rootHY’s sHED Fire­side flavours



Ididn’t sug­gest this month’s topic, okay? In fact, I’d never sug­gest any­thing to do with cook­ing, just ask my wife! That’s not say­ing much for a bloke who has writ­ten a cou­ple of cook­books (and burnt a cou­ple of things on TV, too).

But, some­how, bush cook­ing has be­come part of my ca­reer. My brother and for­mer min­ing part­ner Nick reck­ons that’s crazy, given that the first time we went bush we had noth­ing but a tucker box full of cans and a sack of rice.

We did have a ri­fle though, and usu­ally a crack­ing fire at night, too. So it wasn’t long be­fore we started putting those two to­gether once we got sick of tinned food. When we were work­ing closer to towns, we dis­cov­ered it was a lot cheaper to buy fresh veg­eta­bles than cans any­way. The die was cast.

Sort of... Nick was al­ways a bet­ter cook than me. His mashed pota­toes and gravy were a sta­ple of many meals, with or with­out meat, de­pend­ing on how ac­cu­rate that ri­fle was. We didn’t have any re­frig­er­a­tion other than an ice box for the first few years and then the kero fridge we used was hardly spec­tac­u­lar ei­ther.

Ac­tu­ally, that’s not strictly true. We carted that old fridge around var­i­ous bush camps for a year or so un­til one night it ex­ploded into flames and shot a smoke ring into the sky. That was spec­tac­u­lar. Pity no­body told us about clean­ing the flue.

In those days, we used to camp near what­ever claim we were work­ing. One of our ear­li­est claims came with a rusty old Can­berra stove sit­ting un­der a pile of old iron. So, af­ter clean­ing it up and re­al­is­ing how use­ful and cheap a wood-burn­ing oven with hot­plates could be, we welded up a frame on an old Holden front end, bolted down the oven and made it into a trailer. It also had a brass coil wrapped around the flue, so with a 44 gal­lon drum of wa­ter mounted be­hind it and a pump,

we had a half-de­cent warm shower. Civil­i­sa­tion!

But we were still heav­ily into tra­di­tional Aussie-style cook­ing – boil­ing most things in salt wa­ter and burn­ing ev­ery­thing else. Just like our Pommy cousins still do! We got pretty good at knock­ing out a damper and roast­ing meat. It only tastes bland once some­one tells you so, which is sort of what hap­pened to us.

First off, it was a Span­ish mate who stayed with us for a month. In­cred­i­bly po­lite, it wasn’t un­til we’d nearly killed him with bland tucker that he of­fered to cook. Sud­denly, taste en­tered the picture! Carmello in­tro­duced us to things we’d never used, like gar­lic, rose­mary, oregano and cayenne pep­per. He did weird things like stuff­ing pump­kins with mince and sprin­kling bay leaves, salt and gar­lic on meat. I’d never known salt as any­thing other than a fine pow­der from a shaker un­til Carmello showed it to us in rock form.

Soon af­ter that, we part­nered up with a cou­ple of French blokes, one who’d been a pas­try chef be­fore run­ning away to Aus­tralia to make his for­tune min­ing opals. Chris was a bril­liant chef and he took ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to cook. Un­til then, Nick and I treated our camp-cooked meals as re­fu­elling stops at

most – we had no idea that a din­ner could be ex­ten­sive and en­joy­able.

Chris did leave me with an­other life­long habit. To this day, I’ll still wa­ter down red wine with ice to make it re­ally re­fresh­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, I en­joy it so much that I usu­ally chuck it down by the schooner.

Then we met a Swedish girl who used to love sur­pris­ing us with of­fal dis­guised as real food. I’d never eaten brains or kid­neys or tongue as an out­back-raised kid and I had no ap­pre­ci­a­tion for seafood ei­ther. But when Lisa­lotte cooked, I watched and I ate and, pretty soon, I be­gan to re­alise what a huge ad­ven­ture this cook­ing caper could be.

That didn’t mean I was any good at it. But like the rest of Aus­tralia – thanks to an in­flux of mi­grants from all over the world – my taste­buds were never go­ing to be happy with salty spuds and mushy meat again.

Right from my ear­li­est days burn­ing Johnny Cakes in a bis­cuit tin or boil­ing a billy in a smoko fire, I’ve al­ways en­joyed muck­ing around with flames. For most of our years in the bush, that’s all we did – cook­ing on a wood fire of some sort, be­cause there was al­ways plenty of wood ly­ing around the bush.

But not all wood is the same and you soon learn that the heav­ier stuff burns longer and bet­ter coals re­sult. Pretty soon you’re match­ing wood weight to tim­ing and things aren’t al­ways as black or raw as they were when you first started out.

Funny, isn’t it? From warm­ing tins to cook­ing for shear­ers, I’ve come to love cook­ing in the bush. There’s some­thing about ex­tract­ing big tastes in the open air that’s re­ally ad­dic­tive, too. A meal cooked on an open fire some­how seems way more sen­sa­tional than some­thing sim­i­lar cooked in an elec­tric oven. Maybe it’s the sheer won­der of the Aussie bush. Maybe it’s that when we’re camp­ing, there’s plenty of time to ex­per­i­ment with food. Or maybe it’s just some­thing about a restau­rant with a mil­lion stars over­head.

I meant to give you a few tips here, but I rarely get around to do­ing any­thing as planned. Never mind, same time, same chan­nel, eh? See you in a month…

ABOVE: Kicked back on the Dar­ling River, wait­ing for the fire to burn down. Or at least that’s my ex­cuse...

TOP: Shal­low fried ‘spring rolls’. All you need is a bit of oil in a wok and the pa­tience to watch them so they don’t burn. Any­one can do it, just don’t no­tice the burnt bits here, okay?

ABOVE: Al­most any­thing can be cooked wrapped in al­foil and tossed into the coals. These are hard­wood coals so the spuds have dou­ble wrap.

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