Chefs Claire Thomson and Matt Williamson talk to PRUDENCE WADE about the joys of cooking in a camper van
Chefs Claire Thomson and Matt Williamson, who gallivant around the UK with their three daughters in a VW camper van are well aware that food on camping holidays often has a pretty dodgy reputation. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s just baked beans and it’s really difficult to cook’,” says Thomson with a groan. “I personally hate baked beans, couldn’t bear to eat them!”
Williamson acknowledges there’s a “misconception that everything kind of needs to come out of a jar or out of a packet when you’re camping”. He admits “there’s a place” for easy, quick camping meals, such as instant noodles or baked beans, but that’s not the kind of food they eat on holiday – and it’s not the meals you’ll find in their latest cookbook, Camper Van Cooking.
As a Kiwi, Williamson spent his childhood camping and grew up on fresh, delicious holiday food. “My dad’s a butcher and a lot of his friends were quite into food, and we’d usually go to areas with a bit of fishing,” he reminisces. “Dinners were great: usually cooked over fire and barbecue.”
Thomson didn’t have the same upbringing, admitting she “wasn’t a camper – I only started camping when we got together”. However, she swiftly fell in love with it – particularly with their three children in tow.
But for both, all the potential pitfalls of camping are completely forgotten come dinnertime. “Pretty much the first thing we think about going camping, is what we’re going to eat,” says Williamson.
Thomson adds: “I love the food angle of cooking outside.”
For Thomson, the key to a good campsite meal is coming prepared with store cupboard staples, and looking to what’s on offer in the local area.
“In restaurants, it’s called ‘mise en place’,” Thomson chimes in, “when you have all your stuff in place, [ready] to go. And that is camping.”
Lamb and Date Tagine
50g butter or 50ml olive oil
600g lamb (shoulder is best), cut into 3cm dice
1tsp salt, plus more if needed
1 x 400g can of chopped tomatoes
2 onions, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½tsp chilli flakes, or more to taste
2tsp cumin seeds, toasted and ground
2tsp coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1tsp ground turmeric
1½tsp ground ginger
1 cinnamon stick
1 small orange or 1 lemon, 2 small strips of zest removed and reserved
2tbsp runny honey
16 dates, pitted, or 12 dried apricots
50g whole almonds, chopped
Couscous, cooked as per the packet instructions
Melt half the butter in a small saucepan, then transfer it (or half the olive oil) to a large bowl and mix it together with the lamb, salt, tomatoes, onions, garlic and all of the spices. Cover and leave refrigerated for at least a couple of hours – overnight is ideal.
To cook, put the marinated meat in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the remaining butter or oil and cook the meat over a moderate–low heat, uncovered, for 20 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Meanwhile, halve the orange or lemon, squeezing and reserving the juice from one half and reserving the remaining half to cut into wedges later, to serve.
After 20 minutes, add 400ml of water to the saucepan, along with the honey, orange or lemon zest and the juice, and the dates or apricots. Stir to combine and reduce the heat to low, then cover and simmer very gently for about one to one and a half hours, or until the meat is melting and tender. Check the tagine from time to time to ensure it doesn’t catch, adding a splash more water to the pan if you think it needs it.
Check the seasoning, adjusting with salt and pepper to taste – you want a heady mix of savoury, sweet and spice, with the lamb and its sauce in perfect balance. Refrigerate, or freeze, to take camping.
To serve, heat the tagine over a moderate heat until piping hot and serve topped with the almonds with couscous and orange or lemon wedges on the side.
4tbsp butter, softened
2–4tbsp horseradish, to taste
4 large or 8 small mackerel fillets
1 soft round lettuce, leaves separated
4 large gherkins, sliced
Salt and black pepper
4 brioche buns (or any soft roll), split open, to serve
Beat the butter and horseradish together in a bowl, adding pepper to taste, then put the mixture to one side.
Season the mackerel fillets on both sides and grill them over a high heat, skin-side down, for two minutes. Carefully flip the fillets over with a spatula and cook for another one minute, until just cooked through. (Cook in a pan with a splash of cooking oil, if you prefer.)
Lightly toast the inside of the rolls on the grill, then generously spread each with the horseradish butter. Add lettuce and gherkins to each bun, then finally the cooked mackerel, sandwiching shut to serve.
Camper Van Cooking by Claire Thomson & Matt Williamson is available now