Friday, 10 December 2010

Rude trees make beautiful swimmers

Once you've spotted your first rude tree you'll never take a walk in the woods in the same way again. Or is it just me? But never mind. It might be a little silly to search for naughtiness in nature but nature put it there in the first place. And it's not like you haven't noticed that kind of stuff before is it?
However, I have found a new perspective. Turn the rude trees of the deep and dark woods upside down. Now look again. What do you see? I see elegant, long-limbed swimmers treading water under a leafy surface. I see mermaids. I see mermen. I see skinny dipping synchronised swimmers.

Beautiful huh? I think so.

Monday, 29 November 2010

How is the band? Dunno. Gonna watch it later.


I went to see a band this weekend. It's nothing special to do that, I know. But it was the first time in a while for me so it was a real pleasure. I loved the way the bass churned my stomach as I walked into the auditorium. I liked the way the beat made my trouser legs vibrate. I enjoyed hearing the hiss of the smoke machine and being able to turn around to see smiling faces behind me enjoying the music. I even quite liked the sweet and sickly smell of the excited teenage rocker standing next to me. It was all about the experience you see. And even the slightly rancid bodily whiff of a soap dodging music fan is a part of that. That's the point of seeing music live.
So why then, so many iphones held in the air? Why do people spend entire concerts filming the concert? Do they watch it back when they get home? Do they upload it to youtube? What's the point? It's never going to be the same. Compared to being there it'll be awful. You'll never capture the true essence of what it was like to be there. You can never beat having a ticket.


Friday, 26 November 2010

Thank your lucky stars and give them a hug


I love wind farms. I know a lot of people don't but I do. The reason is very simple. It's because they represent a faith in doing things in other ways. They represent smarter ways of making energy without making a big fat mess. They give me hope.

And that's why I took this picture yesterday. It's of the new turbine at Morwenstow on the Cornwall/Devon Border. It's pretty isn't it?

Now I know that lots of people object to wind turbines because they are noisy (allegedly), will make house prices plummet (really? So it's not the economic turmoil that's doing it then?), kill birds by the bucketload (have you seen how big the sky is recently? Birds aren't that stupid) and are an eyesore (compared to...?). Well, whatever. You may even be right. But there's something that everyone should consider before objecting to a wind farm. If you live in an area of unspoilt natural beauty then you should be grateful that they never found coal or diamonds or china clay underneath the place where you live. And you should think about what would happen to your NIMBY paradise if they ever discovered how to get rich on granite or mud or whatever it is your house is built on. You never had to give up your countryside for industry. You never had a slag heap collapse on your school. You never had (excuse the cliche) dark satanic mills.

But you now have the chance to do your bit and give up your wind so that the rest of us can have hope. So say yes to wind farms. Hey, when they are finished with it and have found a more efficent and cleaner soltuion, they'll even take it down. Because it's only temporary. So what do you say? Go on. Go out and give it a hug.

Monday, 22 November 2010

In praise of the silver darlings of the sea


Yesterday was all about local specialities. I began the day with a breakfast of seaweed picked from the local beach. Laver, as it's known, is easy to spot but takes an age to cook - about 4 hours. For that reason it's not top of the list for camper van breakfasts. But it's a local North Devon delicacy so you can't live here without trying it at least once. I have bought it a few times from the local chippy, where they sell it deep fried in batter. I've never been particularly sold on it. Can't think why. So I thought I'd cook it in the traditional Welsh way rolled in oats and cooked in bacon fat. It was really very nice indeed. A bit like you would want a girder to taste if you had to eat girders. Full of iron.

Next up, a trip to Clovelly, a small fishing village a few miles down the road. It's a very beautiful place that now relies on tourism rather than the sea. Despite this massive shift in the village's industrial fortune there are still some devoted souls who work very hard to keep the community and traditions alive. And it's that spirit that took me there yesterday, as they celebrated the 'silver darlings of the sea' at the annual herring festival.

Today, of course, things have changed. The harvest is no longer quite what it was, but those that are caught are landed in a way that will ensure we will be able to enjoy a few cold smoked kippers in the years to come. So there's every reason to take a wander down the quayside to snap up a couple to take home. And, unlike the laver, they only need a few minutes under the grill. Another good reason to keep them on the camper van breakfast menu.

Monday, 11 October 2010

One false move and it's curtains, not parasols

This weekend brought an amazing foraging find. Anyone who knows mushrooms will probably be able to tell that these were Parasol mushrooms. But I didn't. So I sweated and swotted and did some life-saving homework before taking them home for tea.
I've been gathering mussels from the seashore for over 15 years now and I've never been ill once. I've been fishing for ten years and shrimping for 4. Still no stomach cramps. And since I started researching wild food for The Camper Van Cookbook I've been trying all kinds of natural finds. From seaweed to chickweed, winkles to wood sorrel. It's been a delicious (mostly) journey.

But when it comes to fungi, I am a complete novice. And I always will be - because there is so much to learn and so many mistakes that can be made along the way. Mushrooms are a delight because they are so ephemeral but a few of the edible ones have look-a-likes that can kill you. So it's important to get it right if you decide to head out into the woods. You need to know that what you're picking is absolutely what you think it is. If you are not sure, don't bother. It's like all foraging. You need to be confident otherwise you won't enjoy eating it. And you might end up dead.

So unless you are a confident countryman who knows your ceps from your puffballs, you need to do a little work. This weekend I found some enormous mushrooms on my way back from a surf. When I got home I looked them up and got a positive ID. I did this by asking myself a few questions.


  • Does it match the time of year?

  • Does it match the habitat?

  • Does the physical description match exactly? This includes the gills, the ring, the way they grow or open, if they change when bruised, the diameter, the height. And any other physical features.

  • Does it match all descriptions in at least two field guides?

  • Is there anything that looks similar but is potentially harmful?

