Hi, this is Jo.
Over the past five years travelling with Frank, my on the road cooking style has changed enormously as we’ve adapted to the space and equipment available in a van. I’ve always had an interest in food and cooking and preparing healthy meals for my family. This brought its own challenges with a daughter who is severely anaphylactic (nut allergy), a son who is a fitness fanatic, and a husband who was a fussy eater. The anaphylactic daughter and fitness fanatic son have now left home, and I am proud to have been able to teach them to cook healthily for themselves. The fussy eater husband travels with me in the van, but I’m pleased to report that he’s become a lot more adventurous with his food! I on the other hand eat a very varied diet, largely vegetable orientated, and I haven’t drunk alcohol for a couple of years largely because of a pheochromocytoma tumour, which didn’t agree with white wine!
Eating on the road for us is about healthy food, simple to prepare, zero waste, tasty and whenever possible, local, and to a budget, as we need to survive on our pensions. I enjoy shopping in foreign supermarkets for the different variety of food available and I love foreign food markets (One in particular moved me to tears due to the sun, the smells, the fresh fruit and vegetables and the atmosphere!).
What are the differences between cooking at home and on the road? Are we on holiday or long term travelling? A new van, new kitchen, new cooking space, and a new cooking view.
Cooking on the road for us means simplicity - a three ring gas hob in the van and a Cadac BBQ to use outside. No oven, no microwave, no grill and no electric appliances. One essential item is our stove top ‘Bialetti’ coffee pot. Over the past five years I’ve adapted to this simplicity, and when we specced the new van, we decided to stick with this formula, prioritising storage spaces over cooking appliances we would rarely, if ever, use. We did think about a larger fridge, but it wouldn’t really have worked in the new van and we’ve got used to smaller shopping trips, more often. We’ve found that this works best for fresh fruit and veg, and chilled goods, especially in hot weather when the fridge struggles to cope.
Whenever we can we cook outside, and Mark takes charge of the Cadac. We bought this to replace a portable gas BBQ, which was messy, hard to clean and hard to transport. The Cadac is great and addresses all of these things. The only disadvantage with it is that in windy conditions it can be a challenge, as we have yet to source anything to act as a windshield (any ideas - please drop us a line!). Outdoor cooking (even in the rain under the awning) prevents food smells and mess inside the van, and gives Mark the chance to show off his culinary skills. We’ve also learned to wash up outside whenever we can (using external facilities if they’re available) which helps extend our time between filling up fresh water and emptying grey waste. Conserving water is always a top priority, and if we pay for a ‘proper’ campsite (where there are facilities for washing up, hot water etc.) we always take advantage of this to give everything a really good clean. Bearing these issues in mind we have become very adept at creating ‘one pot meals for two’. Although we try to be healthy on the road, a treat every now and then hits the spot, and we have discovered that the pizza stone on the Cadac cooks the most amazing crepes and pancakes which could be filled with savouries and vegetables, but are wonderful packed with fruit and chocolate!!
Listed below are the items that I like to take on the road with us from home (so this also acts as a food packing checklist for us!).
There are various reasons why we take stuff with us but everything generally falls into one of these categories:-
(a) Things to tide us over for the first night or two, as we never really plan stopovers in advance, and therefore can’t be sure what shops will be available immediately - virtually all of our travel to date has been outside the UK and shopping hours are different
(b) Items that we like to have that we know are either difficult to source or expensive in Europe.
(c) Things that we would normally buy in large packets at home which we decant into small containers (sugar, spices etc.) to save buying and wasting large quantities on the road.
(d) Treats that we enjoy, for example with our afternoon cuppa.
None of the above is normally intended to last for an entire trip, and when it runs out we either source it from where we are or do without. As I’ve said above, part of the joy of travelling abroad for me is the different shopping experience!
The following are some of the things that are always in the van before we hit the road. Being ‘between vans’ at the moment we aren’t completely sure of how we will live in the new one, or if it will change what we need to carry so this list is always subject to change!
