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Packing, shopping and cooking on a canal boat holiday

Packing, shopping and cooking on a canal boat holiday

by Nancy Anne Harbord Friday, July 24, 2015

Canal boat holidays are a wonderful way to while away the summer days. Although space is at a premium, they typically come well equipped, so all that really limits your meal choices is patience and imagination. Discover more about canal boat dining – what to bring, what to cook and what other tasty treats you’re likely to come across as you drift along.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

There are very few activities more relaxing than a canal boat holiday. As long as the weather is on your side, you have wonderfully long days of gliding gently through the shallow water to look forward to. Speed just isn’t an option. Noise gives way to peace. Haste gives way to relaxation. Productivity gives way to negotiating locks.

During a recent canal holiday – taking in the hottest July day ever recorded – I had long, leisurely days to reflect on the appeal of this old fashioned method of transport. And to consider how best to enjoy cooking and eating in this compact environment. There are great pubs and eateries dotted along the waterways offering a lazy pub lunch overlooking the water or a more gastronomic spread in the evening, but to get the best out of British pub dining it pays to be selective.

I am happy to make the extra effort to fill in the gaps. Cooking can be meditative, creative, nourishing and joyful when time and enthusiasm are on your side. And you’ll definitely have time on your hands on a canal boat holiday. The boat I was on, as with most narrowboats, had a full gas oven. Space and equipment were limited, but with four hob rings, a grill and an oven, I knew there was no excuse for sandwiches.

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The canal near Roydon in Essex
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The view from the canal

What to bring

I am yet to find excellent bread on the canal. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist – there are more than 2000 miles of waterways in Britain – I just haven’t found any yet. So I always bring my own.

A few high quality spices or other seasonings won’t go amiss – just pick one or two of your favourites. For me that was black peppercorns and wild oregano, but anything that will enliven some sautéed vegetables or a quick plate of eggs will be well received.

I opted to use readily available butter for all my cooking needs on the holiday and was reminded just what a transcendental experience that can be. But if you have other requirements, it’s probably better to bring those ingredients with you. I haven’t seen much cold-pressed olive oil for sale on my travels.

If you’re fussy about your cheese, you might like to consider bringing along some of that too. I like to eat unpasteurised cheese wherever possible, but the canal isn’t great for something so niche.

Lastly, any equipment that is out of the ordinary – cake tins made it onto my packing list, for example. We had a birthday to celebrate and I had a Victoria sponge with fresh cream and strawberries planned. The cake was a huge success and I was reminded that such things were possible with only the most basic of cooking equipment. We also made friends for life with that night’s neighbouring boat-dwellers – it’s not often that homemade cake gets passed over the stern.

Where to shop

Discovering delicious food along the towpath is one of my favourite things about canal boat living. There are farms, shops and produce stores all along Britain’s waterways and stumbling across an unexpected treat is a daily joy. A bottle of local cider here, a chocolate ice cream there. Who knows what will be around the next bend?

 
 
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The greenhouse at Brick Lock Island
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The garden at Brick Lock Island

So imagine my delight when Brick Lock Island (near Roydon in Essex) loomed into view, an utterly charming smallholding run by Helen and Mark Reynolds, complete with one of the most beautiful greenhouses I have ever seen. With a golden field of wheat swaying in the background and a lush garden full of life and colour, the vista was stunning. To top it all off, the sun was setting, bathing everything in its photogenic glow.

 
 
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List of items for sale at Brick Lock Island
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The garden at Brick Lock Island

They produce all manner of edibles at Brick Lock Island – heritage aubergines, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, chillies, sweet peppers, many different types of herbs, and eggs from their own hens. Getting gorgeously fresh British produce can be a struggle, even in the height of summer, so this was a find – on or off the towpath. Meals for the next few days suddenly took on a different hue. A better, fresher, healthier hue. We bought everything they had available that day – tiny yellow courgettes, just-laid eggs and all kinds of lush herbs.

 
 
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Goldena courgettes
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Fresh basil leaves

Breakfast blossomed into softly scrambled eggs perfumed with huge leaves of fresh basil. Dinner became a simple pasta dish with those tender, young courgettes and fresh parsley stealing the show. Drinks turned into cocktails, with the fresh mint rendering juleps and mojitos a welcome reality.

It’s important to bring supplies with you on canal boat holidays, but don’t go overboard – literally and metaphorically. You never know what you’re going to find.

What to cook

The greatest joy of canal boating is the time spent out on deck, watching the world drift by. So bear this in mind when deciding how long you want to spend in the kitchen. While dashing back into the kitchen to check on a complicated dish in an unfamiliar oven, I missed a tern performing astounding bird acrobatics over the heads of my boat-mates. You have been warned.

 
 

Cooking fish or vegetables en papillote is a great idea on a canal boat. It’s quick, all the equipment you need is a little foil or baking paper, you can vary the seasonings to what you have on hand and there is no clean up. This Salmon en papillote is a good place to start.

Eggs are great for quick, satisfying meals – breakfast, lunch or dinner. Try this Grilled asparagus with soft poached egg, balsamic and Parmesan or this Spring vegetable, soft cheese and mint frittata – both are adaptable to whatever vegetables are in season.

 
 

Vegetable gratins are also a good bet – they require minimal preparation and be popped in an oven and forgotten about. This Tomato, courgette and aubergine gratin is a good summer option. Similarly, this Tomato and red pepper soup will show fresh produce to its best advantage and requires minimal kitchen activity.

Salads are an obvious choice – you don’t need to turn on the oven at all, and if the ingredients are high quality, the flavour will be there. This Buffalo mozzarella salad with peas, broad beans, mint and lemon is a light, fresh choice or for a heartier option, this Salad Niçoise with tuna and boiled eggs.

 
 
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The view from the canal
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The garden at Brick Lock Island

Food for free!

Lastly, consider the food that comes for free in the canal. These leafy areas, away from polluted roads, are fertile ground for nature’s bounty. Elderflowers, and later in the year their tiny tart berries, litter the towpath. Opportunities abound to gather tree fruit such as apples and pears, as well as all kinds of different berries – blackberries, hawthorn berries, sloe berries, to name but a few. This Summer berry Eton mess offers an easy way to enjoy your finds with limited space and equipment.

 
 

Greens like dandelion, wild garlic, chickweed and nettles, even sticky weed, can be put to good use. This Feta and dandelion tart is simple to put together, and if your narrowboat has the requisite 240v power for an immersion blender (not all do), you can throw together this Wild garlic pesto and turn a casual supper into a feast. Sweet chestnuts are also frequently available – try them in this one-pot Chestnut and pancetta risotto.

Should you find yourself on the Hertford Union Canal as it passes through Hackney Wick in London, look out for the twenty-metre long ‘edible wall’ that’s been created on the towpath. There are strawberries, lettuces, herbs and other edibles for passers-by to pick. The hope is to work with schools and community groups in other areas to create similar resources, so your luck could be in on other waterways too.

 
 
 

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