Tempting taste buds and taking time out feeds soaring popularity of camp-oven cooking

Therese Palmer has just taken two perfectly formed loaves of garlic-infused bread out of her camp oven, and the aroma would entice even the most apathetic of taste buds.

For this central Queenslander, there’s something alluring about food being cooked over hot coals.

“Everyone loves food,” Mrs Palmer says, gesturing to passers-by milling around the camp-oven cooks.

They are at a camp oven competition in the tiny central Queensland town of Comet, a three-hour drive west of Rockhampton.

Mrs Palmer and husband Troy are preparing pumpkin soup, which is simmering in a large camp oven “older than my grandparents”, and porcupine meatballs with greens from their garden.

The first key is getting the flavour right.

“We’ve roasted the pumpkins and now we’ve just added the onions and garlic to simmer down, then we’ll add some magic ingredients later on,” Mrs Palmer said.

The second is controlling the heat.

The placement of the coals determines how the food cooks.

Iron stays hot for a long time, so just a few coals underneath will keep food happily simmering, while placing coals both on top and underneath the oven creates a fan-forced effect, similar to a convection oven.

“You don’t need a lot of wood, just good coals because they hold their heat,” Mrs Palmer explains.

The Palmers, who have been cooking for their family this way for about 20 years, are among a growing number of people taking their passion to the next level.

Last year, the Palmers entered one of the biggest camp-oven competitions in the country and came second, and they are heading back again this October to have another go.

Slowing down
The Australian Camp Oven Festival has been running since 1999 in Millmerran, about 200 kilometres west of Brisbane.

There are several competitions categories including championship, intermediate, drover’s apprentices (for youth under 18) and a beginner category. The competitors can cook in teams of up to four people.

Event coordinator Katrina Grundon has been involved since the beginning, when it was a small gathering of like-minded cooks.

She said camp-oven cooking was now luring people from all backgrounds. Last year the festival attracted more than 10,000 visitors.

“I think it really comes down to the fact you can cook while sitting around, talking with mates,” Ms Grundon said.

“We’re always so busy and when you put something in a camp oven, you can’t hurry.

“If you do, you end up ruining it, so you have to settle down and let it take its time.”

Ms Grundon says the fact anyone can do it also added to its attraction.

The only tool a would-be camp-oven cook needs is a fire pit with coal or fire beads.

She says the dishes being created now are far more creative because our knowledge of food has changed as well as the availability of ingredients.

“Once upon a time, when you were travelling with a camp oven, you only took flour and you had water, so you’d make a basic damper,” she said.

Now even the traditional stew that would accompany the damper is often transformed into a ragu.

But a word of advice for novices: damper is harder than it looks.

Don’t be fooled
“The cooking is quite technical because if you have the oven too hot, it will burn and if it’s too cold it won’t cook through,” Ms Grundon said.

“I think a good, old stew casserole is a good starting point. You can put it in and forget about it almost for a few hours and still get a really good result.”

This year’s festival runs from October 1–2 and the competition has a Christmas theme, where punters will serve up their favourite family festive dish.

Also on the menu will be mince pies and Christmas cake.

Luckily for the participants, Ms Grundon, who won the festival’s first competition, has retired from competitive life. Her signature dish is a glazed ham.

“That’s one of my favourite dishes when I was in competition, and we’ve actually done that dish multiple times at Christmas time.

“It’s just really delicious.”