As we write this we are in the grip of a worldwide Coronavirus pandemic, and shops here in the UK have had to adapt, as have shoppers. We are yet to experience any of these changes abroad, but we will adapt as necessary to keep ourselves and our hosts safe.
Shopping for vanlife is obviously different to shopping at home - the biggest issue being storage in the van! Cost is also a factor, and whereas our perception some years ago was that shopping on the continent was cheaper than at home, we don’t feel that this is now the case. Fresh produce, particularly meat and fish, can be very expensive, and this has had an effect on how we shop and eat when on the road. It is different when you’re not just on a two week holiday, as costs can run away with themselves if you are away for months at a time. We tend not to eat out when we are away, preferring to get our dose of local culture by stopping for a coffee or a glass of wine in a cafe or bar.
We always keep ‘bags for life’ in the van and we like to pick new ones up on our travels so we have a variety which remind us of where we’ve been!
Opening hours!!. We’ve been caught out many times here. Sundays on the continent tend to be mornings only- if at all, even in quite big towns.
So where do we shop?
Lidl and Aldi - We use these at home for staples, and over the past couple of years have started using them abroad as well. They tend to be everywhere, and similarly to at home they're a very cost effective option for a lot of staple items. You never know what useful stuff you're going to find in those ‘middle aisles’. We’ve been known to pick up new pillows, tools etc.
The standalone medium sized supermarkets such as Carrefour, Leclerc, Auchan, Casino, Hyper-U. These are all a manageable size (Mark tends to hyperventilate when faced with the massive hypermarkets!!). We always keep a trolley token in the front of the van for these, they are usually easily located on Google maps, and have easy parking, generally without height restriction. Another plus for a lot of these is that they tend to be quite regional, and have large sections of local regional produce and specialities.
Out of town ‘Hypermarkets’ are often in massive shopping centres and sometimes have advantages. They are in a mall surrounded by independent shops, and often we find mobile phone shops, pharmacies, post offices, clean toilets and Aircon!! Another big plus when you’re on the road is that they almost always have coffee shops with free wifi. The first time we discovered this was in Italy when we were new to Vanlife. We had yet to discover all the mobile apps for places to stay, and having been told about them, took advantage of the wifi to download some, along with maps and stopovers whilst supping Italian coffee!! Diesel is also always cheapest at these locations, often by a significant amount, and so we have got into the habit of filling up, even if not empty (having had one or two anxious drives looking for filling stations and running on fumes!). Don’t be put off by height restrictions at these malls as there is often a designated area for motorhomes although it is sometimes complicated to find!
Indoor and outdoor produce markets. These are generally held in the mornings and local Tourist Offices usually have a list of local ones and the days they appear in each town as the stalls move around the different towns in the region. We have a couple of favourites. One is at Perigueux in the Dordogne, and another at Riez in Provence. Both of these have Aires within walking distance.
We have often come across local farmers selling their produce at the roadside. This is hard to resist. A particular memory of these was in New Zealand where I bought avocados (‘Cheap Avos’ it said on the sign), fresh corn on the cob, and fresh cherries. The taste and freshness is yet to be matched!!
Boulangeries and Patisseries . When we were holidaying as a four (Me , Mark, Amelia and Jack) big bags of croissants were a daily ritual for breakfast, and often from one of the supermarkets. Travelling with a severely anaphylactic daughter made visits to the pattiseries / /boulangeries too risky and we felt supermarkets a safer option for avoiding nuts. Now (as we avoid eating cakes and pastries every day) it's a real treat, and we have a particular passion for an almond croissant. But it has to be crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside and from an authentic village boulangerie with 'that' smell. Our favourite and most memorable, and the one against which they are now all measured, was from a wonderful one in Mareuil-sur-Ay, in the Champagne region of France. This area is also where we discovered a 'France Passion' stopover at a small champagne producer. This has become one of our favourite stops, lovely owners, a beautiful location, and free if you purchase some of the product. Their champagne has since helped us to celebrate numerous family occasions back in the UK!
Finally, and nothing to do with food or drink, we are an outdoor active family. We have lost count of the number of Decathlon sports / outdoor accessory shops we have been to. We think they are great value and quality. We wish there were more at home!