Freshly baked sweet chestnut bread

It’ll come as no surprise to those that know me, that baking bread is something I love to do. Whilst you can certainly bake a good loaf in your oven at home, baking your bread over a campfire is something really special. For me, it’s the process that brings such joy: The gathering of firewood and kindling, and the lighting of the fire, that brings the expectation of the bread to be eaten.

Foraged sweet chestnuts

Sweet chestnuts pan roasting

Sweet chestnuts pan roasting

With such a hoard of sweet chestnuts, and some nice big ones to boot, I needed to do something with these lovely, sweet and tasty nuts. Ah ha I thought, how about a sweet chestnut loaf! The best ideas come when sitting by a campfire – that’s for sure!

The first task was to roast those chestnuts – you need to make a small cut into the shell to avoid them exploding. Yes, they really do explode! When roasting some recently, one escaped being slit and exploded with an almighty bang. Because, it’s a little late for foraging chestnuts, I wanted to ensure they were all good to eat and no dodgy ones would spoil the bake. So, I halved all the chestnuts and chucked out any that didn’t past muster.

The roasting was done in a small cast-iron pot, it has a lid, which was used. A little olive oil was poured into the warmed pot, the nuts added and stirred to coat them in the oil. Then a little hot water from the kettle was poured in and the pot sealed with the lid. I roasted them for about 20 minutes and then, well, I just had to taste a few!

Bread making and baking…

Sweet chestnut bread - baking in Petromax Dutchoven

Sweet chestnut bread – baking in Petromax Dutch oven

I warmed some water for the yeast and mixed up a classic-loaf with strong bread flour, a little salt and that yeast once it had frothed nicely. I used a spoonful of sugar and a pinch of flour to feed the yeast. With the dough well mixed, those sweet chestnuts were added and rolled in with a glug or two of olive oil.

The well-kneaded dough was put in the warmed Dutch oven to prove. I tend to keep it suspended above the campfire, at a height that means it will keep warm but not start to bake. 30 minutes later – I check, it’s risen nicely, I knock it back and we go again. After the second prove it’s time to bake – the oven used is a Petromax. The oven is lowered and embers put on the top to bake the bread. Dutch ovens have a rim around the lid to stop the embers falling off!

Sweet chestnut bread part-baked

Sweet chestnut bread part-baked

On the first check, the loaf was pale and under baked. It had been baking for 25 minutes, which with a hot oven would be fine, but today the weather was very cold, so back in it went. This time the oven was placed directly on the embers and the ember-glowing log-ends placed on top. Care is needed doing this, because with the intensity of the heat there is a possibility of over-baking and burning the bread.

Sweet chestnut bread - finishing the bake

Sweet chestnut bread – finishing the bake

The reveal was 20 minutes later, with a nicely browned loaf. Tapping the bottom provided a reassuring hollowness and confirmation that the sweet chestnut loaf was baked and ready to eat!

David’s top tip for baking with a Dutch oven

Dutch ovens are fab for campfire cooking. The cast iron dissipates the heat throughout the pan, but there is still a possibility of the bottom getting to hot and burning the contents. For baking, place the dough in a separate pan inside the Dutch oven, supporting it on a few green sticks or stones. This will raise the dough up from the bottom of the oven, allowing hot air to circulate (as it would in a conventional oven), and provide a more even bake without burning its bottom!

Sweet chestnut bread - the freshly baked loaf

Sweet chestnut bread – the freshly baked loaf

During the winter months baking will most likely take a little longer due to the colder weather – but don’t let that stop you, your fresh bread will still taste great – Happy Baking!

Oh yes, the folks I shared that sweet chestnut loaf with, thought it tasted rather good. Join me on a Campfire Bread Baking course and have fun baking and eating a variety of tasty breads.

Find out more and book Campfire Bread Baking

Whittling with one hand

Have you ever injured your dominant hand badly enough that you had to learn how to use your other hand? I have been unfortunate enough to do this not once but twice, although the second was a shoulder injury, it still meant I couldn’t use my dominant hand. Seeking the positive, there was a benefit to me, in that I am now able to demonstrate carving techniques using either my left or dominant right hand. Being ambidextrous also helps those who are left-handed, because I can show them how to carve the way they would prefer, which means they don’t have to transpose the movements.

If you haven’t had such bad luck, well that’s great news and I hope it stays that way. But ponder for a moment how you would whittle a stick if you could only use one hand. There are many people in this position and not wanting to exclude anyone from my courses, I recently helped someone enjoy a day of Bushcraft who had initially rejected the idea because of his life-long injury.

One-handed whittling using the aid / board that holds the wood firmly

One-handed whittling using the aid / board that holds the wood firmly

So how do you carve a stick or whittle a spoon if you can’t hold it with one hand while carving with the other? Clearly you need something to hold it firmly, but in such a way that it is easy to adjust the piece of wood. I had a chat with my friend Jon Mac at Spoon Carving First Steps and he suggested a wooden board with a couple of holes drilled and a piece of rope passed through (see pictures). The idea is to clamp the piece of wood / stick in place with the rope by holding the rope tight using your foot. He had heard of this idea but not seen it in action – so it was time to try it out!

Making the board – cut a piece of wooden plank, long enough to be slightly taller that the height of your knee from the ground when sitting (my example was 600mm and 150mm wide). Drill a couple of holes to pass a rope through – tie the ends together and dangle them over the top, so it hangs down.

Using the board – lean the wooden board against your leg and put the heal of your foot (other leg) through the loop that dangles down. Place the stick under the loop and then apply pressure with your foot to hold it in place. To adjust the position of the stick, reduce the pressure and more the wood, then reapply pressure!

