Bike. Camp. Cook.
The Hungry Cycle Tourist’s Guide to Slowing Down, Eating Well,
and Savoring Life on the Open Road
‘Buna!’ my partner Tyler shouted cheerily in Romanian, greeting a pair of fellow bike tourists who were cycling toward us. As the four of us came to a halt on the riverside road we’d been pedalling, we smiled and began chatting in a motley mixture of French and English.
And that’s how we met David and Oussman, the French cyclists. We spent some time talking about our routes, and how we all found ourselves cycling on this one winding Romanian road on this grey day, sandwiched between a craggy green mountain and the Blue Danube.
After joking about a massive headwind we’d been battling (which was a fabulous tailwind for them) I steered the conversation towards my favourite topic: food. ‘How have you been enjoying the local cuisine?’ I asked. ‘Found anything good at the grocery stores? Do you make it past the steely-eyed glares of the shopkeepers? What have you been cooking?’
They smiled a bit sheepishly, then pulled out a bedraggled loaf of bread in a plastic bag, half smashed from being shoved in a pannier. ‘We eat bread,’ David said. My eyes grew wide and I balked. ‘Just bread?’ I asked. They nodded. No butter, no jam, no peanut butter, no soup to dunk it in. Bread alone.
As a food-adoring traveller – and one who loves to cook more than almost anything else in the world – I had trouble imagining the Spartan existence of our fellow cyclists. I simply couldn’t fathom choosing to live on bread alone unless I had to. And yet, these men weren’t opting for their smashed, stale loaves because they couldn’t afford to jazz up their menu. Instead, they seemed to be living on bread because they were unaware of other options.
Two years prior to meeting David and Oussman in Romania, Tyler and I were living fairly regular lives, when he asked me if I wanted to sell everything and bike around Africa with him. I offered up a tentative yes, and we began saving and planning. Our route shifted and changed as time went on, and eventually became a two-year adventure that began in Glasgow, Scotland, and ended in Southeast Asia.
Though I’d said yes to the adventure, I really didn’t have many practical skills to offer our bicycling duo. I wasn’t a cyclist, and I had only been camping a handful of times in my entire life. I’d never set up a tent, blown up a sleeping mat, made a fire, or biked more than a few miles at a stretch. What I did have going for me, however, was my adaptability, hardiness, and enthusiasm – and, of course, the many years I’d spent pottering in the kitchen and working in bakeries.
Cycling, I discovered early on in our journey, paired well with food. Throughout our trip, I filled our ravenous bellies with decadent feasts prepared on my one-burner stove: I made soups galore, from potato leek stew, to brothy chicken soup with homemade dumplings, to hearty chili con carne. I whipped up broccoli stir-fries and orange chicken and apple crumble. There were satisfyingly spicy peanut noodles, and some delicious pasta with an array of camp-made sauces. Our favourite breakfast was one of buttery crepes, served with jam or honey.
As we travelled and met other touring cyclists like David and Oussman, I eventually learned that what I assumed were common practices – cooking real meals every night, scouring markets for local culinary treasures, and adding to my spice collection as we travelled – weren’t as common as I’d thought. In fact, during our two years on the road, most of the cycle tourists we met didn’t cook very much. I met some folks who subsisted on mushy bananas and peanut butter, while others lived on ramen packets, or freeze-dried meals in a bag. The adventurous ones cooked bland pasta, night after night.
Meanwhile, the people we met raved about my food, and found themselves inspired to cook a bit more. Others claimed we ate better on the road than they did at home. And through it all, I found that I loved sharing my love of camp cooking with the other travellers we met.
When Tyler and I returned home, I remembered those two cyclists in Romania, and all of the others we’d encountered, and began writing a cookbook documenting everything I’d learned about cooking on the road. Bike. Camp. Cook: The Hungry Cycle Tourist’s Guide to Slowing Down, Eating Well, and Savoring Life on the Open Road is the result of my efforts. I filled it with photographs and stories, loads of practical advice, and fifty well-tested recipes. My goal was to help anyone, even those with no experience in the kitchen, gain all the skills they need to become competent and confident camp cooks.
