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Van Life Cookbook: ‘How we ate while we traveled the UK’

Yos there anything more quaintly 2020 than traveling the UK by self-renovated van, foraging or thrifting your food wherever you end up, and cooking it together over an open fire (or, more accurately, a two-ring gas stove)? It’s the pipe dream of every full-timer in the City.

Well, chef Danny Jack and Hailee Kukura have done it, and they’ve also written a handy pocket-sized guide so you can too, filled with “resourceful recipes for life on the road”.

What started as looking for more meaningful ways to spend their free time in between busy careers has become a decade-long DIY project-slash-lifestyle change that finally came to fruition in the summer of 2020 – conveniently just when every other pandemic prisoner was turning their attention to the long-forgotten staycation.

Now staycations are trendy again, you’ll probably want to get your hands on the Van Life Cookbookin which Jack and Kukura have distilled their many travels around the country – and even the US – into more than 80 campervan-friendly recipes, as well as tips, tricks and kitchen hacks, and every possible list you will need.

Covering comforting breakfasts, quick-fix lunches and fireside feasts (think tahini porridge and Turkish one-pan eggs, winter green minestrone, BBQ fish parcels and homemade trail mix), VanLife is a celebration of the unexpected opportunities that modest spaces and smaller budgets can offer.

Ahead of the busy school holiday season, we catch five minutes with the van virtuosos about rediscovering the simple pleasures of life spent in the great outdoors.

How did the Van Life begin?

Danny: Having lived and worked in London since 2011, I began looking for more meaningful ways to spend my free time and became inspired by self-build campervan videos and people’s stories on Youtube. These offered up a new DIY challenge as well as an economical alternative to buying a purpose-built camper or RV.

The appeal of having a spontaneous city escape vehicle grew quickly and in early 2018 after purchasing a 2011 Renault Master, the van build commenced. What started out as a part-time project during evenings and weekends became a two-year on-and-off programme, fitting around work commitments and eventually getting it over the finish line in 2020.

The book is A5 sized so it’s the perfect companion for on the go

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The book is A5 sized so it’s the perfect companion for on the go


Hailee: The idea of Van Life Cookbook came about in the summer of 2020 when we both needed a creative project to get stuck into. Danny finished the build; I painted a mural inside and we named the van Jean-Claude Van Dan (JC for short). JC came into its own later that year and gave us an essential space to breathe a bit, escape to nature, and connect with friends and family when we could.

It was that summer when travel restrictions eased that really ignited our passion for exploring and adopting the principles of van life: eating well, having a deeper appreciation of nature, living simply and frugally, and celebrating “the good life” that led to the idea for the book.

The pandemic birthed a new, simpler way of living, with a focus on staycations and shopping local. Do you think that mindset is here to stay?

We certainly hope so. Van life and small space living is great for that. We’re seeing people from all walks of life becoming inspired to bake, grow their own veg, take up foraging, consume differently and generally wanting to feel more connected to the food they eat and the natural world. We particularly enjoy @_spicymoustache_ who does amazing things from his modest garden in London and @lagomchef who campaigns against food waste – another mindset that is thankfully gaining more traction.

What are some of your favorite spots or routes in the UK?

Ashdown Forest is a regular favourite. It’s close to where we live in southeast London and has beautiful views with a mix of expansive fields and woodland. Ideal for bike rides and picnics with friends.

Wiltshire is a hidden gem with its pagan sites and rolling hills (lots of wild swimming spots too).

And if you’ve got time, the North Coast 500 route in the highlands of Scotland is one of the best. The Right to Roam law, which gives everyone freedom to walk anywhere, is very special.

Let’s get practical. Can you share your top three tips, your top three essential ingredients, and your top three must-have pieces of equipment?

1. Danny taught me the importance of always putting a tea towel or damp paper under your chopping board. Makes a world of difference to prepping ingredients.

2. Download the Park4Nite app.

3. Invest in a small, hardy cafetiere or tea pot. It’s often much nicer than tea bags, you can make your own blends, and it reduces packaging and money in the long run.

Top three essential ingredients have to be:

1. Soy sauce for instant umami flavor across breakfast, lunch and dinner.

2. Citrus fruits for their versatility.

3. Date syrup for a rich, flavorful alternative to refined sugar.

Top three must have pieces of equipment:

1. A portable camp stove or BBQ is key – we’re always cooking outside of the van on long summer evenings. Check out JoyStoves on @joystoveuk.