Once I was happy that I had a 100% positive answer to each question I went back to take a closer look. Once I was happy I decided to pick them and take them home. But even then I acted with caution. I tried a little first, then, a few hours later, I ate the rest cooked in butter with oregano and black pepper. They were, of course, delicious and extremely satisfying in a way that buying from the supermarket could never be. And I am still alive today. Which, of course, is a bonus.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Something old, some kind of brew, something borrowed and something I grew

I went scrumping this week. It was a load of fun and completely unexpected. What would you do if you found an apple tree laden with fruit that no one would pick? Exactly.
I lifted my daughter Maggie on my shoulders so she could pick the lowest hanging fruit from the neglected old tree. The apples were so perfect it would have been a crime to let them become windfall. They were ripe, sweet and delicious. We took what we could reach and then vowed to return to get more. I felt like a schoolboy again, with grazed knees and short trousers, heart beating as I tasted the first freshly picked apples of my autumn. The scrumper in me loves this. A day out in the van and a walk that turns into an adventure.

So the apple tree is the old part of this story. And the apples, shall we say, borrowed. But what about the rest? What about some kind of brew? In keeping with the apple theme we decided to try out this pork dish using Devon scrumpy. How apt. After browning and seasoning the pork we let it simmer away in a whole bottle of organic cider. Then we added the something I grew. That's easy. Fennel and thyme.


I am glad to say that the result was a fragrant and fruity mix with melt in your mouth pork and a lovely light sauce. I could have used more fennel or even spiced the pork up with fennel seeds but it was a good first effort. Served with a mustard and horseradish mash, it was the perfect dish for a Sunday night in September.


Admittedly I cooked it on the hob. But, with a little patience I could have cooked it over the fire while I went scrumping for more! Can you see it? Ruddy cheeks and bobble hats, starry skies and smiles. And bowls of hot apple, fennel and pork stew.


Scrumptious.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Surf and turf. The law of secret places.

There's an unwritten code among the foragers I know. And that's to respect someone else's patch. If someone takes you somewhere to show you something it's a priveledge that should never be abused. It's a trust thing. Why not? It's all about the effort you put in to find the goodies. Often it's more than the reward. But when you hit the jackpot it's all yours. As long as you've left enough for nature to continue to produce this wonderful harvest, fill your boots. Or your basket.
It's like that with surfing. Secret places are few and far between these days and we treasure them. And if you get taken down the steep and winding path that leads to a secret break, it is your job to 'forget' everything you learned along the way. You can talk about it but you can't give directions. Trust is everything. If I tell you that I surfed this place (above) last week with just two others you might fancy taking a look along the coast somewhere north of Sligo. But please don't ask me any more.

So I was very happy when Freddie's chanterelle patch sparkled with the heads of some very fine mushrooms recently. I was passing on my way to somewhere else and stopped off for a peek. He showed it to me when I was writing the Camper Van Cookbook. We went down there to take a few pictures and sample the delights of mushroom foraging. It was my first fungal foray so it was marvellous to do it in the company of someone who knows what he's doing. Of course lesson one was a simple affair: chanterelles. Not much apes it so it's a pretty sure bet.

Anyway, I phoned Fred to say that the mushies were there. 'Go for it' he said, 'I can't get away and the cows won't milk themselves.' Fair enough then. Rules is rules and we weren't about to break any. So we went back the next day and had ourselves a mini feast.

Much to our delight we found a new patch on a walk a few days later. It was right under our noses but it wasn't until we were ambling that we noticed them. We picked a load and took them to Freddy's. As a gesture of thanks.

After all, it was he who set us off on that road. He gave us the knowledge to know what we're looking for and the confidence to pick it. It seemed only right to share the spoil, now that we had found our own patch.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Welding, making and the simple things that make life great


This post is devoted to hero worship. More specifically to my neighbour, Paul, who, with his bare hands, created the monster in the photo. For him, someone who mends engines, bashes out dents and resprays panels for a living, it was a walk in the park. It's second nature. Normally I wouldn't give this mechanical mindedness and dexterity a second thought (apart from when it comes to getting the van through the MOT) but when it got applied to something I really wanted to try for myself, Paul caught my interest and admiration.

Paul lives in the house in which he was born. He has caught and eaten more lobster than anyone of us will ever taste in our lifetimes and was brought up next to the best shrimping beach on the North Devon Coast. He goes out at low tide and fetches it if he fancies it. Lovely stuff.
So when Paul made his smoker I was astounded. We had been chatting about smoking fish in the pub and I was happily banging on about the once in a lifetime chance I had to visit Arbroath recently. I had learnt how to make the famous smokies and would soon be making a smoker for myself - especially since I had learnt all the tricks .

All I had to do was catch some fish and make it. Well, sure enough, in late August the mackerel came in. Amazingly I caught one before Paul did. Of course this was a red rag to a bull so, not to be outdone, Paul proved himself ever the coastal dweller by catching 30 the next day. And with too many to freeze, bake or fry he set to work with his welder. As you do when you can. A few hours later he had himself a smoker. And some fine oak smoked mackerel fillets too.

Some days later at the annual village party Paul's smoker puffed away merrily as my friends and neighbours gathered around it. Like gannets waiting for the sardine run we hung about, waiting for a first taste. We all knew it would be brilliant, simply because it was simple. Smoked fish, caught by rod and line and smoked at home in a home-made smoker. What more could you ask? A welding course perhaps?

Monday, 6 September 2010

Oh September! How we love you.


June is nice. We have great swells, lovely sunny days and a few fresh greens from the garden. This year I ate chickweek and sea beet, samphire and rocket.

In July we also had some sunny days. Hot sunny days. I ate fresh garden spuds with home grown mint and butter. I love those.

