SUM­MER CAMP

Moon­lit for­ag­ing, Esky-scrap sal­ads, emer­gency espresso and bush paella. DANI VA­LENT re­counts her fam­ily’s love of camp­ing out.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Oct - Il­lus­tra­tion SASHA HEATH

Moon­lit for­ag­ing, Esky-scrap sal­ads and bush paella. Dani Va­lent re­counts her love of camp­ing out.

At this dis­tance – clothed, com­put­ered, a city ceil­ing above me – my camp­ing mem­o­ries are all aglow. The sun sets be­yond banksias, kook­abur­ras crack their fi­nal jokes for the evening, goan­nas tuck them­selves into crooks of gum trees, and all the sand and salt of the day is sluiced off un­der bush show­ers. There’s that gleam­ing, spa­cious feel­ing.

It also feels like din­ner­time, which must be why there’s a gin and tonic in my hand, a tom­a­hawk grilling over coals and a full deck of sal­ads ready to go. We’ve steamed green beans and tossed them with salted ri­cotta and cur­rants. The toma­toes that were ripen­ing in the trailer for a week have been chopped, salted, pep­pered and olive-oiled. Waxy pota­toes are tum­bled with red onion, cor­ni­chons, and a retro sour cream and mayo swirl. Some­one’s pulled out a spe­cial bot­tle of red, with an­other wait­ing in the wings. A cou­ple of blokes pour wine into Du­ralex glasses, swirling it like proper toffs.

It could be any sum­mer, any year.

Our rol­lick­ing multi-fam­ily gag­gle – give or take di­vorce, death or drama – pack trail­ers, Eskies, sun­screen, kids, boo­gie boards and way too many bot­tles of booze. We find our spot and pitch our­selves in tents, trail­ers and swags, a camp­site-cum-com­mune ready to switch off, surf up and chow down.

We like flush toi­lets but we don’t want pow­ered sites. We love log fires but we also cook on gas. We’re prouder of our four-foot-wide paella pan than we are of any of the chil­dren. We don’t want 4G or OMG: phones are put away, books and cryp­tic cross­words come out. The ba­sic struc­ture is rock solid: beach, camp, eat, re­peat.

Glow­ing mo­ments roll thick, fast and tasty but other things are true, too. Yes­ter­day’s clean tea towel is to­day’s moist grey rag and the teenage din­ner washer-up­per­ers are in mutiny. The new blow-ins didn’t know what we meant by “good bread and nice cheese” so we’ll be su­per­mar­ket ched­dar­ing by the fire with twist-tied sand­wich loaves. Some young whip­per­snap­per is go­ing to find con­fis­cated marsh­mal­lows and poke some­one in the eye with a toast­ing stick. Most wor­ry­ing of all, to­mor­row may be a to­tal fire ban, which means we need to wash out some wine bot­tles and fill them with stove­top espresso, pronto, or we’ll be grumpy all day.

For me, the food ties it all to­gether. There are two ex­tremes of camp cater­ing. At one end, in­stant mash and thin sausages. At the other end, our camp: boun­ti­ful, slightly ridicu­lous, prone to the oc­ca­sional table­cloth, cock­tail party and ironic canapé.

I en­joy the im­prob­a­bly long shop­ping lists and the plan­ning, the Tetris of get­ting food into crates and Eskies,

the daily rhythm of pur­chas­ing new ice to keep our co­mestibles cold. I rel­ish the lo­gis­tics of feed­ing our big gang from a tar­pau­lin-cov­ered trailer and four Eskies which need to be moved to the next shady spots as the sun crawls. I love cook­ing out­side and the way new con­text makes me feel free to ex­per­i­ment, and for­got­ten in­gre­di­ents make im­pro­vi­sa­tion an im­per­a­tive. If you want to know how not to bake a cake in a camp oven, I’m your gal! On the other hand, I can make naan in a paella pan, toast on sticks and a de­li­cious salad from Esky scraps. I love the col­lab­o­ra­tion – jobs shared around, ideas thrown in like spices, the washin­gup ros­ter, even the grum­bles, and the var­i­ous spe­cial­ties that make an ap­pear­ance each year: An­nal­isa’s Bolog­nese, Colin’s goat curry, Lisa’s chicken salad, Karl’s pork and beans.

I’m not much of an an­gler but I’m al­ways up for low-tide ex­pe­di­tions to for­age for oys­ters and mus­sels and moon­lit prawns, and I’ll hap­pily cook the abalone and salmon that diver and an­gler mates share. I re­mem­ber mak­ing a ce­viche one night while my pre-teen daugh­ters shucked oys­ters, all sharp knives, strong gloves, neat twists of wrists. Even bet­ter, they don’t eat oys­ters so I got ex­tra. Some­times one swal­low does make a sum­mer.

Each year, as our trip winds down, I dread the lengthy pack-up even as I look for­ward to doors, the fridge, hot­wa­ter taps and clean tea tow­els. Camp­ing is joy­ous but it’s a grind, a grimy and sweet punc­tu­a­tion that zooms me back to the city of ceil­ings, com­put­ers and ma­chines that pop out toast – truly

God’s work – and a year of wist­fully re­call­ing the glow.

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