Camp Oven Treats from Cook Out Back

From the 2009 Blinman Hotel Camp Oven Cook Off
Written by Tarla Kramer

Recipes accompanying this story:
Succulent Sacrificial Lamb With Sweet Nut Pilaf
Killer Kitchener Buns
Shepherds Pies with Sour Cream Pastry

Every October long weekend over 500 people converge onto Blinman, a tiny Flinders Ranges town with a permanent population of about 20. A tent city pops up around Blinman’s outskirts and it’s all thanks to Cook Out Back, the Blinman Hotel Camp Oven Cook Off.

It all started in 2003 with an idea of George Aldridge, an artist friend of Blinman Hotel Proprietors Antonio and Maureen Cutri, who agreed to sponsor the event.

“George Aldridge is a great friend of ours and we all sat talking about how people were very passionate about their camp oven cooking, all the campers that call through,” says Maureen. “Everybody’s got a recipe, everybody’s always swapping recipes and things, so we thought what a great idea to have a competition and it went from there.”

Blinman Cook out back festival 2004

The main street during the Blinman Cook out back festival 2004. Photo: Maelgwn/Wikipedia

The first one in 2003 was a great success and they’ve had it every year since. Once they’d started, they soon discovered that there were camp oven cooking competitions all over the place; it was a nationwide thing with several competitions held in Queensland and New South Wales. “It’s the usual thing, you don’t see pregnant women until you’re pregnant yourself, do you? Then they’re everywhere.”

The 2003 cook off attracted 50 entries and 200 people. “We found 50 was a little bit too many for the judges and a little bit crowded. It was great, but we find 30-35 entrants makes a lovely easy day and people can spread out a little bit,” says Maureen. The contestants come from all over, from as far as Queensland and New South Wales, but many come from Port Augusta, Whyalla and also Adelaide. There are also competitions for the spectators, such as damper throwing and swag rolling, to keep the visitors interested and there are stalls with wine tasting in the street, and of course food.

Cooking Site

Cooking Site. Photo: Tarla Kramer

The camp oven cooking happens on the empty block next to the hotel, which has been specially terraced for that purpose, and each team of up to five people brings their own camp ovens. The competition has two sections: “meat”, which takes place on the Saturday and “flour”, which takes place on Sunday. The organisers provide a leg of lamb with spuds, onion and carrot for the meat section and a given weight of flour for flour; and also the hot coals. It’s up to competitors to bring their own herbs and spices and other ’accoutrements’, and also some kind of shade.

Head Judge Franz Sheurer

Head Judge Franz Sheurer

Head judge is restaurant reviewer Franz Scheurer, who has driven from Sydney every year since 2004 when he entered the competition.

“First we look for presentation; we check if it reflects what it’s meant to be,” says Franz. “If a damper looks like a lamb stew something’s gone wrong. Next we look for taste. It’s got to taste right, it’s got to taste seasoned, there’s got to be enough salt in it, enough fat in it, it’s got to be something you want to eat. If it’s something you don’t want to eat or if the dog runs away, you probably don’t want to eat it.

“If you’re using the meat on the bone, don’t overcook it. It’s important that you undercook it, if anything and then rest it so there’s not blood coming out of it when it’s cut. I think it’s important that you rest it. The old Chinese proverb – the closer the bone the sweeter the meat – that’s quite correct.

“If you take the meat off and cut it, leave some of the fat on, use it for cooking, you can still cut it off to serve, but you want that flavour increase with the fat.”

When it comes to flour, Franz says it’s very important to get the temperature right in the camp oven and that you do not burn any part of it. “If you burn, for instance, the bottom of the damper or whatever, scraping it off with a knife may make it look better but it won’t help the taste. The burnt taste, the bitterness, has already gone through the whole cake and the whole damper and it just doesn’t work. You’ve got to get the bottom heat right and the top heat right, and one other tip I would say is that generally, a bad bread using yeast is better than a bad damper not using yeast.”

