Hungry? Run out of bread? Feeling a little… exasperated after spending £95 on the most expensive fuel stop of your life to date? Parked up indefinitely in a tiny town with not a single shop open even if you had any money to spend?
We did, and we were, all of those things at once. Determined to offset the recent soar in diesel costs, and equally determined to empty our few cupboards of their wares before we spent anymore money on food, this week we opened all the drawers, cracked the tins and jars and lived off Van Surprise for a few days. One of my personal favourite things to eat is tinned fruit, it’s far cheaper and more hardwearing than fresh fruit and we go through a couple of tins a week of pears, pineapple, grapefruit or mandarins. I prefer those in juice rather than syrup but inevitably end up with half a can of said juice and nothing to do with it, juice without a use so to speak. This liquid, though very delicious is too naturally sugary to dilute or drink and is not something we want to pour down our sink into the grey water tank, emptying it out anywhere seems so wasteful. We had just enjoyed a tin of pears for supper and I was left with the usual half can conundrum.
I asked William. Pear William is a thing, yes?
He laughed. No pear-pressure please, I will pun my own way in pear-suit of the pear-fect recipe to utilise this useless juice he said. Cue some deep, pensive moments in the Backwards Van as his face fixed in silent concentration. What if he soaked some raisins in the pear juice overnight, and used the juice in a loaf, replacing the water AND the sugar in a brand new soda bread recipe?
That appears to be an inspired idea. But… what with avoiding the shops for days and days, we had no fresh ingredients to bake with, no eggs or butter or milk. No problem he said, this bread is doable from store cupboard stuff only. AND no need for a weighing scales either 😉 Bread, fresh baked bread, with no added sugar but leftover fruit juice, using no refrigerated ingredients, sounds too good to be true?
This recipe I liked already, it seemed perfect for vanlife, hiking and camping in so many ways so I had to document the process and share with you. Here goes:
So first, wash your hands. If you live in a van, wash them again.
1 can of pear juice (save the pears for serving if you can, I couldn’t, we ate them with chocolate spread!)
2 handfuls of raisins (soak overnight in the pear juice can)
Empty the raisins and juice into a mixing bowl (or small pot) because you’re going to need that can.
Rinse out the pear can and pat dry with paper towel. Now use the can as a measure!
1 can of flour
2 good pinches of Maldon salt (well ground)
1 tablespoon of full fat milk powder
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
1 tablespoon of local honey
There is nothing quite like baking to make our tiny house look like some kind of kitchen bomb has gone off inside. After our effort to empty the cupboards (and a few servings of all things pickled, our kitchen it seemed was full of half jars of beetroot, silverskin onions and gherkins) we were down to almost bare, the inevitable trip to the shop loomed again. I wouldn’t say I dread shopping, but these days I certainly have to prepare myself for it. We, like probably everybody else in the world, spend far too much time and far too much money buying far too many things and usually end up demolishing most of our stash within the following two days. Personally I spend a lot of time examining everything, making sure we get the best value and working out the price differences on different quantities which can vary wildly as the supermarket plays tricks on us and tries to make us put a penny price on convenience. The “special offer” when you look closely is often the least special deal to be had that day.
Mix all the ingredients together but don’t overwork it, check consistency until you have a lumpy dough and add a dash of water should you need to. Turn it out onto a floured surface and work the dough quickly and loosely into a round. Oil a frying pan and warm it on medium heat, add the dough and there you go, you’re baking 😉
Tinned fruit is easily stewed as it is already cooked, we crumble biscuits (or museli) on top and leave it under the grill until it crisps up. We mix fruit with tinned creamed rice for a quick cheap lunch. Pineapple goes with everything in a vegetarian diet as do pears, even warm on grilled cheese sandwiches. A cold tin of grapefruit will knock some sense into you any morning.
William says the best thing about this recipe is how cheap it is. Any white flour you can buy is fine, Co-op brand is great, and its what we happened to have. Make sure you buy raisins and any dried fruit from the baking aisle, not in expensive snack packs. Most of us have these ingredients in the kitchen already, even us in vans, this recipe is an ideal go-to for families as it is easy and ready so quickly. After about 10 minutes on low heat, cover (with a lid or another pan) and turn the loaf.
