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