Food is a vital component of any trip into the wilds. Whether it’s a multi day expedition through the Himalayas or a quick jaunt into the Brecon Beacons, you need to make sure you’re not going to collapse due to a lack of energy. As your trips get longer, the food you bring becomes ever more crucial. If you’re planning for a weeklong trip with nowhere to resupply you can find yourself fretting over calories in much the same way as a catwalk model does just before London Fashion Week. That is: you need the energy, but you really can’t afford to be carrying any extra weight!
One way to drastically reduce the load on your back is to carry dehydrated food. The logic is impeccable. If you’re hiking in the UK you can be fairly sure there’ll be a water supply wherever you camp so what’s the point in hauling “wet” food around all day when you could just carry dry food and add water when you get there? It seems like a no-brainer. That is until you taste dehydrated camp food. It’s not that it tastes bad, it’s just that it all seems to taste, well, dehydrated. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re having Chicken Korma with rice or Spaghetti Bolognese or Mexican Chilli, the packet may as well just have the words “Dehydrated Food” stamped on it because that’s what it tastes of. “What are you having for dinner?” “Food.” “Oh. What flavour?” “Dehydrated.” The reason for this is fairly plain. If you’re mass producing food that is designed to be dried out and put into a packet for use later on, it’s probably not going to taste that fantastic in the first place.
There is, however, another option. Dehydrate your own food. You can, in theory, make your own gourmet meals, exactly the way you like them, remove all that pesky water and hey presto, you’re eating like a king without having to hire sherpas to carry your dinner. To this end, I asked for a food dehydrator for Christmas. Not Christmas 2011, Christmas 2010. It has sat unused for almost a year and a half, waiting for me to unleash it’s potential. This month, I’ve decided to finally give it a whirl and tell you readers of TGO all about it- partly because it wasn’t cheap and I shouldn’t let it go to waste, and partly because, I quite fancy the idea of writing an “Ed Byrne tries…” article without having to leave the house!
My dehydrator is called an Excalibur 4900. ‘Excalibur’ seems a very grandiose name for what is essentially a small fan oven. It seems a more appropriate name for an American muscle car (“The Pontiac Excalibur. Get in!”). Calling a food dehydrator the Excalibur is like having a water softener called the Liberator or an electric toothbrush called Operation: Desert Storm. It just seems a little bit over the top. I also can’t help but wonder what The Lady of the Lake would make of such a name being given to something that removes water.
The first thing I decide to dehydrate is a portion of mashed potato. I feel that this is a good thing to start off with, as mashed potato will happily dry out when placed in a fridge so it should be no problem for the Excalibur 4900. I take a few dollops of freshly made mash and spread it out across one of the Excalibur’s nine drying trays, bung it in and turn it on. Simple. The next thing I decide to try is a portion of the chicken casserole my wife, Claire, has prepared for our tea. Obviously, Claire reads these articles so any comments I make about the quality of this food pre dehydration are going to be complimentary. The only thing I need to do is mash the casserole up with a fork as any big lumps will take too long to dry out and might be impossible to rehydrate. Having mashed the casserole up into a more manageable consistency, or as my wife would put it, having ruined a perfectly good portion of chicken casserole, I spread it thinly over another drying tray and bung it in the machine along with the mash.
Getting into the swing of things, I start looking through the fridge for another dish to experiment with and soon come across a portion of my wife’s home made lasagna. Perfect. Again, having been lovingly prepared by my good lady, I can attest to its quality before the Excalibur has its way with it. I slice it up thinly, spread it on a tray and offer it to the Excalibur. “What about dessert?” asks Claire. Good idea. I take a slice of Apple and Blackberry pie that my mother-in-law made and crumble it onto another tray. It’s only at this point that I realise Claire might have only been joking. It would certainly explain the incredulous look she gave me when I started shmearing her mother’s baking into a plastic tray.
I have a look around the kitchen for anything else that could do with dehydrating and my eyes alight on a banana. Two minutes later it’s peeled, sliced, coated in honey and drying like a good ‘un. At this point Claire, quite wisely steers me out of the kitchen before I try to dehydrate the cat.
A few hours later, it’s time to see how the food has fared. First of all I try the mash potato, which now resembles a few crispy bits of fish batter. Not very appealing but weighing less than a decent sized feather. I decide not to recreate camping conditions exactly and so put the unappetising looking lumps in a mug and pour in water from a kettle rather than a jetboil. I give the mixture a cursory stir and wait a moment or two. It doesn’t look very encouraging. I walk away from the lumpy gruel and turn my attention to the chicken casserole which now looks like an exhibit in a museum of scabs.
I take a few moments to detach the dessicated casserole from its tray and wrestle it into another mug. Having poured some boiling water over it I turn my attention back to the first mug which is now magically full of creamy mashed potato. I’m not kidding you. I took a spoon and sampled it and it tasted just as good as it did beforehand. You know what it tasted of? Successful experimentation.
The chicken casserole took a bit more cooking to get back to an edible state. In practice I would have needed to leave it bubbling on a stove for ten minutes or so and, in fairness, the chicken was a little chewier than it had been, but it was still a good meal. The lasagna didn’t survive rehydration unscathed, ending up like a pasta/soup hybrid but it still tasted better than most dehydrated meals I’ve had. The apple and blackberry pie was, as you might have guessed, not in an edible state post rehydration, but was perfectly edible in it’s dehydrated form so still a partial success. The one thing that let me down was the banana. Maybe I sliced it too thin, maybe the honey was a bad idea or maybe bananas are more suited to freeze drying than hot air drying but those slices tasted like leather that had been dipped in Nesquik. Strange. That was the one thing I thought would work best.
At the end of the day (quite a long day, by the way. Dehydration takes time) I learned that you really can make delicious dry camp food yourself at home. I’m not entirely convinced that you need to buy a dedicated dehydrator either. You can probably just put your oven on a low heat and open the door a crack. But I, for one, will definitely be pressing mine into service again before my next camping trip, even if it does have a ridiculous name.
Ed Byrne's latest show, Outside, Looking In, is playing at the Edinburgh Festival now. Check out Ed's website at edbyrne.com for more information.