As methods of hunting and killing your own lunch go, prawning is pretty tame. Poke your net into a rockpool and tease the overhanging seaweed. If you're paddling in the right place, you'll come away with at least one translucent prawn per pool, fresh and ready for the pot. Normally, Martin Dorey would be catching these thumb-sized crustaceans with his wife Joanne, two young daughters and their dog, Bob; but today the author of The Camper Van Cookbook has agreed to give me a lesson at the beach near his house in North Devon. The beach itself is a semi-secret surfer's haven, somewhere west of Westward Ho!, the precise location of which he has politely asked me not to disclose, as he's keen to keep the waves to himself.
The only part of the prawning process to give a faint-hearted townie pause might be scooping the lively critters from the net into a bucket by hand. But the meal you get at the end of it is well worth overcoming your squeamishness for: after half an hour or so of searching, our harvest (enough for a mid-morning snack, at least) goes into the boiling water on Dorey's portable gas hob. Once they're perfectly pinked, just a few minutes later, we dip them in a light lime juice and coriander mayonnaise that he mixed this morning: from sea to stomach in less than an hour. Prawns and mayo is just one of many blissfully simple recipes in The Camper Van Cookbook – all of which, as the title suggests, can easily be prepared in the back of a VW camper van.
"You don't have to eat beans just because you're camping," says Dorey. "These recipes are great and I cook them at home all the time, but camper van principles dictate that not many of them involve more than one pan; I detest washing up and it's a pain in the arse to do it in the van. So you can make all of the dishes with – at most – two pans on your two gas rings, a kettle and a jug to mix some stock in."
Its subtitle is "Life on 4 wheels, Cooking on 2 rings" and, as well as a host of recipes, his book has a suggested playlist for a driving tape, rules for games to play on the road, tips on tides for surfers or plants for budding roadside foragers, even instructions for the assembly of campfires and hammocks. It's structured as a guide to the perfect weekend away in your camper van. And now – what with the economic climate, the clouds of volcanic ash swirling in the atmosphere, and the prospect of endless cabin crew strikes – seems like a great time to consider the merits of a British summer holiday, for which this might be the ideal handbook.
Dorey's own attachment to the camper-van lifestyle came from surfing. He grew up in landlocked Surrey, but says he started to surf as soon as he'd learned to drive, "originally because it was cool and girls liked it. But I fell completely in love with the sport and my life's never been the same since. I got to college and met a whole bunch of guys there who surfed in North Wales and all had their own camper vans, so I used to hitch a ride and sleep in theirs. Eventually I got my own."
You don't have to own a VW to appreciate Dorey's book, though it doubtless helps. These days, however, camper vans are readily available to rent from various companies for that nostalgic weekend away. Dorey's own van, which he calls Pootle, is the third he has owned of the T25 model from the early 1980s, its interior customised in the "Devon" style he prefers. The camper on the cover of his book, he admits, is a borrowed 1962 split-windscreen van with a German "Westphalia" interior conversion – a particularly sought-after model. "Camper culture gets very geeky," he explains. "When I first got Pootle's predecessors, owners of my model of van wouldn't wave to each other on the road because we weren't considered cool enough by the guys with the older vans. Now it's started to become more acceptable and more people are waving, but I might still not get a wave from drivers of a vintage model from the Fifties or Sixties."
With camper-van owners being so competitive, it's no surprise that at vintage VW festivals, where VW lovers gather to show off their vehicles, even cookery has been turned into a contest: "They have competitions where you have to cook a three- or four-course meal in your van in a certain time." Dorey doesn't take part, he says – at least not yet.
It turns out the VW camper community includes our photographer, Jim, who not only has his own converted van, but also surfs like Dorey – and seems rather happy to have found a new, near-deserted beach to visit. "I've always known the way I live is quite aspirational for other people," says Dorey. "When I was living in the city all I wanted was to escape to the country, so I understand that dream has a lot of value and I put lots of effort into making it work. Knowing how to do it well is going to be worth something to people." Hence the book.
Dorey's first career was in the film industry, a job that saw him share a stage with The Rolling Stones and a tennis court with Charlton Heston, and featured encounters with the likes of Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas and Kylie. In 1998, he left London and moved to the West Country with his wife to become a writer, but many of the recipes in the book were picked up on his travels, either for work or for surfing. A hearty sausage stew (see box) that he plans to cook up for our late lunch, for instance, was discovered on a surf trip to Northern Spain, and originally contained chorizo.
"I always cooked curries and chilli and similar things in the van," Dorey explains, "but the thing that originally got me thinking about the Camper Van Cookbook was mussel-picking when I first came down to the West Country about 15 years ago. I was surfing in North Cornwall and at low tide there were a lot of mussels: I picked up a bunch, took them home and taught myself how to cook them."
Back on the beach, he's preparing a Canarian tapas dish to eat alongside our prawns: saltwater potatoes dipped in "Mojo Rioja", or "fire sauce". The Jersey Royals come from M&S on the M4, he says – now that's roadside foraging for you. You boil the small new potatoes in sea water, then drain them and put the potatoes back on the heat. The skins crinkle as the water they've taken on evaporates and the salt from the seawater crystallises on their surface. Then they're ready to dip in the sauce, made from cumin, paprika, oil, white wine vinegar, chilli and garlic.
"It's the adventure of the food that I find exciting," says Dorey. "You could buy a load of prawns from a fisherman or from the supermarket and they'd taste good. But actually it's the whole experience that makes it special – and it's special every time you do it: eating food that's fresh as can be, out in the open, and without all the food miles and packaging."
'The Camper Van Cookbook' is published by Saltyard books, £16.99
A PINT OF PRAWNS AND MAYO
Here are two fantastic – and very quick – dips to drunk your prawns in. With freshly caught shrimps cooked right on the beach it makes for a feast of the highest order and proves once again that simple is best. Use the best-quality mayonnaise you can find as it will make a big difference to the flavour.
Smoked paprika mayo
8 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tsp sweet smoked paprika
Mix together, adding a pinch of sea salt.
Lime and Chilli mayo
If you are feeding kids, this one works just as well without the chilli – but obviously has less of a kick.
8 tbsp mayonnaise
Zest of 2 limes
Generous squeeze of lime juice
Generous pinch crushed dried chillies
Mix together with a pinch of sea salt, taste and add a little more lime juice if needed.
SAUSAGES WITH BEANS AND TOMATOES
This is a hearty bean and sausage stew for a crisp autumn day when there's the beginning of a nip in the air. This could be a meal in itself but would be equally good with something green on the side – a salad or fresh green veg – and perhaps some toasted French bread, rubbed with a little garlic.
Ingredients to serve 4
8 plump herby pork sausages
2 tablespoons butter
3 onions, peeled and finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon sugar
1 x 410g tin cannellini or butter beans, drained
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato purée (not essential)
250ml chicken or beef stock
1 heaped tablespoon grainy mustard
Heat a splash of oil in a medium to large, shallow-sided pan. Brown the sausages in the oil until golden all over, then scoop them out of the pan and on to a plate.
Add the butter to the pan and, when melted, tip in the onions, garlic, rosemary, sugar and seasoning. Cook over a medium heat, uncovered, for 15 minutes or until the onions are golden and soft – give them a stir from time to time.
Next, stir in the beans, tomatoes, tomato purée, stock and mustard and nestle the sausages back in amongst everything. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium, cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Taste to check the seasoning before ladling into bowls.