Bannock in the Backyard

We thought we’d practice making the traditional wilderness trip staple – bannock, which is essentially unleavened bread cooked by an open fire. The variations in recipe are legion, but we kept it pretty simple. Simplicity is good and, as this was a decidedly impulsive midday activity begun while my youngest napped upstairs, it needed accomplishment with only the ingredients on hand. I’d found an American-made, 8-inch cast-iron skillet at the thrift store the previous day with intentions on use of this very nature. A hasty seasoning earlier that morning did the trick, cleaned, greased, and ready to go. We mixed about 2 cups of flour  (more was added later) with roughly 2.5 tablespoons of baking powder, a few shakes of salt, 1 cup of water, and a handful of raisins. Mixed, rolled, and patted into a ball. I quickly discovered the need to grease my hands and powder the table with flour or the dough will stick like hell. Knowing cooks refrain from grimacing – this was a freshman attempt.

While H putzed, I got the fire going and set all other accouterments, ingredients, and whatnot on the plicker table, fumbled with a tarp in anticipation of the rain, and then gave up as soon as the clouds parted and C woke from her nap. I’d had a two salmon steaks thawed and a couple handfuls of raw spinach thrown in a steel skillet with some water and olive oil. When the wood had burned down to coals, I propped the cast iron skillet with the doughball against a stick about a foot from the coal bed and watched as the hunk of bread mix slid down to the bottom of the pan. There’s no such thing as greased too well but this would never do. I’d already had a grate set aside, intended for the salmon and spinach, and set it straddling the stones in the fire ring with the skillet on top.

After five minutes I rotated the pan 180 degrees. After ten I flipped the bannock and looked with satisfaction at the crisp, cooked surface, brown and gold, steaming. The salmon steaks went straight on the grate and I shoved one more hunk of wood underneath for good measure. No flames but the coalbed was already cooling. The bannock came off after another ten, hard on the outside soft within, boiling hot but slid right off the pan without a trace. On went the spinach skillet, also on the grate. Both spinach and salmon finished at about the same time. All portioned out on plates for three, two-and-a-half more accurately. Coupled with some pine needle tea and all’s served for a lovely meal on summer’s afternoon.

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First Landing State Park hike & Spanish Moss Tinder Experiment

Despite its proximity to greater Virginia Beach civilization (Shore Drive is the nerve center of summer revelry during tourist beach season), the park has the feel of someplace far more remote. Composed mostly of rolling trails, swamp, and gum, pine, magnolia, and cypress trees, dirt and gravel single track, First Landing offers a generous helping of outdoor relief smack in the middle of one of Virginia’s most populated areas.

With the kids and dogs in tow, and equipped with little more than a daypack, a baby carrier, and snack lunch, we set out on what was a little less than two hours in the woods – time well spent pointing out red-bellied woodpeckers, identifying trees, and making polite conversation with the many others out for similar ends and similar means.

Later that afternoon, at home (no starting fires in within the confines of the park), H and I set about attempting to summon a few qualifying flames from the handful of Spanish moss I’d stuffed in my pocket. The conditions outside, even within the relative safety of our backyard, were poor. We were on the verge of a rainstorm and the wind was already gusting enough to blow some of the tinder and kindling materials out of the fire pit. Strike One.

The moss itself was still green; it felt dry to the touch, though the color hinted that it still retained a fair bit of moisture (for what it’s worth, I never found anything but green moss, even the stuff that had already fallen off of the trees). So I suppose that’s Strike Two.

Upon close inspection, I had estimated that the fiber distribution wouldn’t be dense enough for a given “volume” of moss (as opposed to a bundle of dry grass) to light easily, so in the end I surmised it would likely come down to how dry it was and how long it could retain a flame. Of course, these are the two primary jobs of the humble tinder: turn a spark into a flame and hold that flame long enough to light your kindling.

Known (and from my limited experience) good tinder materials:
– birch bark
– dry grass
– fine wood shavings

First things first, I tried to light the Spanish moss bundle with the ferro rod, resulting in short-lived embers or single flames, but nothing that would catch for any longer than a second or two. After about five minutes, I moved on to the regular lighter. Still no go. I couldn’t get it to light even when subjected to direct flame. So, for the sake of comparison, I whipped up a few quick feather stick shavings which lit up almost right away.

Long story short, Spanish moss would not be my first choice in tinder material while out in this type of environment, at least not until I improve my ability to locate drier, more suitable fiber or perhaps better construct my tinder bundle. As always, practice and/or experience may simply be what is lacking. I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there has had more success.