August was ok. The kids were off school and the roads were a bit busy. It rained a little. But you know. That’s ok. The fresh garden peas and lettuces were good this year.
But we soon forgot all that.
September crept upon us with clear starry skies, dewy mornings and late evening surf sessions.
I don't know anyone who doesn't love September, especially among the surfers. The waves, which have whimpered for a couple of months, return with a bang as hurricane season kicks in on the other side of the Atlantic. Long range groundswells invade our beaches with tall, powerful waves. The sea temperatures are the best they will be all year. With a couple of months of warm days behind them, they will stay that way long into the Autumn. Cold feet walking down the beaches at dawn find a steaming, late year Atlantic oddly warming. The beaches, now abandoned by the summer hordes, are deserted. Rockpools heat up quickly, so our kids are happy on beaches they can call theior own again.

September, oh how we love you.

The mackerel arrive at last in late August, drawn in by the promise of large shoals of sprats to push onto the shore in giddy mats of shimmering silver. If we are lucky enough to bring our bucket a few will beach themsleves onto our plates. A little flour, a crack of black pepper and a pinch of chilli flakes is all it takes.

Occasionally the mackerel take my bait too. This year we've had the chance to experiment. Usually it's just garlic, butter, bish, bosh, bash and then they are done. It's a good sign that we've fish to spare. And it's not about my fishing skills. The sea splashes and boils with joyful gluttony.

We've had mushrooms too. If only we'd been a few days earlier we might have had the full crop. But someone got there first and left us a just a few little ones. Until we went a little further off the path and found our own secret stash. Chanterelles on toast. Beautiful, especially when you've gone just that little bit further to find them.

Then there are blackberries. Apparently, there are hundreds of varieties, each with its own unique taste. I found a bush whose berries tasted like apples and blackberries. Odd but delicious. And another that was so sweet we picked the lot and ate them all. None left for pie or jam or vodka this time. We came home with happy, juice-stained lips and faces.

Never mind, it's September. There's plenty more where that came from.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Car Trouble. Not Again?


Oh goodness. I got a text today from the man who bought my van, Pootle. The news wasn't good. Having packed up on the motorway the next day after being sold, Pootle has been sitting in a garage in West London waiting for a full diagnosis. The text brought the bad news: a new engine at...wait for it...are you sitting down...a minimum of ....£3000.00. Cripes!

Oh well. Whatever I decide to do next is up to me. But it got me thinking about car trouble. I've had such a lot of it that a blown up engine isn't really much to write home about now. And if you think it's a blase attitude, read on.

My first car was a VW Beetle. Its windscreen wipers used to pop a circlip every so often which would stop them working. It meant getting out, finding where it had gone and popping it back on. One Christmas it popped and I couldn't find the clip. It was pissing with rain so I made my sister take the laces out of her shoes and tie them together. I then tied them to the wipers and passed them through the quarterlights. With a lateral movement my sister, furious and wet by now, could operate the wipers. All the way to Dorset. We never spoke of it again.
But it got worse. I borrowed her car, a Citroen 2CV, without asking. It was my birthday and I was in the middle of another car crisis and needed to get to Devon for my party. The car caught fire. Flames were coming out of the dashboard between my legs. It was terrifying. But try telling that to an angry sister who's in Hong Kong reading a fax from her brother telling her that her beloved car has gone up in smoke. Incidentally, did you know that you are insured third party only when you borrow a car on a comprehensive policy? Ouch. We don't speak of that much either.
It wasn't my only 2CV disaster. I had one once. I got it up to 92 MPH. Amazing! And yes, it spent some time in the garage after that.
Then there was the camper. I hit a pothole and the fusebox jumped off its mountings. We had a minor dashboard fire. And let's not forget the night I moved out of London with everything I owned - this time in a different camper. Broke down outside Trellick Tower, 100 yds from my old home.
Oh happy days. Skippy next. He was a Vauxhall Astra who was stolen from outside a flat in Queen's Park. He was returned and fixed up for me but hit by a boy racer in his Dad's Discovery whilst it was parked outside my friend's house. I'd only had it back a week. He tried to blame me. Said it was my parking wot did it. The twat. It dragged on for a bit mind.
I borrowed Dave's car once. That wasn't good. it broke down on the A30 in a blizzard so I had to sleep in it.
My wife's car, Rosie. Mmmmm. That was expensive! The engine blew up a few weeks after we bought her. At least it was only a 1000cc. But, even so: damn.
And back to Pootle, who, on an epic trip to John O' Groats, made it as far as Bristol. He got sent home on a yellow truck that time too.
Talking of yellow trucks, we mustn't forget the incident with the smashed windscreen in Saintes. Doing 60 up the motorway. Suddenly the windscreen shattered, not cracked like modern screens, shattered. It was like driving into a whiteout with no warning. Mind you, we got 2 nights in a hotel whilstwe waited for a new screen. After three weeks sleeping in the van Jo was quite pleased. Saintes is a nice place to break down.
Unlike spaghetti junction. I was involved in a 10 car pile up there way back in the eighties. We were somewhere in the middle. That was pretty bad. And it wasn't my car either. Girlfriend's Mother's. Crikey!
So what do you wreckon? A blown up engine isn't so bad is it? We are alive and we've had some fun. In fact we've had so much fun I think it's all been worth it.
But now there's Pootle to worry about.
What shall I do?

Monday, 23 August 2010

Dancing with Rick


The Camper Van Cookbook got knocked of the top spot in the Amazon Food and Travel books chart again today. Since its release on 27th of May my camper vanning opus has been consistently at or near the top of the chart.

When I first saw this ranking I was so surpirsed and excited that I checked it every day. Days went by. Weeks went by. The Camper Van Cookbook stayed at the top spot. And then one day a couple of weeks ago I looked and I'd been pipped. I was devastated. Bereft even. How could this happen? How could this disaster befall my numbers? It was an outrage.