2. A cast iron skillet. It will last a lifetime and make cooking on fire so much easier.

3. Tongs for barbecueing, mixing and serving all kinds of delicious creations.

Cooking with fire can be intimidating. What’s your best advice?

This is where the cast iron skillet comes in. Start with a dish that you are familiar with and don’t be afraid to put your pan right on a bed of hot embers (away from the flames) and cook as you normally would on a stove. If cooking on a grill over charcoal, let the coals turn ashy gray before placing anything on them – it takes longer than you think to get to this stage!

We’re seeing people from all walks of life becoming inspired to bake, grow their own veg, take up foraging, consume differently and generally wanting to feel more connected to the food they eat and the natural world

Can you share any horror stories/failures and what you learned from them?

Many lessons learned. A few years ago, we went on a surfing trip with some friends to Devon. We stayed in a beautiful campsite and parked JC at the bottom of a steep grassy field. We had some heavy rain over the weekend and got stuck at the bottom – we had to ask the resident farmer to tow us up the hill with his tractor. That taught us to be a bit more considered on where we park up, and not to go off-roading in our van (with rear wheel drive).

What’s the best way to find out about local ingredients and suppliers?

We pack essential store cupboard ingredients from home – things like rice, pasta and condiments but make it our mission to visit farm shops for our fresh ingredients. There’s always more around than you think; even if it’s just a tiny operation selling freshly laid eggs from a farm stand or potatoes straight from the field. From our experience, it’s not more expensive and the journey adds so much more joy to your weekend or holiday than having to spend time in a big supermarket.

How much do you rely on foraging and how could a beginner get started with that?

We never rely on foraging fully for our meals – finding wild ingredients is always a bonus and offers an interesting and flavorful dimension to all kinds of dishes. Always buy a guidebook and never an app. collins food for free book is pocket size and pretty comprehensive.

We always look forward to March when wild garlic starts to come up. Makes great pestos and soups. Rosehips in the Autumn are also brilliant for a beginner – we have a recipe in our book for making a vitamin C-packed cordial perfect for the winter months.

What’s your dream road trip, if you haven’t done it already?

Hailee: We’ve had a long-time dream of going on a road trip around Europe. The Portuguese coast and Scandinavia are top on our list and an epic 2023 adventure is calling.

Danny: Earlier this year in April, we visited Hailee’s family in the Pacific Northwest and rented a van for a week. We went around Washington State, Idaho and Oregon in just under a week. It would be wonderful to have a few more months and spend a bit longer exploring Utah, Colorado and the Southwest region.

Huevos ‘van’cheros: This was one of the first breakfasts Kukura made for Jack and he’s been in love ever since

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Huevos ‘van’cheros: This was one of the first breakfasts Kukura made for Jack and he’s been in love ever since

(Holly Farrier)

You’re cooking for a crowd during one of your trips. What are you making?

Our campsite breakfasts are a firm favourite. We cooked for 12 friends from our tiny van kitchen at Wilderness Festival a few years ago. A big one-pan omelette with lots of eggs, leftover veggies thrown in, some new potatoes and a dollop of chilli sauce on the side never fails.

What’s an easy dish you come back to again and again?

Our tofu scramble recipe in the book. It’s easier than it sounds – simply break up some tofu and fry with some ginger and turmeric. Serve with some left over brown rice and whatever fresh veggies need using up for a satisfying meal at any time of the day.

Danny, you have a background in kitchens. How easy was it to adapt to a simpler way of cooking?

I still work as a professional chef – being away in the van is leisure time so I’m not wanting to spend lots of time in the kitchen. The recipes we cook on the road are usually the fastest route to a tasty and nutritional meal but always made from scratch using the best ingredients we can get. It’s how we like to eat normally, and hopefully this “make do and mend” approach to cooking comes across in our recipes or for anyone with a modest kitchen looking to pick up a few tips and tricks.

What can’t you live without on one of your trips?

Hailee: Has to be our big tartan picnic blanket. We picked it up in a vintage shop in Edinburgh and it has been seen through many picnics, parties and BBQs in all kinds of places.

Danny: Our 12-volt fridge for keeping our food and drinks chilled and fresh even during the hottest summer days. And a set of sturdy reusable wine glasses.

‘Van Life Cookbook: Resourceful recipes for life on the road: from small spaces to the great outdoors’ by Danny Jack and Hailee Kukura (published by Pavilion Books; photography by Holly Farrier) is available now. follow the journey @the_vanlifecookbook.

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