Campfire cooking – baked wild sea trout and shoreline herbs

I think wild caught fish tastes never better when eaten on the shore from which it is caught – it melts in the mouth like no supermarket equivalent.

During Spring kayak fishing expeditions, we stop under the cliffs at shady spots to collect wild ramsons garlic and also at warmed sunny south facing grassy dunes to collect wild thyme. At this time of year sea trout and coley (saithe) are starting to arrive and frying or grilling fresh fish* often the easiest wild camp cooking methods but perhaps my favourite way is baking – fresh herbs, confined in foil and pressed close to the fish, steep and diffuse in the even heat and natural juices to produce a tantalizing aroma to the flakey white flesh.

Positioning an earth oven

Remote Hebridean islands are often rocky and the soil can be so thin that digging holes for natural earth ovens is be tricky. This aside, excavating cross sections of National Trust islands (protected with Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), National Trust Nature Reserve, Special Protection Area (SPA), Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and RAMSAR status) would be entirely inappropriate and unlikely to sit comfortably with the hard conservation work of these campaigning groups.

With this in mind we make an earth oven on the shore and in the sand of the high tide mark – it is filled in after use and one high tide or storm surge is all that’s required to take crabs to hermit heaven.

For thousands of years Maoris have called this an Umi (earth oven) and the technique has been popularly used more recently by Mainers, using shore materials such as pebbles and seaweed, to bake lobster and clams.

Making an earth oven

A hole is dug (2′ (.8m), long, 1′ (.4m) wide, 1′ (.4m) deep) on the beach just above the high tide mark. The pit floor is lined with fist sized granite beach pebbles and the more pebbles used the more heat will be retained for consistent temperature and better baking (never use flint or porous rock as they may explode filling you or your food with shrapnel). A double layer of stones is best.

A fire is lit over the pebbles and allowed to burn to create a wide and even bed of embers. The pebbles will absorb the heat and slowly radiate the energy through the food during the baking. A layer of seaweed is placed over the embers, protecting the fish from burning and adding steam to the baking process.

Cooking with an earth oven

Wrapped in foil and stuffed with lemon, fresh wild thyme, butter and wild garlic, the fish is placed on the seaweed (it is possible to do without tinfoil if the fish is wrapped completely with seaweed). A damp cloth is placed over the fish before the pit is filled with sand so that, when the fish is cooked, the sand can be removed in one action. The sand minimises oxygen to the embers and insulates the heat distributing it evenly around the fish. Cooking time comes with practice and very much depends on the size of the catch. Try 40 minutes for a 2lb fish.

Wild caught cod and pollock work well as their white flesh has the perfect subtle flavour to carry the butter and wild thyme. However Staffa, Ulva and the Treshnish Isles are yet to give up their first sea bass and the search continues…

*The term fresh fish is of course relative. On the high-street, at supermarkets and in city restaurants fresh fish really means days old so, when patiently waiting for your number to be called at the fish-counter, be ready to ask where your fish is from and how many days ago it was likely caught. Supermarkets invent terms to suit their needs and, as a discerning consumer, it really is your right to challenge nonsense. At Octane we have therefore made a new, differentiated and entirely transparent definition – Ocean-fresh. Simply put, it means caught and eaten same-day.

See ocean fresh calimari caught, cooked and served in under an hour

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