I bought a RidgeMonkey grill / sandwich toaster after a recommendation from another campervan owner [thanks Andrew Ditton] and what a revelation it has been, almost transforming my campervan cooking overnight. We generally have home-cooked food in our campervan, eat out in restaurants only on special occasions and only buy occasional veggie sausages for a fast food meal, so cooking is an important activity in our campervan. Previously I have struggled, even with a lidded frying pan, to get my cooking really hot when trying to brown or char peppers, aubergines, asparagus and other vegetables. They would cook but the pan never got quite hot enough to get them beyond soft and cooked to that attractive golden brown finish. Making Spanish omelette was problematic too as they took a long time to cook through. All these problems have now been solved by splashing out [£22] on a RidgeMonkey sandwich toaster.
This wonderful item is sold to anglers as a sandwich toaster, enabling them to make a hot meal while on the riverbank but it is so much more than that. I am sure it will make toasted sandwiches but I use it for vegetables, omelettes, warming crumpets, hot cross buns or baking fresh pitta bread and I feel sure over the years I will find so many more uses for this practical and versatile piece of kit. Other people report using their RidgeMonkey to create a full English breakfast and roast potatoes, the list of things you can cook in this wonderful pan is only as long as your imagination.
The RidgeMonkey opens in to two identical halves, both with a non-stick finish and each is just over 2 cms deep. The dimensions of the XL are 20.5 x 18.8 cms, so it isn’t enormous and I would suggest you buy this size as it works well for cooking for one or two. The long handles stay cool and fasten and clip together allowing you to turn it over and cook items such as omelettes or hot cross buns on both sides without turning them over. This mechanism also locks in the heat and means I can enjoy golden brown aubergine [and other veg]. With a non-stick finish the RidgeMonkey is easy to wash and they now come with a selection of utensils that won’t scratch the non-stick finish.
For all my talk of living simply and frugally you will spot me for a fraud when I tell you about my favourite food. It is something that is an extravagant and unnecessary item that can hardly be considered food at all. Although there are numerous different foods I enjoy, it is ice-cream that makes me happiest. Even on a cool day, my first lick of a cornet will take me on a journey to other days in sunny climes and places I have eaten favourite ice-creams, delicious pistachio ice-creams in Italy, ice-cream dipped in melted chocolate in Eastern Europe and thick dairy farmhouse ice-creams in England and Scotland. In my view, frozen cream combined with different flavours is heavenly, preferably in a good quality cornet [the ice-cream stall in Bouillon in Belgium is worth seeking out as they make delicious fresh waffle cornets while you wait as well as creamy ice-cream.]
Although if forced I will eat ice-cream at home, for me, this is really something to enjoy in the outdoors and is very much part of my life as a traveller. I will often search out individual ice-cream parlours when we are away in the campervan. On our trips we have discovered the luxurious Emilia Cremeria in Modena and the magnificent Portsoy Icecream in north-east Scotland and many more.
But we can’t always be away from home and in Manchester we are lucky to have Ginger’s Comfort Emporium in the city centre. This cafe among the eclectic market stalls of Affleck’s makes ice-cream for grown-ups, with unusual combinations of flavours. The salted caramel and peanut butter [aka Chorlton Crack] is really a meal in itself so get over to Manchester when you can, winter or summer.
Picture the scene. It is dark and the wind is whipping around the campsite and heavy showers rush across the site in flurries. The showers and toilets are cosy and warm but there is a frozen camper standing at the outdoor washing up sinks wrapped in fleeces, cagoule and a hat. As they run the tap the water is whipped across the sinks as it is caught by the wind and under their breath the washer-up is cursing the campsite owner that has saved money by constructing dish-washing sinks that are open to the elements.
We like to camp all through the winter and in all sorts of weathers. In winter we like to spend some time at a campsite with warm facilities that we can use in comfort and many sites fit this bill but let us down when it comes to washing up. An all too common design for campsite dish-washing facilities is to have a roof but be open to the elements. This has the advantage that you can stay dry in the inevitable rain [unless it is windy too] but even wrapped in layers the biting cold of the wind is tough for whoever is on washing up duties.
I understand outdoor washing up sinks in hot countries but in England, Scotland and Wales it seems optimistic at best. Yes, of course we can wash up in the campervan and given these outdoor facilities we often do but this isn’t the point. When we are on a campsite with facilities we like to use them and rather resent having to boil the kettle in the ‘van for hot water and do the dishes in our tiny sink when there are perfectly adequate sinks provided if only they were indoors. We start to wonder why we pay for sites, we might as well be wild camping on these inclement nights [and often do this too].
