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leslie's guiding traditions

From the start of Scouting and Guiding, the emphasis was on the skills of the Scout, able to be self-supporting in frontier places. The title of the first Guide Handbook was "How Girls Can Help to Build Up the Empire" and gave an image of Guides travelling to live abroad in 'the empire' where they might need to be self-sufficient in the absence of 'mod cons'. And as Guides also went hiking, so they had to learn to cater for themselves when out in the wilds. Backwoods cooking was thus a core skill.

As the 1912 handbook said, "Every Guide must, of course, know how to cook her own meat and vegetables, and to make bread for herself, without regular cooking utensils. For boiling water a Guide would usually have her tin 'billy' and in that she can boil vegetables or stew her meat; but often she will want it for drinking, and will cook her meat in some other way. This would usually be done by cutting it up into kabobs and sticking it on sharp sticks and hanging it close to the fire so that it gets broiled; or the lid of an old biscuit tin can be used as a kind of frying-pan. Put fat or water in it to prevent the meat getting burnt before it is cooked. Meat can be wrapped in a few sheets of wet paper, or in a coating of clay, and buried in the red-hot embers of the fire, where it will cook itself. Birds and fish can also be cooked in this manner, and there is no need to pluck the bird before doing so if you use clay, as the feathers will stick to the cay when it hardens in the heat, and when you break it open the bird will come out cooked, without its feathers, like the kernel out of a nutshell. Another way is to clean out the inside of the bird, get a pebble about the size of its inside, and heat it till nearly red-hot; place it inside the bird, and put the bird on a gridiron, or on a wooden spit over the fire. Birds are most easily plucked immediately after being killed.

To boil your 'billy' or camp kettle, you can either stand it on the logs (where it often falls over unless care is taken), or, better, stand it on the ground among the hot embers of the fire; or else rig up a triangle of three green poles over the fire, tying them together at the top, and hanging the pot by a wire or chain or pot-hook from the poles. Eggs, or potatoes, or buns can be cooked by raking away the fire. Place the potato on the red-hot ashes, and pile embers on it." (with the egg, use a pin to make a hole in the shell at the rounded end).

There are various different types of fire which can be used for doing backwoods cooking - but the 'bonfire' is not one of them! To cook food properly, you need to use the right type of fire for the style of cooking you are going to be doing, and match the size of the fire to the amount of time for which you will be using it.  

The first question to answer is - where. Spend time choosing your site. The first thing you need is an area of land where the landowner has given you permission to build a fire. You cannot light a fire anywhere else. Within that, look for the best spot. If it is a campsite with an area set aside for firelighting, or a campfire circle, you MUST use that rather than build your fire anywhere else, even if you don't care for it's location or layout. If you have a free choice, start by looking at the ground and it's conditions. If the ground is dry, you must consider how dry - is it safe to light a fire, or is there a risk of it spreading outwith your control? If the ground is not too dry, and you are not at risk of starting a peat or heathland fire, then look at where you might find a sheltered spot - especially on a windy day. Then consider what is nearby or overhanging - are you close to a tree or bush, is there a risk of them catching fire? Are you away from your tent, so there is no fear of sparks burning it? All these factors will help you choose the best spot for your fire. If the area is covered in grass you will need to 'turf' it - use a sharp knife or spade to cut down into the grass by several inches, then either cut underneath and remove the grass layer, or peel it back, to expose the earth to build your fire on. Make sure it is damp. and if the turfs are removed, then stack them 'earth to earth and grass to grass' and keep them watered so they can be successfully replaced after your fire is cleared and stand a chance of growing. If in doubt, turf a larger area than you think you need, to avoid burnt edges.

The next thing to consider is your fuel. Traditionally, natural materials would be used to light a fire. So you need 'punk' - small twigs, pieces of bark etc, which can catch light quickly, to get the fire started.

A good natural option is 'fuzz-sticks' - these are made by whittling a stick so that the shavings curl on it but do not fall off. Three or four of these can be made and built up together into a pyramid, thick end upwards, so the fire can be built round them. Dry pine cones gorse, heather can be used. Then there is the famous rhyme by Ernest Thompson Seton - "First a curl of birch bark as dry as it can be, then some twigs of soft wood, dead, but on the tree, last of all some pine-knots to make the kettle foam, and there's a fire to make you think you're sitting right at home".  

Having assembled your punk, it's time to collect your wood - and again, there is a rhyme to advise what sort to choose:

"Oak logs will warm you well if they're old and dry; Larch logs or pine woods smell but the sparks will fly.

Beech logs for Christmas-time, Yew logs heat well; 'Scotch' logs it is a crime for anyone to sell.

Birch logs will burn too fast, Chestnut scarce at all; Hawthorn logs are good to last if cut at the fall.

Holly logs will burn like wax, you should burn them green; Elm logs like smouldering flax, no flame to be seen.

Pear logs and apple logs, they will scent your room; Cherry logs across fire dogs smell like flowers in bloom.

But Ash logs all smooth and grey, burn them green or old; Buy up all that come your way, they're worth their weight in gold."

Having chosen your site, and collected your wood, it's time to set up. Start by collecting your pot or bucket of water, and setting it beside where the fire is going to be. It would be used if you needed to put the fire out in an emergency, or for burnt fingers - hence no fire should ever be built until it has been set in place. Then create a woodpile - set a couple of large logs on the ground, and stack your firewood across them, cut into workable lengths, thinnest nearest the fireplace.  

