Mountain Food the Ramsey Way

I’m at 30,000 ft over the Channel in a Ryan Air sky bucket trying to write some pearls of wisdom about mountain food.  My friends are recounting tales of their past mountain menu disasters and it makes disturbing listening.  Mark had it topped with his seven day Lake District backpacking trip carrying a tin of Irish stew and a boil in the can syrup sponge for each day until Vic confessed to having cycled across the Atlas Mountains eating only boiled rice every day – for 32 days!

Now dieticians everywhere might read this and weep but in my humble opinion there is one key feature of Mark and Vic’s menu that is worth its salt in the mountains..... simplicity.  If you watch a few episodes of ‘Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares’ you’ll see the gourmet god (or should that be gourmet gob!) constantly telling the brow beaten restauranteurs to “SIMPLIFY THEIR F*****G MENUS!”  Well I’m advocating taking mountain food to the ultimate in simplicity by only taking one choice for breakfast and evening meal and a limited selection of day food - Gordon would be so proud!       

Having said that, please don’t be fooled into thinking I got to this point without serious research.  In true Hester Blumenthal style I’ve eaten everything from powdered egg (yuk!) to sesame snacks (yum!), from dehydrated broccoli (yuk!) to Indian barfi (yum!).  At the end of the day it boils down to one simple fact – for a mountain menu simplicity rules.

But before we talk food it’s important to get a few other things out of the way….

Preparation

In line with modern ultra light backpacking methods I use the single pan, zip lock bag, lightweight stove, insulating sleeve and plastic spoon approach.  The stove I use varies on the seasons and activity but will currently be selected from a ‘white box’ meths stove, MSR pocket rocket, MSR wind pro or MSR whisperlite.  The spoon is a simple lexan plastic model.  The pan is an MSR titanium kettle with a homemade aluminium foil lid to replace the original (I use this kettle both for heating water and as a mug).  Finally, the insulating sleeve is a piece of aluminiumised bubble wrap (available as radiator insulation from DIY shops) that’s been duct taped into a ziplock sized envelope shape with a piece of stick on Velcro to hold it closed.  You can leave this sleeve behind if you’re really trying to shed weight but it does keep your food warmer for longer.  

The aim of the whole system is to only need to heat water and therefore create no mess.  At home I mix all the ingredients into good quality ziplock bags (I also ‘double bag’ the food bags and tape them into small parcels to stop them bursting) then all I need to do is add hot water to the bag, place it in the insulating sleeve and leave it for a minute – then the food will be ready to eat.  Eat it from the ziplock and hey presto – no washing up.

Timing

My mum used to relate that old motto ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and eat dinner like a pauper’ whenever I asked for second helpings of the evening meal (which was everyday).  But, looking back, she did have a point (even though we were sitting in the kitchen rather than on a windswept mountain bivvy!).  Eating a big meal at the end of a mountain day is a bad option as you are usually dehydrated, which suppresses your appetite and makes it hard to force down a big meal.  Also, forcing your body to digest food while you sleep may affect the quality of your rest and will suppress your appetite at breakfast time. You really need to leave at least 3 hours between eating your meal and sleeping to allow digestion - but who is going to sit around waiting that long after you’ve slogged around the mountains all day and every cell in your aching body is crying out for sleep!

What you really need to do is to eat an ‘uber’ breakfast to kick start you in the morning and fuel your body and brain for all the activity and decisions you will need to make.  It will also aid the rehydration process if you have a moisture rich meal.  

Then over the course of the day try to keep blood sugar levels topped up by ‘grazing’.  This will keep you fuelled up with energy and will help prevent the ‘sugar crash’ which can affect performance (and may affect crucial decision making) at the end of a long day. Then, top the day off with a reasonable size evening meal and plenty of liquid.

Hydration

I’m sure you know that water’s very important – but not everyone’s aware quite how much it can affect performance.  A drop in body moisture content of only 3% will severely affect co-ordination, endurance and the ability to think clearly.  When you consider that when you are active you can lose up to two and half litres of water an hour you can see that keeping hydrated is very important.  Unfortunately, most climbers don’t carry anywhere near enough liquid with them just because it would be too much weight.  It does help if you ‘super – hydrate’ by drinking as much as you can before you start the days activities and make sure you rehydrate as much as you can at the end of the day.  In between, just drink as much as possible and consider that it’s really a false economy to not take enough water as you will quickly lose performance.    

It’s also worth considering what you drink.  When you’re travelling light boiling water for tea uses a lot of fuel (as well as tea acting as a diuretic).  My solution is to only drink water during the day and flavoured energy drinks in the morning and evening.  These can be made by heating water until hot rather than boiling which conserves a lot of fuel.  There are loads of types on the market and they come in three broad types; energy drinks, rehydration drinks and recovery drinks.  I’m currently addicted to High Five orange ‘energy source’ which is very drinkable but I doubt you’ll go far wrong with any of them.  I guess you could take a variety of types to suit different times of day (energy for brekkie, rehydration at the end of the day etc) but that doesn’t suit our Ramsey style menu as there are too many options!

