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Camping food

What do free campers eat when they decide to cook by themselves? 
Two exprerienced open air cooks give us the secrets of their craft.
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Dedicated to all those who “burry their cutlery in the sand only to dig them up the following summer…” in Gavdos.


This line from Lena Kitsopoulou’s “Red Riding Hood”, a play produced three years ago at the Onassis Cultural Centre, could be the perfect depiction of what goes on at Gavdos, or at least what was going on before the island was “ruined” by becoming a hot tourist destination. Let’s face it. Going camping is the new it thing for Greeks. Back in the prosperous years, going camping was mainly a choice among students, alternatives, neo-hippies and intellectuals. Nowadays however, camping has also become an option for people who never belonged to these groups. It would be quite stereotypical though to explain this trend based solely on the financial crisis that has indeed changed Greeks’ habits even when it comes to going on vacation, or even on a somewhat new need for freedom and contact with nature that may come as a consequence of an altogether new lifestyle.  Whatever the cause may be, it is a fact that camping has made a glorious comeback, with Greeks embracing new dietary habits while living under a tent.


When it comes to camping, there is a clear difference between organised and free camping, both of which have devoted fans and staunch opponents. Only very few campers have the flexibility to alternate between the two. Those who opt for the “comfort” of campsites fervently support their choice, whereas the “opposition” who indulges in the absolute – nowadays illegal according to Greek legislation – freedom of free camping,  express their utter dislike for the crowds and conformity of what they call “encampments that charge an entrance fee.”


So, dietary habits are another factor that draws a fine line between the lovers of free camping and those of organised one. Independently of where one lays their tent, nutrition depends on budget, therefore how much money one is prepared to spend for their vacation, as well as their overall culinary stance. Yet again there is a distinction between the two groups: those who eat in restaurants and tavernas and those who cook. The first ones have many options, depending on how far they want to tread from their “spot”. For example, the tavern inside the campsite of Patmos is so good that even people who stay elsewhere visit it. The renowned Margarita’s restaurant, over Kleisidi in Anafi, the one at Roukounas beach on the same island, as well as the taverns in Hiliadou in Evia are preferred by free campers, who will go there for breakfast, lunch, dinner, as well as for the free use of the bathroom facilities.


It keeps me grounded. I become a child, I build my ‘home’ under the trees, I gather wood, I cook, and return to nature that I love dearly; it’s my way of escaping the modern way of life. I reconnect with my roots.


But what about the others? Those who attempt to cook outdoors? Cooking in an idyllic beach is no easy feat. First of all, one must stock up on the right raw materials in the right amounts, which due to the luck of a refrigerator must have a long expiration date, a fact that will certainly prevent any campsite camper who have fridges and kitchens at their disposal even consider the option of trying free camping. Then there is the issue of equipment. One must have the necessary utensils, cookware, cooking fuel and last but not least a strong desire to experiment. Add to that the chore of washing the pots and pans, without littering the beach and you have clearly raised the bar of difficulty.


In the end, though, is it really that hard? Which are the specific preparations required, and how one can adjust their dietary habits while camping?


A beautiful interior. Photo by Manos Vynichakis.


Why camping, and more specifically free camping?

Make-up artist  Manos Vynichakis went camping for the first time at the age of 8. Since then he has set up his tent all over Greece, from Saronida and Kalamos to Evia, Anafi, Koufonisia and Crete. These days he opts for this type of vacation nearly every single summer where he disappears for months on an island of his choice, and he has a very good explanation for this.


“It keeps me grounded. I become a child, I build my ‘home’ under the trees, I gather wood, I cook, and return to nature that I love dearly; it’s my way of escaping the modern way of life. I reconnect with my roots. Usually i opt for places where I don’t know anyone, where I meet with people I know nothing about, and learn about their line of work or their hobbies; people with different backgrounds with whom I would probably not socialize back in Athens. This experience relaxes me more than anything else. However, I would never go at a campsite, since it’s like an apartment building made out of tents. ”


“When you live on a beach it’s easy to get acquainted with the person living in the next tent and develop some kind of a relationship. In the city you could be living in an apartment and see your next door neighbour only a handful of times, barely exchanging a glance, let alone a greeting like “good morning” or “good evening”. With your beach neighbour you will inevitably exchange a good morning, you will ask each other if there is anything you or they need from the grocery store, you will offer each other cold water that you have just brought back, or if they pack-up earlier they will leave you those rusks and rice they didn’t consume during their stay. There is a unique solidarity between free campers. It’s very rare for an introvert person to go free camping. Those who are not acquainted with the notion of it, may think it’s all about isolation, but in reality it’s about being grounded and being in contact with nature. In the evenings the whole beach gathers around a bonfire or a shared meal to watch the stars, sing and flirt. ”


Equipment and provisions

What’s in Manos’ backpack before he takes off for a holiday? “Pieces of cloths for shade. Few clothes since I’m a nudist, definitely a windcheater for cold nights, many pareos because they’re comfy and versatile, sheets for my tent because I need cleanliness for sleeping, an anatomic pillow and pillowcases to enjoy some comfort, a hammock, mosquito repellents; stuff like that. Since I’m pro healthy eating and a vegetarian, I will definitely pack some bio ingredients for cooking, such as bio rice to make risotto, dried vegetables, fruits and nuts, cereals like oat and tahini, lentils, pasta; generally, stuff that can be reserved outside of a fridge. Being a vegetarian doesn’t limit me at all when camping, on the contrary, not eating meat relieves me from the stress of perishables.”