There must be an off-the-shelf campsite facilities block that all these different campsites purchase as we see these outdoor sinks so often. Or have these campsite owners never been camping themselves and so have never experienced the dish-washer agony? We are so relieved when we arrive at a site, check out the facilities and find a room [with a door] [and ideally a window to watch the world from] for washing up in. This luxury on a campsite is worth paying for!
A selection of campsites [not exhaustive] we have found where the dish-washing facilities are indoors:
While the weather is below freezing I want to eat warming comfort food that is quick to make and delicious to eat. My go-to recipe in these circumstances is lentil curry. The recipe is below but it is a versatile dish that you can make your own and add to as suits you. This is made from ingredients we always have in the store cupboard either at home or in the campervan and for me lentil curry is the ultimate comfort food, you can eat it from a bowl with just a fork [or even a spoon], it is warming and spicy and tasty and memories of all those other lentil curries from the past linger around it.
Dhal / lentil curry for two
Boil a pan of water with a pinch of salt and add two good handfuls (maybe 200 grams) of dried red lentils and a couple of bay leaves. Boil and skim off any white scum as they boil and top up the water if necessary until the lentils are soft [about 20 minutes]. For this recipe you don’t have to boil the lentils dry.
Remove the bay leaves and put the lentils to one side [I put them in a bowl in the campervan and reuse the same pan for the next stage].
Fry a finely chopped onion in vegetable oil until it starts to catch and brown slightly and then add spices to suit you. At home I use a teaspoon each of ground tumeric, ground cumin and ground coriander, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, a pinch of chili flakes or a fresh chili chopped and maybe a little fresh ginger if I have some in. In the campervan I usually only have a garam masala mix and fresh garlic to hand. Fry these for a minute or two and then add the lentils to the pan. You are now more or less finished but you can garnish the curry with fresh coriander if you have this available.
For variety I sometimes add a couple of chopped tomatoes to the onion or a chopped courgette. Sometimes I add some finely chopped spinach at the end and this adds some colour.
I serve this wonderful simple food with either plain boiled rice or naan bread or home-made chapattis, the choice is yours. Not only is this quick to make it is also a cheap eat. In the campervan naan bread keeps the washing up to just one pan which is a win-win. Enjoy!
With a few days winter camping planned I thought we needed some wholesome sustenance to ward off the winter chill. This delicious fruit cake is easy to make [although it does take a bit of pre-planning] and keeps well for around five days. I first made this cake by soaking the fruit in tea but starting using whisky to use up some we had in the cupboard. I found that the whisky gives the cake a real flavourful punch and it is going to be hard to go back to cold tea when the surplus whisky has gone. Having a cake in the campervan is comforting and helps us to save money as it encourages us to have tea and cake in the ‘van rather than stopping at a tea shop [too often].
So here is my recipe for a vegan tea or whisky fruit cake
225 grams of flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
70 grams of sugar
1/2 mashed banana [60 grams] or you can use one egg if having a vegan cake isn’t important to you
250 mls whisky or brewed black tea
300 grams of your favourite mixed dried fruit [I like a mixture of cranberries and sultanas]
60 mls of soya milk [you can use cow’s milk]
1/2 teaspoon mixed spice
Pinch of salt
The day before, put the dried fruit in a bowl, pour over the whisky or brewed black tea and leave overnight to soak.
The next day preheat the oven to 180C [gas mark 4] and line a baking loaf tin [the recipe has no oil so it needs the paper to stop it sticking].
In a mixing bowl sift in the flour, salt, baking powder and mixed spice. Add the sugar and mix well, breaking any lumps. Make a well in the centre and add the mashed banana and the milk. Add the dried fruit and any remaining liquid. Mix well. You should have a soft mixture, add a little more milk if it feels too dry.
Pour the mixture in to the loaf tin and bake for 40 minutes to one hour and a skewer comes out clean. Cool and leave a day before you eat it if you can. The cake keeps well in a tin.
