, but we suffered many others on our California trip, from the continuous thrumming of RV generators (getting back to nature - but with a flat-screen TV to watch when nature just gets too uncomfortable) to the irritation of young children speeding around the campsite on ATVs (clearly illegal, so their parents obviously waited until it was dark to let them do it!).

I'm aware that this post may sound very po-faced. Believe it or not, I have no problem with people having fun! However, it seems that having fun and having consideration for other people are now mutually exclusive. We have had many beery nights round the campfire, with plenty of laughter, but we always head to bed at a reasonable time (occasionally tripping over guyropes as we go... I say 'we' but John knows who I mean!) and I like to hope that we didn't cause a disturbance to too many of our fellow campers.
I'm sure that we will 'Carry on Camping' for several years to come, but will just have to remember to pack the earplugs as well as the wine!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

A Taste of the Past

Along with many of my online foodie-friends, I have an almost embarrassing number of cookery books. I fear that the total is nearing triple figures, although I am too scared to do a definitive count. In my defence, they are much-used... although not necessarily cooked-from!

Let me explain... I have long been fascinated by food, and food in history. Whilst studying for my degree in Greek and Roman Studies I was fortunate enough to be able to take a course entitled 'Food in Antiquity' run by an expert in this field, and my interest has expanded from there. More recently I have developed a penchant for collecting 'retro' cookbooks. I scour flea markets and antique shops and have been lucky enough to turn up some real treasures. I am fascinated by the gastronomic cultures of the last few decades, and these books provide me with endless hours of interest and amusement. Finding myself at a loose end yesterday afternoon (well, actually trying to find important-things-to-do in order to avoid filling in my tax-return), I decided to revisit some of my favourite titles and thought I would share some classic moments with you (thus avoiding the tax return for a little while longer...).

I'll start with a long-time favourite of mine, 'Cooking with Beer' by Carole Fahy. I picked up this gem in a charity shop in Salisbury several years ago.

I have actually used it several times, usually for variations on the classic 'Beef in Beer' dish. It once induced me to purchase a 4-pack of Mackesons stout ('sweet stout' in several of the recipes') whereupon I developed an embarrassing taste for the stuff. For those of you not in the know, Mackesons is like a sweetened Guinness, beloved of grandmothers in legend.

While beef in beer is a logical and culinarily acceptable dish, Ms Fahy seems most determined to convince her readers that beer can be used in ALL dishes...

Well, that would certainly give most people yet another reason to detest brussel sprouts...

And for dessert:

Perhaps my favourite page in the entire volume is this one:

Hilarious on SO many levels!

Picked up on my recent visit to New York City, 'Casserole Cookery' is another classic of its time. A common theme in many of my 1950s and 60s recipe books is that the kitchen is the domain of the woman. As you can see from the proud statement on this cover, the ability to cook a casserole is clearly an important part of the 'Vanderbilt Success Program for Women'.

Much as I love to cook, I was only reflecting earlier today that I would probably not enjoy the job half as much as I do if I couldn't share it. As I type Rob is in the kitchen supervising the cooking of our Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding supper - and doing a very good job of it, if the wonderful cooking smells wafting up the stairs are anything to go by. Top marks on Norm's Success Program for Men!

I love the way that products that we today regard as 'trashy' feature so highly in these books. Staying with the Casserole Cookery, feast your eyes on this beauty:

Kraut and Frankfurter Tahitian... guaranteed a spot on the table at my next dinner party!

I'm sure that we're all familiar with Barbara Cartland as the famously pink-wearing best-selling romantic novelist... but did you know that her expertise in the art of lurrrve also extends into the kitchen?

Babs is actually following a well-trodden path here, connecting food with love as cultures have done since the beginning of time - the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, gave her name to the word 'aphrodisiac'.

Is this the real reason behind Rob's reluctance to embrace vegetarianism?! (See previous blog entry).

If there is no love in your life right now, how about getting your thrills elsewhere...

A chance visit to a second-hand book fair whilst in Halifax, Nova Scotia, last year turned up yet another classic - 'Modern Canadian Cooking'. This book is helpfully divided into chapters so that the hostess can find assistance in every social situation. To where else would the mother of a banjo-playing 'teen-ager' turn when planning a 'Go-Go-Go evening' for the local youth?

And in the 'Black Tie Preludes' chapter... there are those 'franks' again, this time elevated from mere casserole to 'Franks in Jelly' (redcurrant, in case you're wondering) for the perfect canape creation. Thoughtful and ingenious, I'm sure you'll agree.

A typical dish of the 1950s appears to have been the savoury jello salad. Quite who thought that vegetables suspended in fruit-flavoured jelly would be an appealing supper dish I'm not quite certain, but suffice to say that it's not a practice that has survived the passing of the decades. Even the thought of it makes me feel rather ill...

I'll finish with perhaps my favourite retro recipe of all time; the Novelty Meat Square. The name says it all, but what swings it for me is the phrase 'an interesting chili sauce meringue'. Now why have none of these modern chefs incorporated the savoury meringue into their best-selling cookbooks? I can't imagine.

Well, I'm off now to saute some brussel sprouts in Budweiser, and whip up a quick tomato and mushroom jello as a starter. And you never know, perhaps this will be the week that I finally get round to making that Novelty Meat Square? I'll expect you all round for supper next weekend!