Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Hill Food 

This one's for the bi-weekly Ecotone topic, which is currently on Food and Place:

I’m probably missing out on something, but I’ve never been one to see food as an art-form. Although sharing a meal together can be a happy social event, an excuse, should we need one, to spend time with friends, I can never regard the food itself as much more than fuel for the body. That may be why food adds to the pleasure of camping and climbing trips. I’m not bothered by the simple nature of the diet or the basic preparation facilities; quite the reverse – I delight in the simplicity of nutritious, satisfying meals prepared over a single-burner backpacking stove. The whole outdoors experience becomes perfectly integrated- existence focused on the essentials of shelter, food, and appreciation of the immediate environment; all else fades into a distant irrelevance.

Life in the outdoors is full of ritual. Small tents have to be kept tidy otherwise anarchy reigns and tempers fray as every other minute is spent in searching for something; like as not something found and put down only a minute ago. “A place for everything, and everything in its place” may sound a touch Draconian, but it works and avoids wasted time and false accusations against one’s tent-mate. So, morning starts with the washing ritual, followed by the first-coffee-of-the-day ritual (standing in a quiet campsite whilst most are still asleep, cradling a steaming hot cup in chilly hands, gazing at the hills and guessing what the weather has in store), then the breakfast ritual, then the sort-out-the-food-for-the-day ritual and finally the rucksack packing ritual. Hill food has to be easy to carry, easy to eat, high calorie-to-weight ratio and ideally based on complex carbohydrates. And last thing before leaving, down a pint of water – it’s easier to carry inside your stomach than on your back.

Knowing that it’s physiologically good to stop for an intake of fluid and calories is a great excuse for stopping to satisfy more than the physical needs of the body (yes, those as well…). Having to take off rucksack and delve inside to retrieve water bottle or thermos flask and cereal bar (granola bar in the US??) encourages you to site for a while and rest, turning away from the steep slope immediately ahead, to take in the expanding view unfolding below. This is another of the rituals of hillwalking; you soon develop an eye for a good stopping place - a flat-topped rock to sit on, maybe a large boulder to provide shelter from the wind and a backrest, and an unimpeded view into the valleys below.

These views tend to stick in the mind; having a snack-stop gives time to take in detail that otherwise would be passed over – the moving pattern of light and shade on a far hillside as the wind blows clouds across the sun; a squall blowing a wave of ripples across a lake tucked into the corrie far below; grasses near at hand bend and wave – always the wind making it’s presence felt. Or the eye follows possible scrambling or climbing routes up a rock face away across the slope, picking out the lines of weakness and mentally joining them in a continuous way to the summit. Weight is the enemy of fast, comfortable movement, so wherever possible, everything carried on the hill serves more than one purpose. So even food might be said to be dual purpose – it feeds the body and it encourages me to stop and feed the soul at the same time.

Although on day walks summits are often reached around lunch-time, they are rarely places to stop and relax and eat. More usually they are windswept, shrouded in mist, and accompanied by horizontal rain that drives its way into every crevice no matter where you look for shelter. So summits are somewhere to pause briefly, check the map (yes, you know where you are but it’s surprisingly easy to take a wrong path – every way is down), and move on. Lunch is had at whatever spot looks most inviting at any time after 11:30 – or indeed at any and all times. Where and when to eat depends far more on the environment than it does on the clock.

The main meal at the end of the day is one of the best times when camping. A time of purposeful yet restful activity, crouched over a stove, with luck in the golden light of the setting sun – yes, it does occasionally happen that way, more often than you might believe, and when it does the effect is quite magical. Sitting perched on a folding three-legged stool, plate in lap, watching the last rays of the setting sun setting the peaks and clouds ablaze whilst dusk has already arrived down in the valley, shoulders hunched against the evening chill, savouring the inner warmth from piping-hot supper and enjoying simply being there too much to retreat from the cold into the tent.

Even on rainy days, mealtimes are still a pleasure. Provided the wind direction is as predicted when the tent was pitched, I can sit in the porch, sheltered by a pegged-out door flap, watching grey clouds and lashing rain whilst the stove hisses gently just outside the doorway, then retreat into warmth and comfort when the meal is ready. Mealtimes when camping take on a significance that far outweighs the simplicity of their menus.

Oh, you want to know what we actually eat? Okay here goes…

Breakfast is of cereals, long-life milk, a banana, maybe some bread and margarine.
Snacks during the day: three cereal (aka granola/muesli) bars (no chocolate – too sticky!).
Lunch: on-the-spot sandwiches of crackers and cream cheese from a tube (quick and easy, and no waste if there’s no time to have lunch), followed by a slab of fruit cake or sticky ginger cake and an apple
Dinner: Something rice or pasta based, like long-life tortellini with a tomato and basil sauce.

And as much coffee as I get time to brew.

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