Shopping has always been a minefield. We have tried to use our buying power [small though it is] as a force for good for a long time, balancing our desire to do as little as possible to damage the environment and workers rights alongside our need for quality and to save money for retirement. Recently we have been constantly reviewing how we can avoid plastic packaging as much as possible and I have blogged before on how we manage all our shopping by bicycle [even through the winter]. The cycling is easy, avoiding plastic packaging is the tougher call. For years we were part of a vegetable box scheme that supported a local organic grower and every week was a ‘Ready Steady Cook’ week as we ate whatever vegetable arrived. This is no longer an option and we have joined the masses trying to find supermarket vegetables that are not wrapped tightly in plastic.
The need to save money had taken me to Lidl and Aldi for all our shopping but these supermarkets lovingly wrap most of their fruit and vegetables in heaps of plastic; even the spring onions come in a plastic bag! Fortunately, I now have time to move around the supermarkets for different items. Our four local supermarkets sell lots of vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, potatoes, peppers and onions loose but only our local Tesco sells large bunches of coriander and parsley that are not in sealed plastic, whereas Booths [a wonderful northern supermarket institution] is where I can fulfil my desire for cherry tomatoes and gorgeous tasty large flat mushrooms. I take a cloth bag on my shopping trips to help carry these items home.
We have now not only given up shop-bought hummus we have also given up all those plastic wrapped meat-free slices for sandwiches and we do without. The only convenience food we buy is Linda McCartney sausages that come in cardboard boxes [no plastic and they taste the best, hurrah!] But there are plenty of things there are no alternative for; Mr BOTRA isn’t able to give up his need for packets of crisps, although he has reduced his consumption and, although we make most of our own bread, so no plastic there, we’re not prepared to do without hot buttered crumpets for occasional breakfasts. We are certainly not perfect; sometimes we splash out on expensive butter wrapped in paper, but sometimes we save the money and throw in to the bin the combination of foil and plastic the budget butter comes in. We don’t have the space or a supplier for bulk pasta and rice [and even in bulk these items come in a plastic bag]. For non-food items we try and keep the cleaning ‘stuff’ to a minimum; it is easy to buy washing powder in a box but washing up liquid still comes in a plastic bottle.
Looking at the spreadsheet, it seems that although we’ve moved away from the cheaper supermarkets for our vegetables, by giving up the [often expensive] convenience foods our food bill hasn’t increased over the last twelve months and so we can stay within budget.
Almost anyone living near Leek on the edge of the Peak District in North Staffordshire will have been bought up to enjoy Staffordshire Oatcakes for lunch and breakfast. Leek oatcakes are not the paper-thin oaty imposters you can buy in the supermarket, these phonies give only a hint of the deliciousness of the oatcake. The ones to buy and savour are the thick and fluffy oatcakes that you must travel to Leek to find at the simply named ‘Oatcake Shop‘ on the edge of the town. We generally return from this area with a dozen for the freezer to satisfy our cravings until our next visit. Oatcakes are a local delicacy that existed before the UK had ever discovered the wrap and they are perfect hot or cold and rolled or folded with all sorts of fillings, although our favourite remains grilled cheese.
Leek is a small market town surrounded by hills and the Roaches, an outcrop of gritstone crags that rise from the heather moorland above the town. If you don’t get to the Oatcake Shop in time to buy your oatcakes you can always call in to The Roaches Tea Room to enjoy an oatcake lunch there while taking in the splendid view over Tittesworth Reservoir.
We had a great and restorative weekend in this area. On Saturday we walked along the disused railway line between Rudyard and Leek and I reminisced about the days when this walk was my commute to work. On Sunday we walked from Flash to Three Shires Head where Staffordshire meets Cheshire and Derbyshire. Flash claims to be the highest village in Great Britain and as children we learnt that it is where the term ‘flash money’ came from. At the remote Three Shires Head criminals could easily jump from one county to another to escape arrest and this may have led to it being an ideal spot for illegal activities, one of which may have been counterfeit coins. Three Shires Head is one of my favourite spots but on this Sunday it was noisy with the sound of scrambling bikes and the air was heavy with the smell of two-stroke oil that took me back to my motorcycling days. I am always impressed with the skillful handling of motocross riders but the pretty and generally peaceful spot of Three Shires Head is not an appropriate place to practice this sport.
We stayed at Goatfell Farm, a Caravan Club Certified Location at Bottomhouse near Leek for £13. This lovely and welcoming site sits in an open field and we had a glorious sunset across the fields in the evening and we tried a bit of star gazing in the clear night away from the city streetlights.