Please note that the family Virgo has already advised me that I didn’t stitch the pictures together too well.
My old and dear friend Stevie is a regular commenter here and blogs on his beefchange (like a treechange, but with cattle) at WoodenSpoon. He and our friend Captain Ken (that is his nom de progrock. No, I am not kidding.) are part of a group of friends who started camping together at Araluen on the last weekend in November every year since their first year at university, 1983. When I was in Year 7. Just sayin’.
We first went three years ago, and again this November. We had planned to go each time in between, but life and a Federal election intervened.
The hosts are Fabian and Judy, at the family property on the Deua River. The valley is in lush stone fruit growing country, 30 clicks inland from Moruya and a couple of hours from Canberra. There is a beautiful old wooden house with about 80 rainwater tanks, an Aga cooker and a big fireplace. At every turn there’s another little verandah with a couple more comfy chairs to sit in and admire the view.
A ten minute trek down the truly stupid hill takes you to a beautiful grassy flat near the river. It wasn’t in flow this year, but there’s still a beautiful warm swimming hole surrounded by very steep treed banks. And there’s a nice little flat shady spot where responsible parents can nurse their hangovers and respond when one of the kids shouts more loudly than usual from their floating crocodile.
As the years have gone by, there are more and more kids, but adults still slightly outnumber them. There is a core of four-day campers, and others come and go for a night, or a day or two as they can manage.
There are some Big Serious Jobs that smooth the whole event, like mowing the flat with the tractor and chainsawing up enough wood to keep the fire burning all weekend. Fortunately there are many big capable men who really get into those bits, which leaves the chicks some time for sitting around.
There is usually one big special meal together on the Saturday night. The rest of the time, you make something when you or the kids are hungry and whoever fancies some is welcome. Special meals in the past have included camp oven pizzas made to order by Simon, a whole fire roasted pig, a baked dinner, etc. They are not always successes – the spectre of The Great Boiler Chicken Disaster of 1987 hang heavy over the air this year, when a paella with chicken and chorizo for sixteen was to be the main event.
Fabian was planning to triple this Gourmet Traveller recipe for eight, and it had some specific information about how the cooking should be done for authenticity:
As with all classics, paella varies from village to village and even from household to household. Some say true paella Valenciana must be cooked outside over a fire made of orange branches, dished up with a boxwood spoon and eaten only at midday. In his book, Catalan Cuisine, Andrew Colman goes one further and writes that for men cooking and sharing paella, the only acceptable topics of conversation are “women, bullfighting and crops”.
The first stage was the lengthy browning of chicken pieces and chorizo. Fortunately Fabian has a gargantuan wok from their Webber. While that was going on, the prep squad had mobilised. It takes a long time to infuse six litres of chicken stock with saffron on a gas ring, but there were many helpers.
Also, there was a bloke just standing around. Perhaps he was trying to work out whether the camping party had been infiltrated by one of the Milats.
One of the tricky things that the recipe didn’t mention was how to manage water from the tarp above you bucketing into the wok. We found that stationing a tall person there to artfully empty the pooling tarp worked OK.
It’s hard to serve paella glamorously when you’re to be eating off your lap wearing a headlamp and it’s pissing down, but you’re very unlikely to get any complaints. I had two helpings, and extra for breakfast. Next year: Woks of Fire!