One-handed whittling aid - holds wood firmly whilst carving

One-handed whittling aid – holds wood firmly whilst carving

It took a few goes to be comfortable with it, trying out different positions to see which worked best. But as you can see, I whittled a piece of hazel stick successfully. Happy with the aid to one-handed whittling, it was now just a matter of seeing how my budding student got on with this aid. Well the great news is that it worked a treat. He tried different ways of using it and quickly found a position which meant he could whittle sticks successfully and carve one quicker than other attendees who had both hands available to them. This is what he had to say afterwards:

I was quite gobsmacked as to the best of my recollection no one has ever made such a concerted effort to adapt to my needs before, and to support my inclusion

Thank you to Jon Mac at Spoon Carving First Steps (please do take a look at his website to see his beautiful photography and wonderfully carved spoons and kuksa / wooden cups!

Enrichment for Princess Risborough School

David has been providing Bushcraft enrichment at Princess Risborough School – once per week all students have an enrichment session. These sessions provide an opportunity for students to broaden their knowledge, acquire new skills and above all, have fun learning something new. As part of this programme, David was invited to provide Bushcraft sessions for year 5 (rising 12 years).

For our first week, we started with fire lighting skills, covering a few different methods and lighting a fire on the school playing field (we all found that fun!). Students practised leave-no-trace, which meant there was no evidence left of our campfire, just as well given where it was! The following week saw us erecting shelters and building on previous skills: lighting a storm-kettle to boil water.

Lunchtime whittling at Princess Risborough School - Bushcraft enrichment

Lunchtime whittling at Princess Risborough School – Bushcraft enrichment

Each week we spend an hour learning something new whilst building up a little more experience with previous skills – this week students were learning to safely use knives and were practising by whittling hazel sticks. It was good to see their care and attention to the task.

Watchful eye as students practice carving - Bushcraft enrichment

Keeping a watchful eye as students practice carving – Bushcraft enrichment

We have adopted a corner of the school sports field for our Bushcraft activities. It has the advantage of providing shelter from the wind if it gets a little blowy and yet receives the lunchtime sunshine too. Looking back at these pictures, it’s nice to see other students playing rugby while we whittle hazel sticks!

Happy carving a pointy stick - Bushcraft enrichment

Happy carving a pointy stick – Bushcraft enrichment

It’s always a pleasure teaching the students at Princess Risborough School – great to see their smiles too as they achieve new things each week. Oh, and what happens in the winter months you may well ask, we will be wearing coats and dressing up warm – just like those playing outdoor sports we will be outside enjoying nature.

Proud of their achievment - Bushcraft enrichment

Proud of their achievements, lots of wood shavings everywhere and some pointy hazel sticks on show – Bushcraft enrichment

Interested in Bushcraft enrichment for your school? Contact David for details!

Home Education Group

Following on from our fun sessions throughout the summer holidays, David has been running more Environmental Learning and Bushcraft sessions at Shortenills Environmental Centre in Chalfont St Giles. The morning sessions are with children aged up to 7 years and those in the afternoon for age 7 and above. They have proved to be very popular, with sessions regularly fully booked.

Making natures dream-catchers with home-education group

Making natures dream-catchers with home-education group

In this weeks session, the younger children made dream-catchers, with a little help from their parents who are actively involved throughout. We gathered pieces of green-hazel and bent them into hoops and then created a web of jute string and wool – the n fun began with weaving in things found in the woods: leaves, feathers, pieces of bark and more. It was lovely to seem them turning in the breeze.

We finished off with cups of nettle tea, with the kettle boiling over the campfire and nettles foraged from the edge of the woodland.

The older group were introduced to the safe use of knives. Each child was shown how to whittle a tent peg, with the younger ones receiving one-to-one instruction and supervision to ensure they had fun and successfully made their tent peg! More nettle tea followed!

Making fat lamps with home-education group

Making fat lamps with home-education group

Other weeks activities included making fat candles. We used a variety of fats, pork lard, beef dripping and vegetable. The children found interesting pieces of wood with shallow holes or crevices in which to place their candles. Then we filled them with fat and each child lit a match to light their candle.

Bread baking with home-educator group

Bread baking with home-educator group

And yes, we baked bread too. The children made the dough using string bread flour, milk powder and baking powder. With a little help, they wound the dough around the sticks and cooked them over the campfire.

David is looking forward to running more Environmental Learning and Bushcraft sessions – if you’d like to know more the by all means do get in contact – thanks!

Take a walk on the wildside

Great to be featured in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life Magazines in an article written by Venetia Hawkes. Venetia spent a day with me researching this article for the magazine, finding out what it’s really like to live outdoors in the wild woods. Sitting around the campfire, we spoke about how I got started and where I learnt to be a woodsman. We whittled spoons and baked bread while talking about foraging, campfires and living in the woods, a lovely day, thank you Venetia!

Berkshire Life and Buckinghamshire Life Magazine – Venetia Hawkes cooking wild garlic bannock bread

Berkshire Life and Buckinghamshire Life Magazine – Venetia Hawkes cooking wild garlic bannock bread

Escape the phones and tablets and discover the secrets of dining in the real outdoors – Venetia Hawkes did just that in Buckinghamshire woodland.

“That’s Jelly Ear”, David Willis points out a slimily unappetising looking fungus. “You can pickle it and eat it, but I wouldn’t bother,” he adds. There’s definitely no eating of bugs either. Delicate herb breads, nettle risottos, elderflower fritters – tasting like a cross between a summer hedgerow and a 1950s fairground, are the wild foods Willis favours. On his Bushcraft courses you can learn to light a fire, carve a spoon, build a shelter, cook over a camp-fire and enjoy a delicious taste of the wild.

Read the full story here at Berkshire and Buckinghamshire Life Magazines.