We were never really very loyal customers to any food shop in our travels. We came to learn which supermarkets had the biggest and best section of fresh food at reduced prices at the end of each day, but that was about all until we spent the month on the Outer Hebrides, where the Co-op is the only option for the islanders. Co-op (pronounced Cope out here) of course are a huge community owned cooperative supermarket chain and pioneers in the worldwide business of fair and ethical trade, they paved the way for international standards of fair trade and human rights enforcement and stand fiercely by their reputation to reduce waste and trade sustainably globally. A really good, fair and socially as well as environmentally aware company and what we liked was knowing with certainty the own brand products are all ethically sourced and traceable. We ate Co-op brand everything for a month and as far as taste goes we found most things comparable to their branded counterpart. Co-op creamed rice tastes better than Ambrosia and costs about a third of the price, ditto their coffee, jam and crackers.
We had plenty of time while the loaf was baking to clean up the mess. Luckily, just as quickly as the entire place descends into chaos whenever the cooking or baking begins, it is magically restored to the bright little cabin of happiness in no time at all once every item is returned to its place. I love it when the smell of baking bread fills the air, and so did the dog walker who stopped to ask about the unmistakable aroma wafting from the frying pan. She was bemused as I am at the idea of baking in the van, referencing her own special ability to burn water, and I can certainly sympathise. I won’t prove that to you today, I’ll stick to the writing.
The Co-op stocks all the usual brands too, the Nestles and the Kellogs and the Coca Colas, also the smaller, pricier labels that look a little more fancy and are inevitably days away from being acquired by the Nestle or the Kellogs or the Coca Cola company anyway, but why should we let our money leave the community so soon, when the simple act of choosing to shop at a Co-op gives us a certain piece of mind? I’ve been a vegetarian since I was a child and have watched a lot of own brand food ranges grow to include great options for us herbivores, Co-op is no different. They promote agricultural sustainability and advertise their food miles so we can make informed decisions and they rightly champion the local producers. We might not think much about cleaning products and the few cosmetics we use either but they have to come from somewhere too, knowing nothing is tested on animals or overloaded with harsh chemicals is important.
After about 10 minutes on the second side, turn the loaf again and toast for about a further 3 mins on either side, until a knock with a bakers knuckle produces a hollow sound. Don’t expect much rise as it is a soda bread after all, and best eaten in chunks, a.k.a farls.
With the dishes clean, dry and put away neatly, the floor swept and all traces of flour removed from Dixies walls and roof, the loaf was ready! The kettle whistled its boil and once the tea was brewing from brown to black we sat down on the doorstep in the sunshine to enjoy. We both prefer our tea and coffee black, it saves us having to carry milk and keep it cold and both taste better, stronger. In fact nothing we eat regularly requires refrigeration. Eating is simpler for us that way. I was glad the bread recipe didn’t require sugar because it’s just not something we use. William says if you can resist tonight (we couldn’t), the loaf would taste better in the morning if allowed to rest, the fruity taste of pear would really develop. I say if that’s ever going to happen, he’d better bake two loaves at once.
It might surprise you now to learn that I don’t actually work for the Co-op 🤣 It just makes sense to support community based initiatives. We read that one of Co-ops latest focuses is on the elimination of modern day slavery from the food chain. This is an emotive topic, very close to our hearts (we hope to be able to speak about it someday when that chapter of life is written) and that they have dedicated significant resources to identifying and combating this is commendable. From wine (if that’s your thing) to cocoa, coffee and fairly sourced charcoal, it is possible to be thrifty and ethical. We may not have a lot to give but what we have, we’ll give to Co-op.
The verdict? The bread was delicious. The raisins were plump, juicy and plentiful and the white crumb tasted really light and fluffy. Served warm with a little salted butter it was so good we ate the entire loaf between us. I would love to try this sliced in a bowl with pears and warm custard, it is definitely tasty enough to be treated as a cake. A little honey smeared on top brings the sweetness of the fruit out, we both really enjoyed it!
We were lucky to devour our bread and tea in the company of a most beautiful Scottish sunset by the waters edge in a little town called Blackness. The weather has been so warm and mild lately and by 10pm we were lying back in our bed with the side door still open, watching the light in the sky change from one soft pink to another and listening to the boats bobbing up and down on the estuary. Rubbing our full bellies and drifting off to sleep, I was already thinking about the next recipe…something gooey and indulgently chocolatey…
Looking at the last few remaining things in Dixies otherwise empty kitchen cupboards, the box of salt we picked up at the Maldon mine last Christmas, the last scrape of deliciously spicy Hebridean mustard, I suppose the “local” honey we bought in York two months ago is no longer local. We can’t really complain too much about food miles. We buy our food ‘locally’ and then drive it miles and miles and miles before we eat it! 🤣🚐