I noticed who had pipped me and I felt a bit silly. The leader of the pack was Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey. Then I got the whole thing into prespective. Rick is a legend. He's a giant among the chef's whites. He's a fish guru, a traveller, a chef. He's even got a town named after him. So why am I complaining? If you told me a year ago that my book (what book? have I written a book?) had held Rick Stein off the top spot for even a couple of minutes I'd have told you to take a long run on a short pier. Or worse.

So I have become a little more relaxed about the rankings recently. I tell myself that I am non-competitive, that it means nothing, that everyone else has had a running start. I am a newbie. Since then I've been dancing with Rick a little, much to my amusement. I've been back up there a couple of times. I've even been back down to number three, behind Rick and those Hairy Bikers. And the day that the Food and Drink Guide was available for advance ordering I slipped a little too. The pups! Suffice it to say it was only a matter of hours.


It's ok. I'm not obsessed.


(I wonder if Rick sits at home, unable to resist one last look at the chart before bed time? I'll bet he does.)

Friday, 13 August 2010

The summer of camper van love. And why I'll always choose a camper over canvas.


(This blog post first appeared on Pitchup.com a couple of weeks ago. )
It’s been a summer of camper van love for me. I drove 2500 miles around the UK for The Camper Van Cook in my 1979 VW Camper Van. Despite long filming days and rain, I’ve never been happier.
My parents did their best to put me off camping by taking me on wet trips to Wales when I was little. Then the Sea Scouts had their go. I got that grubby end of weekend feeling down pat during summer camps. But nothing could deter me from seeking out canvas, big skies and flour and water on sticks as I hit my teens. And when I discovered surfing my fate was sealed.
I didn’t live by the coast so the only thing to do was pack up and ship out. Camping was the way to go. I loved every moment. Even the night our tent was flattened in a gale or the day the money ran out and my last meal – a boiled egg – fell in the sand. I remained undeterred. I couldn’t get enough of the freedom and the excitement, the waking up next to the beach, the surfing all day and partying around the camp fire all night. But then the winter came around – and with it the best waves of the year – so I had to seek proper shelter. The front seat of a Ford Fiesta with a leaky sunroof wasn’t good enough. The solution was a camper van – a VW camper van more to the point.
There’s good reason that generations of surfers have chosen the VW as their transport of choice. Not only can you go anywhere but you can pack up and move on at a moment’s notice. No guy ropes to pull, no wet tent to fold up in a gale. So you get all the benefits of the great out doors, but without the hassle.
The camper van will also extend the camping season far beyond the summer and the acceptable comfort levels of normal people. This is because no wind or rain or snow can put you off. When the wind howls and the tents start flapping you can just shut the door, pull out the bed, put on the heating (some campers even have gas powered heating with thermostats) and take a nap until it’s all over. Or you could set up the dining table and have a game of cards. In your vest and undies. With the light on. I know! You show me someone who played strip poker in a tent in a winter thunder storm without showing a few goosebumps and I’ll hike up the Cairngorms in just my smalls. I rest my case.
Then there’s bed time. Ok so you’ll have to do a bit of a dance to get the bed out, but once you’re horizontal you’ll feel the benefits straight away. You are off the ground and the penetrating cold of the earth can’t get to your kidneys in the night. You might even need to open a window to keep cool. And you’ve got six inches of foam between you and the nearest hard object. Come the morning’s early light you’ll still be able to peer outside and stretch and scratch along with the best of them – because you’re right there, sharing the moment - but with the benefit of a good night’s sleep.
When it comes to cooking you can’t beat a camper. You’re basically working with the same gas powered cooker as the well tooled-up canvas camper but with the benefit of chairs, worktops, a sink, fridge and, if you’re lucky, running water. Why wouldn’t you want that? When I was writing the Camper Van Cookbook I managed to cook up a chilli for 8 on a slope in a force 9 gale at a very wet and muddy festival. It wasn’t easy as the pot kept slipping off the flame, but I did it, whilst everyone else was knee deep in mud queuing up at the falafel stall.
Some people might say that camper vanning isn’t proper camping. So what is it? It’s not glamping. Maybe it should be mobile glamping? I guess you might call it that. It also explains why I’d choose it over glamping any day. My friends at Berridon Farm in North Devon have a fantastic set up with amazing tents, brilliant facilities and lovely, lovely views (I recommend in case you hadn’t noticed) with cute animals and a little shop. If you want glamping, this is it. But you can’t move if the weather turns or you fancy stepping out somewhere different every morning. In a camper van you can.
Then there’s the driving. People stop and wave. People smile when you go past. There’s a sense of community. VW campers wave at each other on the road. You’d never get that in your late saloon with a top box full of wet tent would you? Camper vans make the whole experience fun. And if you break down you don’t have to sit it out in the rain. You can pop the kettle on and enjoy a roadside brew. Even a holiday disaster turns into an adventure in a camper. You get to live the life from the moment you leave until the minute you get home again.
And that’s why I’d risk the breakdowns and the maintenance costs over putting up a tent every time. Ok so you can’t hike in and hike out like you can with a one man tent and you can’t light a wood burner like you can in a glamping situation, but you can do pretty much everything else – but better.
I love my camper. And I’m not alone. This summer I’ve seen more camper vans on the road than ever before. Everyone, it seems, is getting the camper van vibe. More and more camper van hire companies are springing up every week and – from what I can gather – they are all busy busy busy. Long may it remain.
This the summer of VW camper van love.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Goodbye Poots. Thanks for the ride.


It was an emotional weekend for all of us. We said goodbye to our third VW T25 Camper Van, Pootle. This lovely white 2.0 litre air cooled Devon conversion from 1981 has seen us through some great times, a lot of miles and some wonderful meals. He's a little bit famous too, having appeared in The Mail on Sunday, The Independent, Coast Magazine and Devon life (more than once). Get him! And let's not forget that without Pootle The Camper Van Cookbook would still be on the driveway, waiting for the off.
But as is often the way, the time had come to send him off to pastures new. We shall miss him.

