The best kind of marshmallow is toasted on a stick over a fire, the sky overhead glazed with stars, and your body weary from a day spent trudging outdoors. What other marshmallow could even compete?
For Ray Mears, there’s a real magic to the simplicity and communality of cooking outdoors, from fetching water to tending the fire together. “You go right back to the origins of cooking,” says the writer, presenter and bushcraft specialist. “Things do taste better outdoors.”
His debut cookbook, Wilderness Chef: The Ultimate Guide To Cooking Outdoors, brings this feeling together, along with practical advice on how and what to feed yourself and your fellow adventurers when out exploring (or even just ‘camping’ in the garden).
“I fervently believe that, if you’ve got very little to cook with, if you’ve got some culinary skill, you can still make a good meal; if you don’t know how to cook, you’re lost,” explains the 56-year-old. “I’ve always valued the importance of food, and certainly when travelling in wild places, if you’ve had a really bad day for whatever reason, if at the end of that day you can provide yourself with a decent meal, it’s like pushing a reset button for morale, psychology and physical wellbeing. Food is really important.”
The book is packed with effective, if primitive-sounding, cooking ideas – from baking eggs in embers and steaming fish in a blanket of moss, to skewering cuts of venison on sticks and building a ground oven. Mears shares recipes for hearty soups and roast meats, and even a camp stove pineapple upside-down cake.
“If you go out, even for a day hike, and you take a stove with you and you decide you’re going to cook something at the end of the night before you come back, you make more of the experience of having been out. It provides a lovely punctuation in a day,” he says. “It’s all about company and sharing. And that’s the joy, and that sharing of the meal is a great time to get to know each other better, to share the experiences you’ve been having outdoors.”
You might think for a man accustomed to sleeping outdoors and travelling the world, that lockdown would have chafed for Mears more than most – but he’s actually found it a rare period in which to “be home and just watch the local nature” – like the roe deer buck being nudged onto its feet by its mum, which he caught on camera. “I’ve had the opportunity to look at my local wildlife in a way that I haven’t for many years, without any distractions,” he says, something many of us can now relate to, thanks to weeks of local lockdown walks and grabbing as many moments outside as possible.
Mears is “very encouraged” by people’s increased interest in the natural world, arguably a welcome side-effect of restrictions. “We must hang on to that,” he says. “This period has shown the value of the green spaces that we have, and how important it is to preserve the green belt.
“There are two things about my experience of life in terms of being nature-based,” he continues. “There is the stimulus you receive from the natural world, and there is stimulus you receive from human society – like the nucleus of a camping trip. And in this lockdown, both of these things have been valued: one, because we’ve lost it, the ability to communicate freely and meet people, and the other is that what we’ve been left with is this opportunity to go out and walk in nature and pay more attention to green spaces. That’s been very, very important for people to be able to maintain their morale, their mental health and their enjoyment – to me that’s the key thing.”
Throw outdoor cooking into the mix (where it’s allowed, of course) and you have a formula that can be thoroughly life-enhancing. “Cooking is a celebration of the ingredients. And when you’re outdoors, if you’re fishing and catching the food as well, it’s even more [than that],” buzzes Mears. “It’s a celebration of the whole day, the whole event. It’s a culmination and an honouring of the thing you’re eating – whether it’s flesh or whether it’s a vegetable, it doesn’t matter – you honour it in the way you deal with it.”
Being a bushcraft expert, Mears is understandably mindful of the impact we can have on the planet and the need to interact with it respectfully – be it when cooking fresh-caught fish, or going out foraging. “We have this view that wild things are all free; they’re not, it all comes at a price. When you harvest or forage, there is always a consequence of what you take from the environment,” he explains. “Nothing is for free. The key thing is to be conscious of the fact, so we don’t over-exploit a resource.”
Take picking blackberries, he says, “you don’t take them all, you always leave some. And then there are seeds for future plants to grow, and there are berries for the other animals that depend upon them.”
He doesn’t actually see wilderness as being separate from how we live, despite the human penchant for concrete and tarmac, glass and metal, and for cooking over gas and electric, rather than fire. “We still live in the wild country,” he muses, “it’s just we’ve transformed it locally to suit us. If you look hard enough in town, in the skies you’ll see the seasonal migrations taking place, you’ll still find peregrines who look at a tower block and see a cliff, you still see them nesting and hunting.
“If you look in back gardens in London, you’ll find sycamore trees growing where people haven’t been keeping the weeds at bay. Nature’s always ready to restore to its wild natural state, and urban [building] is just a temporary alteration to that. Nature is there if you have the eyes to see it.”