A Trip to the Beach
Tom Herbert connects with nature, food and people in Do Wild Baking
Wild baking on a beach is a powerful and life-enhancing experience. There’s the sound of the waves, the enlivening smell of ozone and on a good day, the bright light reflected off the sea to warm your cockles.
Any trip to the sea can become an adventure when you take some matches and good food to cook. Just over 20 years ago, not long after I bought a little Peugeot with money from doing shifts in the bakery, I took a young lady, her friend and my sister to Branscombe on the south coast of Devon. It was my first day off and one of those glorious early summer days. At the beach I found a rowing boat that we could hire for only a few quid.
We took it out and sploshed about before noticing a reel of fishing wire in the bottom of the boat with a couple of hooks. We were in luck: flickers of silver passed under the boat. With nothing to use as bait, I nonetheless lowered the hooks and in no time at all caught two glistening mackerel.
Back on the beach I gutted them with my Swiss Army knife. In the back of my car I had a disposable barbecue for just such an opportunity as this. They were grilled simply and we devoured them, just as they were, fresh from the sea.
I can remember that day — the mix tape we played in the car, the feeling of speed, driving with the windows down, the flavours of the fish — just as if it happened yesterday. And the young lady, Anna, and I have now been married for 18 wonderful years. Powerful things happen when you bake on the beach. So be careful, you might catch more than fish.
How to build a campfire
Cooking in the wild is no fun without the fire. My ‘go to’ fire building technique is: having cleared a space, start with the tinder, scrunched up paper or birch bark. Then scout-style, make a teepee of kindling around and above the tinder, leaving a gap that you can push your hand through for lighting. Finally, add a few larger sticks or split logs that will easily catch — also in a teepee fashion. With a stack of drywood to one side, light the fire, blowing it into life and adding more fuel as required.
As for fuel, wood is the obvious choice, but it might not always be possible to find. In a nutshell, if you’re at the beach look for driftwood. For cooking and baking, you rarely need bits of wood thicker than your wrist. The dryer the wood the better; if it’s damp or wet it will be hard to burn, will produce more smoke and the burning temperature will be lower. Firewood stacked too tightly will not burn well. It’s the spaces in-between that allow air to circulate and feed the fire. Great big logs are good for keeping the fire going into the night for warmth and a flicker of light.
There are many different ways to cook on a fire. On a stick is the most incidental and child-friendly way of cooking. For most of us it started as a marshmallow on the end of a stick dangled over a fire. Some foods lend themselves to being dropped or placed directly on the embers. Mussels and other shellfish can be cooked in this way without the need for a pan or a pot. Or you can set up a grill. In essence this is your basic barbecue, a metal grill set above hot embers, for grilling meat, fish and vegetables. It’s also not a bad way to keep things warm. Here are my recipes for seafood.
Mussels Baked in Embers
I love mussels. They’re the most carbon-positive form of protein. I’ve tried them every which way, and for me, hands down, this is the best. Seafood doesn’t get simpler than this.
Makes: enough for 2
Takes: 5 minutes
Kit: metal tongs
4 big handfuls of mussels, scrubbed
Chilled bottle of white wine
Once your campfire has burnt down to its embers, push a handful of mussels, one at a time, hinge side down, halfway into the embers. Within a minute or two the mussels will open and steam cook themselves with the sea brine within, and their own delicious juices. Deftly whip them out using your tongs, add a squeeze of lemon and eat them directly from the fire. Just accompany with chilled white wine. Bon appetit!
· Long metal tongs will help prevent you from getting burnt. It is harder though to get them in and out of the embers without losing precious juices.
· If a mussel stays open after you’ve given it a knock (before baking), then it was already dead and too risky to eat. Throw these ones back into the sea.
· If you bake the mussels for too long they become chewy and hard. Not long enough, and they’ll be slimy and cold. With a bit of practice you’ll get it just right.
Grilled Mackerel with Burnt Lemon
Mackerel is best enjoyed fresh. As you can see from my introductory anecdote, it is simplicity itself to cook, giving you more time to enjoy the beach and sea.
Makes: enough for 2
Takes: 5–10 minutes
Kit: sharp knife
4 whole mackerel
Catch your mackerel or buy them fresh, light a campfire and make ready a grill.
To gut your mackerel, you’ll need a sharp knife. It’s a messy job but really very easy. Although if you’re buying them from a fishmonger, I would ask them to do this for you. Discard the innards (sparing a thought for nature) and give your mackerel a rinse in the sea. Super-fresh mackerel can tend to curl up on the grill, so give each fillet (side) three slashes to the bone.
Slice your lemon into fat discs and char them on both sides. Then season the mackerel with a pinch of sea salt and cook on your hot grill. If the grill is not hot enough the skin can end up sticking to it. Mackerel cooks very quickly — you only need a couple of minutes on each side. Serve the mackerel with the charred lemon to squeeze over the oily fish.
Disclaimer: Every precaution must be taken when cooking outdoors on an open fire and to ensure it is out before you leave. Make sure to check for permission before choosing a spot, and build your fire in a safe, practical way taking into account the lie of the land and the prevailing wind, and clearing the space of any combustible materials. And finally the most simple and fundamental tenet of wild baking is leaving no trace when you are done.
Tom Herbert is a fifth-generation baker on a mission to revisit the sheer awesomeness of grains when it comes to taste, nutrition and impact. He started baking at the Hobbs House Bakery, and is one half of TV’s Fabulous Baker Brothers. More recently, he has baked with RCK (Refugee Community Kitchen) in Calais and Ujima Bakehouse in Kenya. In addition to baking, he also writes, teaches, speaks and mentors. As an ambassador for the development charity Tearfund, for whom he has baked around the world, Tom helps to give people a hand up by sharing skills and knowledge. He lives in Gloucestershire with his wife Anna and their four children.
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