Don't panic though! He hasn't gone to the great camper van camp site in the sky. No! His number won't be up for a long time yet. With 95K on the clock there's life in the old block yet. 30 years is nothing for a Dub like Poots.
He's gone to live with Blair, Liz and 6 month old Joseph. They have promised him a whole new lease of life - because they intend to use him for their Great London Getaway. We're all for it. He'll see some proper action at last. None of this Pootling down to the beach for a surf, a cup of tea afterwards and maybe an impromptu photo shoot. He'll get to see some places. We're a little bit envious.

If you see him in E3 or on the motorway, give him a wave and send him our love. Cheers Poots. Thanks for the rides.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Less is more. More or less.

I just got back from my 5 week tour of the UK in my camper van for BBC2. I went to some great places and saw some brill stuff. I took the van to a few hellish roads, tasted the UK's finest ingredients and stayed in some amazing places. I met a lot of very good people too. I'd like to be able to tell you more but that would be giving it away. And what a final epsiode it ended up being! You'll have to watch it to find out what happened at the end of the 2500 mile tour. Let's just say that nothing, and I mean nothing, should keep a camper van man from his home made beef burger with camper van chutney. You know the rules.


Anyway, the last 5 weeks or so have been spent living with one pair of shorts (for hot days), one pair of jeans (for cold days), one pair of flip flops (for hot days whilst not driving), one pair of walking boots (for hiking up big hills), sneakers (cold days and driving), a few tees (alternate days) and my trusty biker's Barbour jacket (are you listening Barbour? Yes, it did get wrecked). So when I got home, it was a revelation to have so much choice. In everything. Where to sit, what pan to cook with, what to wear, what mug to have my tea in. I even had a telly and a laptop to play with. Crikey! That's a lot of stuff. The only thing I had no choice about was what to see out of the window. I'm not complaining because the view out of our house is pretty spectacular but it never changes - unlike the view on my tour, which changed every day. Some days I was by the beach, on other days by a lake, some a pond, others mountains, others fields. One day I woke up and there was an orchard outside my bedroom window. And a lot of empty bottles of cider.
So my question is this: do we really need all this crap? If we can be perfectly happy without it, why do we bother with all the trappings? Is it easier to have no choice when you wake up in the morning? "Is it sunny? Yes! Then it's flip flops today! Hurrah." Personally I think it is. As long as I've chosen carefully and have things to do then I can't see why I'd waste time thinking about what to wear or what not to wear. It's liberating. I am camper van man (apparently) and I think about driving and food and adventure.
I decided to have what is known in our house as a scourge. That is the brutal and remorseless removal of unwanted objects. I bagged up a load of my old clothes and I recycled them so that someone else can enjoy them more than they were being enjoyed at the back of my wardrobe (I never liked that green silk kimono anyway. When you live in a cold cottage in Devon it is the last thing you'd put on in the morning I can tell you). And now I am back to basics, ready for the next trip.


Now then. Where did I put that map?




Sunday, 4 July 2010

Holy Island. Holy Shit.


Today I am taking a break at home after two weeks of filming for The Camper Van Cook, my BBC2 TV series. I've been all over the place: Devon, Hampshire, Norfolk, Yorshire and Northumberland. It's been pretty good. I've eaten some wonderful food including lobster, crab and samphire, Britain's best cheese, wild mushrooms, chickweed and an exotic bird. And I've seen some beautiful places. The Dales, with its 'rustic' campsite rates among the best I have ever stayed at. Not because of the facilitites but because of the view. Simply amazing. I have met some wonderful people too. The forager taught me more in a day of foraging than I could ever have learned on my own in a year. Andy the fisherman showed me the best way to cook a crab. He was right too. I met the folks at Wiveton Hall. Crazy English through and through. I ate Yorshire Chorizo. Really? Damn right. And I met Richard and Sean, the lobster fishermen, who let me 'help' them as they hauled in a precious cargo of velvet swimmers and huge brown crabs. I saw some great stuff. And then I saw this. I took this photograph at Lindisfarne on Holy Island. It is a stunningly beautiful place and it's easy to see why pilgrims have been flocking here for the past thousand or so years. Twice a day it is cut off by the tide, a process that cleanses the island of its tourists, leaving nothing but a quiet village with a ruined priory and a sense of rural wildness that's very English, extremely timeless and well worth protecting. But I guess not everyone sees it that way, do they? He said it was the cheapest way.

I went back the next day to see if he'd cleared up the remains of his burning three piece suite. I hoped that maybe he had picked out the old springs from the ashes, tidied up a bit and made good. I thought that it couldn't have been possible to be so ignorant and reckless, but, it seemed, it was. There, on a beautiful beach in a lovely harbour on an island in a remote corner of England was a pile of ash, some twisted springs, a few screws and a bit of tattered, unburned upholstery.

You can say what you like about eco-living, hippy ideals and a sense of pride in beauty but you can't argue with this can you? The evidence is there for all to see. Some people just don't give a f**k. Holy shit.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Cooking is not cooking



Sometimes you just want to boil a kettle and have done with it, don't you? It's something that the Pot Noodle generation will understand. But it doesn't have to be that way. Couscous, lime and a bit of very fresh fish will do it for me. And some freshly picked salad greens. With a few herbs. Nice. No hassle, no fuss, no cooking. Just tasty stuff.

Holiday stew. A day off from the adventure.


My friend Paul told me about 'holiday stew' recently. I'd never heard of it and Paul couldn't quite believe it. He thought everyone had holiday stew on holiday. Apparently not. To be honest I felt a little left out because the sound of it suggested something wonderful. It has the ring of fabulousness about it, doesn't it? One imagines something so special you'd only ever have it once a year.