Okay then.  That’s enough techno babble (and thanks for bearing with me!) – it’s food time!

Brekkie

Oats rule!  But don’t even consider your 15 minute simmer porridge oats here.  The secret is those ‘oat-so-simple’ type products that can be cooked by just adding boiling water.  These beauties come in several flavours and can be made even better by adding fruit and nuts, choccy chips, yogurt coated peanuts and raisins or a handful of those oat crunch type cereals.

Mix in some dried milk powder at home and all you need to do is add hot water, mix and leave for a minute in your insulating sleeve.  Oats are great as they release their energy slowly over the morning and this stuff tastes yummy so it’s very palatable when you wake up groggy and grumpy.

It’s worth waking early enough to take a bit of time over breakfast so you aren’t rushing straight into a days exertion as soon as you finish – a sure fire way to lose all those precious calories half way up the first pitch!

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the oat feast I’ve just described is best suited to a tent, hut or snow hole breakfast.  If you’re bivvying on a long route you probably just want to get up and go.  In this case breakfast will be most likely to consist of a few energy bars and as much liquid as you can stomach.  If you heat up some water and add your energy source powder to it the night before you can sleep with it in your sleeping bag and it will be a reasonable temperature to drink in the morning.  A caffeinated energy gel at this time also works well if you can face it.  The beauty of this breakfast is that it can all be eaten from the warmth of your sleeping bag too!   

Lunch

What I carry for day food depends on what I’m doing but when I’m climbing or mountaineering I don’t usually stop for lunch.  Instead I ‘graze’ by eating a small amount at regular intervals.  For this approach there are lots of obvious options such as peanuts, dried fruits, flapjack and a host of other ‘mainstream’ items and they all do the job.  For my money malt loaf and snickers bars are hard to beat for energy content, palatability and value.  There are also some less obvious choices that are worth discussing in a bit more detail……. 

Purpose made ‘energy bars’ are now very widely available and despite being fairly expensive they are great for providing a gradual energy release well suited to mountain sports.  The best way to find ones which suit you is to try them out but I really like the chocolate covered High Five sports bars, SIS go bars and Harvest Power Bars.  When they first came out I also got hopelessly addicted to the original berry flavoured Power Bars but I got put off them after one winter’s day when I got one out of my rucksack and found it frozen solid.  Although a combination of sucking and licking gradually provided a few calories it was a long and hungry day!  The king of energy bars is undoubtedly the ‘Clif Bar’.  These puppies fuel you well and taste gorgeous but unfortunately they only seem to be available in the States at the moment.  Take a spare suitcase to bring some back on your next trip to Yosemite.  

Energy gels are also useful but I’ve never really got on with them.  Despite exotic names like tropical they all seem to just taste like a dodgy laboratory creation (that’s a polite description!) which makes eating them a real chore.  It is worth carrying a couple as an energy boost at the end of a long day and the ones with caffeine in can help give a mental boost to flagging concentration too.  

Finally, my friend Phill introduced me to carrying a little stock of sweets on long days out.  They are a great pick-me up and whenever I climb with him he always has some and invariably greets me with one as I flop exhaustedly onto the belay ledge.  The best option is something like boiled sweets because sucking them takes a while and gives you something to take your mind off the boredom of belay duty.  Having said that, those Lucozade Sport glucose tablets are a yummy alternative but they are so nice you’ll get through a packet in no time.

Evening Meal

After a long day you really want a tasty meal that you can look forward too.  It also needs to be easy to prepare and energy rich – bring on the humble noodle!  But this wouldn’t be a Ramsey worthy article without some serious menu meddling…..

First, all noodles are not created equally.  For me ‘Super Noodles’ are the perfect bivvy food because they will cook just by adding very hot water to them (doesn’t need to be boiling) and the portions are generous.  So, step one is to break some of these up into a ziplock bag.  

Next, add some good quality thick soup powder such as ‘Cup-a-Soup’ to the bag (minestrone and cream of vegetable are my favourites). Now you have a tasty sauce to go with your noodles that will work far better than the dodgy little flavour sachets that come with them.

After that you can add extras if you want.  Dried croutons are great.  Pine nuts have a lot of calories.  A couple of those little snack size cheeses or some pepperami can be carried separately to slice into the bag.  Even a few of those mini butter portions you get in cafes can be added to boost the fat content of your meal.  If you can carry it a chunk of bread goes really well with this meal and helps mop up the liquid at the bottom of the bag.

And of course preparation couldn’t be simpler.  All you need to do is add the hot water to the ziplock bag, leave in your insulating sleeve for a minute and you’re done.  I tend to add plenty of water to create a sort of noodly soup that’s very easy to eat and tastes great whilst also helping to rehydrate you. 

Oh yes. And peanut M&M’s for dessert – perfect.  

The beauty of this menu is you can vary the flavour and additions to the breakfast, alter the day food by changing the types of snack food and alter the evening meal by changing the soup and adding different things to it but it’s still all based around one choice for each course. 

So there we go.  I did promise one menu to rule them all.  It doesn’t get any simpler than that does it Gordon? Just send me that F*****G Michelin star!