Manos has to go and buy fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, since the lack of a fridge combined with the heat, dehydrates them. Depending on what’s on the menu for that day, he may also buy bread, cheese for his salad, eggs and butter if he intends to make a dessert, but always in a quantity for daily consumption.


Campers must also be very careful when it comes to the storage of ingredients, bearing in mind the conditions of the place: “I remember one time, while I was bathing in the sea, a flock of goats raided my pantry and ate everything· my legumes, flour, vegetables, whatever they could reach. They even ate a pot where I had planted some mint and some basil! Since then, I store all dry food in plastic airtight containers and put them in cool places. As for vegetables and fruit I bought a mesh basket, like the ones used in the villages back in the days they had no fridges, to protect my food from flies, rodents and ants. I hang it up on a tree, somewhere with shade. ”


Photo by Manos Vynichakis


Cooking outdoors: preparation, cooking and washing

“I have even made stuffed vegetables while camping” says Manos, and this sums up perfectly the vast menu you can concoct in order to impress your friends and acquaintances in your “village”. “You just have to believe in yourself! Once, I have even prepared up to 20 servings of briam (roasted summer vegetables). I adore cooking for lots of people and I really enjoy getting people together and allocating tasks, before we finally sit down together to enjoy our meal. I have really prepared some amazing dishes. The hardest part is getting organized rather than cooking. The taste of dishes prepared al fresco is incredible. I can’t remember a time when a dish wasn’t a hit.”


Pizza, imam bayildi (aubergines with tomato sauce) , pasta flora (sweet pastry tarts with jam), chocolate pie – Manos has tried his hand at almost everything while camping, since he has more free time and thus is able to cook more often than at home. His success stories are his loukoumades with honey (the greek version of doughnuts), halva, garlic bread, pizza and xynochondros (a cretan cereal made of sour milk and cracked wheat) with vegetables cooked like a risotto.


The utensils and cookware he packs in his bags are a pot for 3- 4 servings, since he enjoys eating with company, a sauté pan for sauces as well as frying, some colander, a grater, a camping gas stove, wooden spoons, plates, cutlery, a pizza baking tray and one for baking desserts. He brings along many things because he spends a lot of time there. In order to bake, he mostly uses a type of ceramic pot like the ones used by shepherds in villages “You know, the type where you put coals underneath and above it, and it becomes an oven. You can cook anything in that.”


But what about the whole procedure? Manos explains that one must be very careful with the sand, to avoid it getting in the food. As for cleaning his pots, he goes at the far end of the beach when there are no swimmers. He sticks to non-stick pots and pans which can be easily cleaned with some sea water and a bit of sand, or some biodegradable soap, if needed. He uses vinegar to sanitize cutlery and all stainless steel pots. “You can be very clean if you want to while camping; if you aim at cleanliness, there is nothing to prevent you from it.”


Sometimes all you need is good catch…

… and most of the times you don’t even need an open fire and grill to enjoy it, that is if you’re partial to “raw” pleasures as Thomas Georgiou, explains. “I fish with a spear gun. In order to go fishing you need your gun and ideally a partner to dive with, from dawn till dusk when there’s still natural light. Artificial light is legally and ethically prohibited, and we must respect the sea and its dwellers. There are specific techniques, which based on your skills, might get you the best results, however fishing is more about the pleasure of diving than about catching fish! ”


Thomas Georgiou

Thomas usually grills his catch on the spot. He uses disposable grills or lights up a camp fire with his friends, but he also goes “raw” if he has brought along his knives and a cutting board. “I can debone and fillet a fish on a flat rock, borrow some lemon and enjoy the perfect impromptu ceviche! I learned how to fillet fish on my own by trial and error; practice makes perfect. Of course there have been times when I tried to fillet different types of fish and failed, like a red porgy for example, which is a bigger fish in size. First and foremost, you need a good chef’s knife. Most of the fish that we find in the Mediterranean sea can be eaten this way, even sand sole. I’ve also tried raw seabream, but I prefer the seabass. Recently I was in Cephalonia and caught some amberjacks, which tasted really great. I use fresh herbs – I might pop by the old lady who lives next door, Mrs. Tassia and pinch some basil, spring onion, salt and pepper, always olive oil and lemon, keeping it simple. I prefer Greek herbs, though lately I also use chives, which comes in “handy” since it adds to the taste without tainting it. When it comes to seafood I catch mussels, date mussels and sea urchins, with which we must be cautious though, since they are a protected species. All you need is a drop of lemon and some olive oil. It is a fact that nothing can go wrong when you are in a beautiful scenery eating fish fresh out of the sea.”


Thomas’ gastronomical excursions are not limited in diving and summer camping. “In spring I hike in the mountains to seek wild mushrooms and wild strawberries… Depending on the type of mushrooms, sometimes all you need is some olive oil, garlic, salt/pepper, herbs and a good simmering in wine, and you get a delicious mushroom dish. Other varieties can be delicious grilled or even raw, without adding much dressing.”

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