On your cleared site, lay out your punk, and arrange it. Build the small sticks around it, leaving gaps for air to get through. If you are looking to boil a kettle or heat soup or do other quick cooking, the cob-house fire is the best sort, as it builds up a good heat quickly. To support the pot or kettle, you can either use a 'crane' or put a large log either side of the fire which you can balance pots on - this is known as a 'trapper' or 'hunter' fire. The advantage of this option is that as well as balancing pots safely, it concentrates the heat under your pots. If possible, angle the logs with their ends to the breeze, so the breeze fans the flames of the fire.

If you are looking to boil a kettle or heat soup or do other quick cooking, the cob-house fire is the best sort, as it builds up a good heat quickly. To support the pot or kettle, you can either use a 'crane' or put a large log either side of the fire which you can balance pots on - this is known as a 'trapper' or 'hunter' fire. The advantage of this option is that as well as balancing pots safely, it concentrates the heat under your pots. If possible, angle the logs with their ends to the breeze, so the breeze fans the flames of the fire.

For grilling, a 'reflector' fire is best. To build this you want to create a back panel, by driving a couple of stakes into the ground at a reclined angle. Then stack logs up against the stakes to create a 'wall'. Build the fire in front of this wall, and the wall can become a grilling surface. Fish can be 'planked' (attached to a wooden board and propped against the log wall). Or food parcels wrapped in wet newspaper or foil. Or food suspended in front of the fire as shown.

Camp Ovens.

Hayboxes are a traditional method which can be used to cook soups, stews and similar dishes which can take long slow cooking. They can also be used if the camp is having a day out, as food can be left cooking all day to provide a hot meal quickly when the group returns in the evening.

To make the haybox itself, you need a large wooden box such as a tea chest, or a metal container such as a galvanised dustbin. Line it thickly with hay or straw, leaving just enough space for the dixie of food. Meantime, prepare your pot of food and cook it on the fire until it is boiling. Then quickly lower the pot into your haybox while it is still really hot, and add the hay-lined lid so that it is on the box securely. The heat that is retained from the hot food, and the insulation from the hay will provide long, steady cooking ideal for porridge or stew.

Backwoods hygiene is really important. Water should always be brought with you, or boiled thoroughly, or treated. All ponds and burns should be assumed to be unclean unless you have sound reason to believe otherwise. Wash your hands between handling the fire and handling the food with hot soapy water, or use a bottle of hand sanitiser. Make sure all cool food is kept cool - keep containers in a running stream or use coolbags with ice packs. Make sure all hot food is cooked through and hot right to the middle. Make sure all raw and cooked foods are kept separate. Make sure all used dishes are either washed in hot soapy water, or rinsed and wrapped to be taken home for thorough washing. Make sure all waste is disposed of properly - burn all that can be burnt safely, dispose of waste water away from waterways, ensure all rubbish is picked up and packed away to bin at home, make sure all traces of your presence on the site are gone. Remember Baden-Powell's saying and leave behind only two things - "1 - nothing, 2 - your thanks."

Pitta Pizza

Ingredients: Pitta bread per person, tomato sauce, cheese, 'toppings' of choice.

1) Using a sharp knife, open up the slot in the pitta bread.

2) Insert the 'toppings' in the slot, place the pitta bread on a sheet of foil, and fold it over, crimping the foil at the side where the open side of the pitta is.

3) Crimped side up, place in hot fire embers or camp oven, and cook for 5-10 minutes.

4) Eat while hot.

Toasted Marshmallow/S'more

Ingredients - Marshmallows, chocolate digestive biscuits

1) Spear a marshmallow on a kebab stick, and toast over embers until the inside of the marshmallow melts.

2) Take two chocolate digestive biscuits, chocolate side in, and sandwich them either side of the cooked marshmallow. Squash them together while pulling out the kebab stick.

Blackbirds (or Robins)

Ingredients - slices of bread, blackcurrant jam (raspberry for Robins), oil for frying.

1) Sandwich 2 slices of dry bread together with a generous filling of jam.

2) Fry in hot oil until golden brown on both sides.

3) Serve immediately while still hot.

Blackbirds can be coated in batter if you wish.

French Toast/Eggy Bread

Ingredients - slices of bread, eggs, milk, salt, pepper

1) Break the eggs into a mixing bowl and whisk them, season, and dilute with milk.

2) Cut slices of bread in half, dip in the egg mix, and fry in hot oil until golden brown on both sides.

Serve immediately while still hot. Can be served plain, with salt, with brown sauce or ketchup, or with sugar, syrup or honey, according to taste.

Foil Packets

Filling of choice from ham, sweetcorn, peas, cooked chicken pieces, peppers, mushrooms, etc. Stock or gravy

1) Make a sheet of tinfoil into a bag, place filling in, add a small quantity of stock or gravy.

2) Crimp the last edge, then make sure all is sealed.

3) place on the fire embers until fully heated through.

Baked Apples

Ingredients - 1 apple per person, mincemeat or dried fruit or brown sugar as filling, bread if required.

1) Core the apples, and slash the skins in 2 or 3 places.

2) If using a runny filling like brown sugar or mincemeat, stuff the bottom of the core hole with a small piece of bread. If dried fruit this is not required. Place each apple on it's square of foil, stuff the core hole firmly, then wrap in foil.

3) Place in the fire embers or in a camp oven, and cook for 10-15 minutes.

Cheese Dreams

Ingredients - slices of bread, cooking oil for frying, cheese (sliced thinly).

1) Sandwich cheese between slices of dry bread, and cut into halves or quarters.

2) Heat the oil, then fry the sandwiches until golden brown on both sides.

3) Serve immediately, while fresh.