Another judge at Cook Out Back 2009 is Adelaide artist Loene Furler, a former entrant who has come pretty close to winning. She has been a frequent visitor to the region for over 50 years and when she is not cooking in camp ovens, she is painting the ranges. She entered Cook Out Back because “it sounded like great fun and I wanted the challenge and I liked being out-back. I like food, the scenery, the beauty of the place and doing lots of fun things. It’s a fabulous thing to be doing.”

“It’s much harder to produce the same effect especially if you haven’t done lots and lots of camp oven cooking but it’s challenging and it’s great to try and figure out how close, when I’ve done it, it is from the smell and just the sound of it when it’s cooking. Hopefully it’s not underdone and not overdone, and that’s the challenge if you’re not really a top cook in the camp oven.”

This year there are 31 entries, many of them small teams of people and some have dressed up for the fun of it, including a group who have gone Bollywood and are all in saris, while another group has a guy dressed as an ‘Iron Chef’. The newcomers always stand out as they will be the only teams without a shelter. I need help to find some local cooks who have also done quite well in this competition and Judge Franz Scheurer leads me to a tent where I am introduced to two unassuming women from Leigh Creek, Nicole Pilmore and Alison Bowditch.

Nicole Pilmore has entered Cook Out Back with her husband Dale nearly every year since it began. “The first year Cheong Liew was one of the judges and he is such a food guru it was a buzz that he even tasted something I’d made, although I’m not sure the feeling was mutual!” But that year she and Dale won the flour section with their sourdough bread.

“I guess when you live outback it’s the closest thing to a gourmet culinary event you’re going to get,” Nicole says, explaining why she started attending. “It has always been an utterly enjoyable event to attend and the Blinman community does a fantastic job raising money for the Flying Doctors; it just gets better and better.”

“I like to go around and have a bit of a nosey at what everyone is cooking and may get a bit of a taste test. People are always enjoying themselves and happy to chat.” The food itself is taken very seriously, of course, and there is a bit of tension when it comes to delivering the final plate to the judges. “It is astounding what people can pull out of a camp oven and everyone has their own special tricks in the art of camp oven cooking. What I like to do is glean all this info and take the bits I think might help. “

In 2008 they won the overall prize. It was a very close competition and while they didn’t win the flour or the meat, they came out best in overall points. “Having teenage headbangers that we drag along to these events we thought it was appropriate to go with a “Cast Iron Maiden” theme.”

“We try not to be too competitive but you can’t help it, you just want to make something superbly yummy and I really like the flour much better than the meat, because I love baking. I have definitely come to the conclusion that ‘If you can cook it in a normal oven at home – there is no reason on earth that you can’t cook it in a camp oven. Sometimes even better!’”

In 2009 Nicole is not competing, but has still come back to help out as dishwasher and the fire person for the kids site. Her friend Alison Bowditch, however, is busy cooking individual pies. “I’m making shepherds pie encased in a homemade sour cream pastry and this is my second year.” It is the only competition she enters, as with Nicole, “although I am actually moving from Leigh Creek to Burra and maybe if you were a bit nearer a show … would you go in a show?,” she asks Nicole, who does not think so.

As is turns out, Alison’s Shepherds Pie wins the meat section and the next day she is named overall winner for 2009. “I was very pleased and overwhelmed at winning the cook off. I made Bagels for my flour section and served it traditionally with smoked salmon (Tasmanian of course) with cream cheese.”

“I think what set me apart and probably the same goes for Nicole, is that we ‘stepped outside the square’ so to speak when choosing a recipe, cooking something a bit challenging. The feedback that I got back from the judges was that I had done the cooking and preparations by myself whilst the other participants were in groups of four or five.” Perhaps there is some truth in that saying about too many cooks!

“I suppose my tip for camp oven cooking is to practise cooking with a camp oven to get used to the different temperatures and conditions. Once you have cooked a few times you should be fairly confident at having a go at anything. Don’t be too scared to ask for help from people who are regulars at camp oven cooking; they may even have some useful tips that even I ‘m not aware of!”

Camp Fire Cooking

Camp Fire Cooking. Photo: Cindi Drennan

Recipes accompanying this story:
Succulent Sacrificial Lamb With Sweet Nut Pilaf
Killer Kitchener Buns
Shepherds Pies with Sour Cream Pastry

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