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Sole Food

Image of the March 2021 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
March 2021 Issue

In the outdoors, ordinary flavours are elevated to the extraordinary, writes Matthew Cattin.

It’s funny; the most enjoyable meal of my life, and I don’t remember what was in it. Instant potato mash featured, I know that much, but I don’t recall the accompanying stodge… pasta perhaps? Or was it a packet soup?

I was camping with a friend at Abel Tasman’s Whariwharangi Bay. It was early autumn and we were nearing the end of a six week tour of the South Island. Home was calling, though we didn’t want to heed its call; we were already nostalgic for an adventure not yet complete. With tents pitched, we fed a fire to vanquish the post-swim chill from our bones. A meal was hydrated, and a small vessel of honey whiskey sailed from port to port.

Threatening dew circled, but our bubble of warmth held strong against the cold, expelling too the thoughts of the homeward journey ahead. We ate, we sipped, we yarned, and in that moment, we had everything we could ever need; heads full of memories, warm fire, hot food, good company. With nothing but the bare essentials, I don’t know if I have ever been so content.

Every tramper worth their socks will swear food never tastes better than it does in the middle of nowhere. Burnt porridge atop the Pinnacles?

Perfection. Flaky dehy in Fiordland? Fantastic. It’s certainly not that the food is better – in fact it’s often so gnarly we would pass it up if served at home. So what is it about tramping that makes us rave for months over a $4 pasta?

Roger Harker, principal scientist at Plant and Food Research, says the tramping experience likely makes a measurable difference to taste perception, rather than taste itself.

Whether it’s the landscape, presence of friends, the pride of making it to the hut, or the lack of home’s distractions, a tramper’s frame of mind gets those taste buds blooming.

“People often talk about the experience of going out on a tour of wineries and vineyards to taste wines with their friends,” Harker says. “And often they will find a wine they like, buy a few bottles, and try it again at home a month later but it won’t taste anything like what they remember.”

This same mental trickery is also at play when people swear their homegrown food tastes better than store bought – even though it may not.

“Scientists have done studies in laboratories where playing music people like has improved their liking of the food they’re tasting. If they’re playing music they don’t like, the ratings of food goes down,” he says.

Hunger also likely plays a role. “[Scientists] avoid meal times when trying to objectively assess people’s pleasure around food, as hunger can make people like things more,” Harker says.

The social aspect is another that can’t be ignored. Huts tend to be a social environment anyway, but no space sparks chatter like the camp kitchen.

While bunkrooms can carry expectations of quiet and privacy, the kitchen invites conversation and companionship, where ingredients and matches are shared, and leftovers are offered up to anybody in earshot. Meeting new trampers is as easy as asking ‘what’s cooking?’, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a conversation and a bite. I have a friend who is so social in hut kitchens he sets off smoke alarms because he forgets he’s got something cooking. Others join me on overnight tramps purely for the food and companionship – they couldn’t give a toss about the tramping or views.

Food, it seems, is an integral part of tramping culture; a cohesive bond we can all latch on to when we are miles from home, weary and living amongst strangers.

With that in mind, we welcome you to Wilderness’ first food issue. In the following pages you will find a smorgasbord of recipes, tips and skills – we hope it inspires you to eat more, chew more, live more.