Here’s a recipe from my cookbook that I first made in Romania, shortly after meeting my favourite pair of bread-eating cyclists. Tyler and I were free-camped in an open field, under a massive oak whose branches stretched almost as wide as the tree was high. While Tyler set up camp and then nimbly ascended the great oak for a view from the top, I spread out my cooking gear and began making a sort of pan-fried focaccia from scratch.
I suppose one could argue that this focaccia, too, is ‘just’ bread. But oh, with its crisp edges and blistered pockets, the herby spice of its rosemary leaves and chili flakes, and its chewy warmth, fresh from the stove … there is nothing ‘just’ about it.
8 tablespoons (1⁄2 cup) flour
1⁄4 teaspoon salt, for the dough
about 4 tablespoons (1⁄4 cup) water
1⁄2 teaspoon garlic granules
1⁄2 teaspoon rosemary leaves
1⁄2 teaspoon chili flakes
1⁄4 teaspoon salt, for the topping
1 tablespoon olive oil, for the topping
4 teaspoons oil, for frying
Rosemary Flatbread with Garlic and Chili Flakes
I love tearing into one of these hot, greasy, deliciously spiced flatbreads when I’m tired and ravenous. As is the case with all of my favourite road-friendly recipes, this one is fairly basic, and requires very few ingredients besides the pantry items already lurking in your panniers. Bear in mind: to make this recipe in the easiest possible way, you’ll need two flat “countertops” – a large plate and a cutting board work nicely. You’ll also need non-stick cookware, including a pot and a frying pan.
First, make the dough: into a large non-stick cooking pot, measure the flour and 1⁄4 teaspoon salt, and mix it up with your wooden spoon. Then, add water and stir until you’re able to combine everything into a rough-looking dough. With floured fingers, squish the ball of dough in your hands, turning and squashing until it becomes smoother, and of a more uniform consistency. The dough should not be overly sticky, so be sure to add a bit more flour if it is.
Tear the lightly-kneaded dough into two equal chunks. Take the first piece and place it on your large cutting board. Flatten it with your fingers, then take a can of beans (or a bottle of olive oil, or whatever you can find) to it, rolling until the dough is thin, and just smaller than the size of your frying pan.
Next, roll out your second flatbread in the same manner as the first, this time using your large plate as a “countertop.” When you’re done rolling out both pieces of dough, tidy up a bit and set up your cookset.
Now, make the herb topping. Measure the garlic granules, rosemary leaves, chili flakes, and 1⁄4 teaspoon salt into a small cup. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, mix it up, and set it aside.
Prime and light your stove. Add two teaspoons of oil to your non-stick frying pan, and hold it over the flame to heat. When hot, add your first flattened dough piece. Cook it, moving the pan around so that your roughly 8″ flatbread can cook evenly on your small burner. When the flatbread puckers with brown splotches on the underside, flip it over, and cook it on the other side until it, too, is blistered and blackened in spots. Transfer the flatbread back to its plate or cutting board and spread on half of the spice mixture.
Add another two teaspoons of oil to the frying pan, and proceed with your second flatbread as you did the first. When both sides are splotchy, blistered, and delicious-looking, remove it from the heat and spread on the remaining herbed topping. Devour it while it’s still hot.
Tara Alan is the author of Bike. Camp. Cook: The Hungry Cycle Tourist’s Guide to Slowing Down, Eating Well, and Savoring Life on the Open Road. Her cookbook is available for purchase at bikecampcook.com.
Tara and her husband Tyler live in a tiny hand-built cottage in the Green Mountain National Forest of Vermont. There, they document their homesteading and travel adventures on their award-winning website, goingslowly.com.