So what of this seventies delicacy I've never heard of? Well, the clue is in the name. Holidays are all about taking time off. So whilst Dad and the kids got to spend a little time away from work and school, Mum (remember it was the seventies) got to take a little time out too. Why should she make tea in a tiny caravan kitchen when everyone else was larking around in the rain? Quite. So what Mum did was to take a tin of peas, a tin of potatoes, a tin of carrots and a tin of meat and mix them up with the secret ingredient, an OXO cube. And that was holiday stew. Crikey.

But it got me thinking. For a camper vanning escapade it could well be perfect. It's a great concept. Despite the fact that it's a culinary disaster, it follows all the rules of camper van living: you make it in one pot, it doesn't take long to cook and the ingredients will never go off. If you all used a spoon to eat it you'd save a whole bunch of washing up too. I thought to myself "I want some of that."
Off to the kitchen then.

The result is my spicy bean stew with chorizo. Almost everything (apart from an onion, some garlic and fresh herbs) comes from a can or is preserved and yet it's hearty and delicious. It's one for the back of the cupboard, for a dark and windy day when you're too tired to go to the shop. Just perfect for when you're having a day off from being a camper van adventurer.

Seeing as I am about to pack up and head off on a once in a lifetime tour of the UK in my van (that's going to be filmed for BBC2) I have stuffed a few tins of butter beans, cannelini beans, kidney beans and lentils (as well as a few yards of chorizo) in the back of the cupboard. You never know. There may be times when having holiday stew is the only thing for it. Can't wait.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

That's what it's all about isn't it?


Feet in the sand, chugging chips on Crooklets Beach and watching the sun go down. Mrs Campervan living asked me to take her somewhere special for our 9th wedding anniversary. So I did. Of course next year we'll go somewhere even better. Like Summerleaze. I might even buy her some onion rings. If she's lucky. Oh yes, we know how to live alright.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Thanking our lucky stars. One amazing journey.


Today, of all days, is very special indeed. Today is the day when my dreams come true. My book, The Camper van Cookbook, hits the shelves of bookshops all around the UK. In many ways I still can't belive that the book I had inside me could be made into a real book. But there it is, with pages and pictures and a cover and an index. And look, there's a box of them in the corner!

It's been an amazing year. Last May I began talking about bringing this book to life with my publisher. But I still refused to belive it could happen. Then I raced around the UK in my van taking pictures, coming up with ideas, making it happen. And it has. We camped in Mart's garden. We sheltered behind Dave and Sam's house in a storm. We chugged Bolly at Solfest. We talked campers at Dubs on The beach. We blagged a good spot at Dart Valley Park. We kipped in a holding site in Blackpool. We ate corn chowder in a storm on the seafront in Maryport. We cooked a chilli for a contest in Bude. We ate our way through a pile of delicious recipes. We made sunshades and kites and sundials and hammocks. And we had an absolute blast.

What could possibly top that? Today, maybe. It's the day when we show it to the world. And we hope they like it. So far the reation has been great. Somehow we're right there, in the moment. The timing could well be perfect.

The BBC seem to think so, which is why next week I set off on an amazing journey around the Uk to find out a whole lot more about our beloved country. We'll be shooting 10 half hour episodes for BBC2 starting with North Devon. I'll meet foragers, fishermen, producers, growers, artisans and cooks. And I'll learn something from every single one of them. The surf's looking good too.

I can't wait.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Going overboard for a few fresh greens


The produce in our fish crate garden is really starting to come on now that the weather's changed. We've got rocket and lettuce already, are on the verge of gathering our first spuds, and not far off frying up the pak choi. It's very satisfying. Not only because we love our garden greens but also because fish crates make such good beds.
All ours have been picked up from the beach near to where we live. They come from all over the place. We even have one from Dunmore East, the place where Jo and I tied the knot. It's in southern Ireland. Others are from Scotland, Cornwall, Norway. All over.
It was Dave and Sam who first turned us on to the idea of collecting these lost receptacles for planting. Not only does it take them out of the marine environment but it also stops them from going to landfill. So instead of going to a hole in the ground or decaying into hundreds of bits of toxic plastic that will continue to float around the planet, they find another use. And if that use can supply us with really tasty, freshly picked, home grown greens, then I'm all for it. They might have travelled hundreds of miles across the oceans to get to us but, now they are here, they have a second chance to be useful. From here to September we'll reduce our shopping bills by a couple of lettuces, some rocket and a few spuds a week. It's not much, but it's something.
So, thanks fish crates. We'd rather you stayed on your fishing boats but if you must go overboard, float your way to our beach. We'll keep you busy. Just don't let on to the fisherman's co-op.

Drying, not waving

Poor old Ted. It's a hard life being you isn't it? First you get ravaged by the Bob the dog and left for dead in the garden. Next the kids don't care enough about you to miss you at all during the three difficult days that you were missing, then you get shoved unceremoniously in the washing machine with all the other smalls. And then you get left out to dry. Literally. Mind you, you're looking clean. And I am sure that it's better than being the Duchess of York right now.
Thank heaven for small mercies.
Who's your friend, Ted?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Are you ready for the summer?

How are things round your way? Down here in Bidefornia things are brightening up. It's still a little chilly at night but not enough to stop us from taking off in the van as soon as the sun pokes its head out from behind the Friday afternoon cloud. And that means being ready to go. At a moment's notice. Prepared for anything.

So into the van they go. The snorkels and the masks, wetsuits, towels, sleeping bags and pillows all find their own little cubby holes where they will wait patiently for the signal from the house: "Fire up the van. The forecast is looking good and the road is clear. Let's go!"
The salt and pepper shakers, the family pack of pasta and the cornflakes will all be lurking at the back of some cupboard or other. And the tins of tuna, tomatoes and artichokes that I packed a while ago will still be waiting for their hour in the sun (pan). I'll find them when we get there.

