Sunday 3 June 2012

Bearable Burdens

I admit it upfront: I am fond of food. It is, as Dorcas Lane would say in “Lark Rise to Candleford”, my one weakness. It’s not just the consumption of food that matters. The smells and textures, sounds and sights of its preparation, plus the sociable chatter and growling tummy: all of these can be a feast in themselves. They intensify the anticipation and ultimate enjoyment of food.

[Cooking in the bush: a necessity that can be a pleasure]      

That’s why I’ve always tended to be fussy about my bushwalking food, even if I’ve sometimes paid a price. Like the first time I walked Tasmania’s Western Arthur Range in my late 20s. “The Arthurs” is one of the most challenging bushwalks anywhere in Australia, and remains one of the finest, hardest, most exhilarating walks I’ve ever done.

We felt such exultation that at the end of our blessedly fine-weathered trip, a couple of us decided to race each other off the range, with full packs. (Perhaps competitiveness is my other “one” weakness!) The result of that mad careening descent was knees that would never quite be the same again.

What made it worse was that I carried fresh vegetables – whole potatoes, carrots, onions, zucchinis – all the way along the spectacular saw-toothed range. From memory I even carried in a huge steak – with a fry pan and all – for cooking on the first couple of nights. All of this bulky, heavy food was stuffed into an old canvas H-frame pack whose sole virtue was its robustness. Comfort and ergonomics weren’t in the bushwalker’s lexicon at that stage. It was the era of ex-army boots, heavy woollen trousers and oilskin waterproofs. And the only thermals were woollen long johns and singlets that chafed the skin as much as warmed it.

This bit of personal walking history gives some background to, and motivation for, my current preference for lighter weight walking. No-one’s body was meant to carry the kinds of weights we used to think necessary.

Now things have changed. The improvement in gear over the last few decades is a whole story in itself. But put briefly, new materials and technologies have helped to lighten a bushwalker’s burden considerably. And as long as this lighter weight gear can handle conditions as tough as Tasmania’s, where scrub, cold and wet are likely to figure, I am happy to embrace it.

But what of food? Are lightweight foods also worth embracing, or indeed consuming? To my mind too many of them are either cheap and nasty, or expensive and not-much-better. The former foods are exemplified by instant noodles, which some attempt to improve by throwing in a bit of salami. A bit like trying to polish a turd.

The latter, the expensive freeze-dried foods, are more variable. At their worst they all taste much the same, leaving you guessing whether you’re eating chicken, beef or lamb; and as likely to detect notes of chemical preservatives as any actual food taste.

[Will it be worth waiting for? That's part of the fun!] 
An army may travel on its stomach, but its morale is also vital. Food should be more than just fuel. I want it to satisfy the taste test. I want to look forward to it, enjoy cooking and eating it, and end the meal with a smile on my face. I want my morale boosted, not deflated.

Over the last several years I’ve found a compromise between weight and taste that works well for me. I use a home food dehydrator, the sort that are generally used for drying fruit and vegetables. After some research, and a certain amount of trial and error, I’ve found that many whole meals can be successfully dried as well. Curries, stews, soups, sauces, even bircher muesli can all be dehydrated.

In written guides there is a certain caution – probably wise – in relation to meat meals. Generally I will only dehydrate meat that has been minced and then cooked. This allows even drying of the cooked meat, and minimises the risk of bacterial growth inside the meat when it’s being stored or transported.

[Dinner for six and breakfast for six, vacuum-sealed and lightweight] 

As a further precaution I now vacuum-seal the dried meals and then store them in the freezer until walk day. It makes me feel a bit like the Irishman who wore two condoms (“to be sure to be sure!”), but gastro in the bush is well worth avoiding.

There are numerous advantages to drying your own food. Taste is number one for me, closely followed by weight. Removing most of the water from food makes it significantly lighter without removing the flavour. That allows food to simultaneously boost your morale and save your back and knees. There’s also a bit of a glow to be had from eating nutritious, preservative-free food whose origins you know.

[Beef Bolognese for two: lightweight & delicious] 

It’s enough to make me feel there’s been a genuine decrease in the burdens today’s bushwalkers have to bear. As for running off the Arthurs with a full pack, put that down to youthful folly and testosterone. And since they’re highly resistant to dehydration, I fear they're burdens that just have to be borne – at least for a while.

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