Last thing to do is pack the cooler with a few perishables, swing by the egg lady's house and pump a few gallons of moving juice into the old girl before putting the foot down and driving. Can't wait to get there and get the dinner on.

The tin opener, in case you were wondering, will be in the cutlery drawer. At home.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Ouch! That soup tastes great...


It's not easy doing the chopping with gardening gloves on. But it is worth it. And, amazingly, the kids even tried the results, a rustic nettle soup, camper van style. The only thing that was lacking, we felt, was a dash of cream. Never mind, when the main ingredient of our new favourite soup grows in every hedgerow you could ever look in, it's not going to be a problem finding it again.

As soups go, it wasn't half bad either, especially once we'd added some smoked bacon lardons. And yes, the family tried it. And said they liked it. So the whole experience was a success: getting Maggie and Charlie to try something alien and new, eating fresh, seasonal and local food (measure it in food feet, not miles) and trying out new techniques.

The way we made it was as important as the ingredients. We wanted to stay true to camper van cooking principles and make a really great soup without using a blender. As it turns out it wasn't so hard. We fried an onion, a clove of garlic and a cubed potato in a little oil for a few minutes. Then we added a couple of big handfuls of very well chopped young nettle leaves (just the tips of the plants - without any stalks) and a pint of vegetable stock. This we boiled for 10 minutes and then mashed as much as we could. Then we put the whole lot into a sieve and drained off the liquid. The pulp we mashed again and then reunited with the juice. A little black pepper, sea salt and then the fried lardons to finish it off and add a little extra salty flavour. Not bad! And only a few stings along the way.


TASTE: 8/10 for nettleness

CONSISTENCY: 9/10 for rustic charm. Good with a doorstep.

HANDINESS: 10/10 for being fresh and more local than anything. Totally sustainable.


Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Have you thanked your beach today?


A few weeks ago we spent an amazing weekend camper vanning in Cornwall. The sun shone and we had a lovely time. We had planned to head for Eden to show our kids a marvel of our world but instead we ended up at a tiny beach not far from Mevagissey. We made camp and cooked up home made lamb and mint burgers in the van (much to the envy of our neighbours) and then splashed out on a Cornish ice cream. Oh how we live! The beach was stunning but, like many other beaches on our coast, it had its fair share of rubbish. Some would have floated in from the sea, some left by holidaymakers, some lost by the fishing fleet. All of it damages the marine environment in some way or other. If it's plastic it will never go away. It'll just break down into smaller and smaller pieces.
On the way home we went to Gweek Seal Sanctuary near Helston. The kids loved it. Seeing the seals was a real thrill. Then they noticed this one. You can see the scar on its neck. We asked one of the keepers what had happened to it. Apparently this young seal was found in a very bad way with a fishing net around his neck. The net, discarded or lost, was still doing its work, long after being separated from its owner. It's called ghost fishing.
There's a point to be made here isn't there? It's quite simple I think. If you enjoyed a day out somewhere, anywhere, it wouldn't be too hard to take a piece of someone else's litter home with you. You could easily dispose of it or, better still recycle it. A bottle, a bag, an aluminium can, a piece of fishing net. Think of it as a small 'thank you' to the beach for giving you a nice day. To a seal like this one, it could mean a lot more than that.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Long hair. Bare feet. And a band called Reef.

Friday was supposed to be all about the future but somehow it ended up being all about the past. I was in London for a few Camper Van Cookbook meetings. I had the chance for a cup of tea and catch up with my editor, Elizabeth. A lovely day, discussing all kinds of things, most of which has yet to come.

Once all the businessy bits (if that's what you could call anything to do with The Camper van Cookbook) were over I schlepped off to Shepherd’s Bush to see a band whose music I haven’t listened to for a very long time. They split some time ago and, until this reunion tour, hadn’t played live in seven years. Having never seen them live I couldn’t believe my luck in nabbing two 'golden' tickets for the sell out gig.

There is something about Reef’s music that makes you want to kick off your shoes, grow your hair and disappear off for the summer. It’s got swagger and soul in equal measures. But it’s not about sticking your fingers up at the world. It’s not angry. The swagger comes from good times. It’s music that can make your day. There was a time - when I was working away on a long and difficult project - that I listened to Reef every morning. It woke me up and got me through. I have a lot to thank Reef for.

My relationship with Reef has always been good. So when they came out on stage yesterday I was transported back to the times when it rarely came off the stereo. Back to surf trips, barbecues, beach fires and home made camper conversions. Being barefoot all summer. You know the feeling?

I was taken back to Speke’s on sunny summer days, sitting in the channel at Marsland hooting another late drop, surfing the morning glass, camping out at Duckies under the stars, smacking the lip of a clean four foot wave, drinking in Welcombe, driving to the coast, travelling, making a legend out of breakfast.

It was always worth putting in the hours for. And things haven’t changed that much really, have they? Every moment I spend in my camper van these days is worth the effort too. OK, so some of us have got a little bigger and slower and have less hair than we used to. Perhaps a bit more responsibility too. But most of my friends can still pass off a decent cutback and still get to take their shoes off every so often. Do you? If you don't then you should ask yourself why. You could do worse than stick Reef on the stereo, fire up the van and cancel that appointment at the barber.

REEF: 10/10 for Jack and the boys.

AUDIENCE: 10/10 for the dads who think they can still rock.









Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Time is running out for the moules


Ever heard the saying that you should only eat mussels when there is an 'r' in the month? If you believe this then you should be jumping in the van and dashing to the coast next week with your foraging bucket and a tide table. With spring tides all week exposing the juiciest mussels at low water, there could be a moule fest. It'll be the last chance to nab a free feast before September.
But why? Depending on who you talk to, the reason behind avoiding seafood in summer is either about the spawning season or water temperature. One side says it's to do with the fact that bivalves reproduce in summer and don't taste so great, the other says that algal blooms in warm summer waters can make seafood toxic. For me, the jury's out on the latter because the sea temperature won't start to really warm up until late June or July (It is currently a very balmy 9 degrees centigrade in North Devon. Brrr.) and will stay warm-ish until October or November. Although I'm not disputing the fact that certain algae can render your seafood inedible.
There may not even be any truth in the idea that spawning spoils the tase of a mussel but it is widely accepted that Oysters aren't at their best when they are reproducing. I've never eaten foraged mussels in May, June, July or August so I couldn't say the same is true for my delicious little friends. But I do think that we should leave them be for a few months. We should allow them to get on with their thing. It's summer. Love is in the air. Let them make all the babies they want to. It means the population will stay healthy. And we can enjoy them again when September comes around.
So we'll be off to the beach next week. We'll be picking like mad things. And then we'll steam them in a little white wine and cream and wolf them down with a thick slice of crusty bread and creamy Devon butter. Yum! Wanna come?

Monday, 19 April 2010

Going anywhere nice this year?


What do you call yours? Is your van a Rusty or a Humphrey or a Hector or a Hattie? Or are you just a 'don't be silly it's only a van' kind of a camper van owner? Some people are you know. They either never get around to naming their vans or just don't think that vehicles should have names. I'm all for names myself but I do think that the name you choose should mean something. You shouldn't be able to call your van something that either doesn't fit or has no relevance. And just because it sounds cute and your van is cute doesn't wash. If it's yellow you can call it Buttercup. Or if it's painted like a cow. But that's it. My van, Pootle, was so named because he pootles along. There's nothing flash about him and he hasn't overtaken anything for a few years, so Pootle is perfect. It's a Sunday driving kind of a name, with a pom-pom-pom-diddly-om-pom-pom thrown in for good measure.


I used to have a theory that all camper van owners should call their vans after the first place they broke down. The logic was that it would stop you going anywhere crap in that delightful honeymoon period between ecstatic parting of the cash and ringing the AA. And that would improve your life no end. Instead of driving along wondering what that rattle was, you'd spend more time taking the van to places with cool sounding names - just in case.


Camper vans weren't put on this earth to take you to Tescos. Camper vans weren't built to go to Leatherhead. They were made for exploring exciting places with exotic names. So if you've had the misfortune of going to Ipswich or Pizza Hut and have conked out in the car park, that's your own tough luck. You'll be stuck with it forever.


So much better to part with the cash and head somewhere great. Get out the map and drive to a place that sounds absolutely wonderful. It might just be. And don't break down before you get there. Plan your route. Make sure you don't pass through East Grinsted on the way to the ferry.


Sunday, 18 April 2010

Clear skies, starry nights and Simon Cowell


I went out last night. Yes thanks, it was ok. But I did end up in the middle of nowhere, walking between two isolated North Devon hamlets in the wee hours. Admittedly I was buzzing a bit from the boozing, but it was still a great time to be alive. The night was clean, clear and cool. Without a torch, street lights or night vision capabilities I had to walk along the white lines in the middle of the road to keep myself from stumbling into hedges or disappearing into ditches. It’s really dark out there. Surprisingly, it isn’t totally black. Far from it. As my eyes got used to the light conditions, I saw more stars than I think have ever seen before. I was astonished. The night sky is an amazing place. I don’t know if the closing of our airspace had anything to do with it, whether I just don’t look up enough or if I was feeling a little wide eyed and wonderful, but there was so much to see. I was mesmerised. I saw my own star sign, Scorpio, perhaps for the first time. I could see the bear, the plough and a few of the other well known constellations. Beyond that though, I was lost. If only I knew more.
It would be amazing to be able to look up at the sky and read it like a book. It’d be brilliant to know that you only have to raise your eyes to the heavens to read stories or work out where you are. I think it’d be pretty humbling too: to be faced by the vastness of the universe every night. Just like they did before they had telly or the internet. You’d feel tiny wouldn’t you? It’d make a nice change from feeling like your dream could come true if only Simon Cowell could see you dance.
So why not? Next time you’re camper vanning and find yourself in the middle of nowhere with half a bottle of wine inside you, lie on your back and stare up at the night sky. Turn your back on planes, light pollution, torches, telly, cars, sat nav and the internet for a while and be inspired by something wonderful.
Someday, when they switch off the electricity, the planes can’t fly anymore and books and maps are banned, you might even be able to find your way home. And you don’t even need a subscription to see it.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Where have you been camping? The Eighties?



Do you ever get the feeling that you're stuck in a time warp? I do. It even affects the way I take photos. But then, when the results are this good, who cares? This weekend my family and I took our beloved camper, Pootle, for the first camping trip of the season. As soon as the sun came out we packed him up with food, duvets and wine and spluttered off for Stithians Lake in Cornwall.

If we'd bought a modern camper we'd have been there before the sun set but, seeing as Pootle is a 1981 VW T25 with a top speed of about 65-ish, we got there with just enough light to throw up a tent, plug in the electric and cook some easy camper van nosh. (In case you were wondering it was the pasta with artichokes, olives and mozarella. D-lish.)

So why do we do it? Why drive a classic VW? Why bother with no mod cons? We don't have to. We don't have to stand at the side of the road waiting for the AA. We don't have to wait nervously for the MOT. We don't have to pootle along if we don't have to. But we do. And we love it.

Because you can't go fast. That's why. Because you couldn't hurry if you tried. And that means you can stop and admire the view along the way, which was lovely. So it didn't matter that we arrived after dark. Cornwall was there when we woke up in the morning.

CAMPSITE: Camping at the Golden Lion Inn, Stithians, Cornwall.
RATING: 7/10 Excellent pub, lovely lake, nice quiet campsite.