If you see a man with a pan on top of a mountain it could be Paul Robinson. Sharon Dale meets the Yorkshire Gourmet.
Battered by torrential rain, high on a Lake District fell, Paul Robinson sought shelter in a derelict stone shed with two others walkers. Ex-special forces, they were tough guys who had just done the full “Bear Grylls”, striding sure-footed across a perilous stretch of water while Paul was sodden after slipping, scrambling and praying he wouldn’t get washed over the edge of a sheer drop.
Still, as the former SAS duo unpacked their limp-looking butties, they had to admit that Paul had them beat on the food front.
They watched in amazement as he pulled a tiny camping stove from his rucksack, unwrapped his ingredients and cooked a haggis hash so sublime it could have graced a Michelin-starred restaurant.
“It was Burns Night so I felt haggis was appropriate and I shared it with them. They admitted it was better than a sandwich,” he laughs.
Paul has been wild cooking for years and his antics range from making meals in remote caves, cabins and woodlands to taking gastronomy to hilltops and streams. He calls them “micro adventures” and they have sparked a huge amount of interest on social media.
He posts as the Yorkshire Gourmet and has a growing fanbase on Instagram, where his followers drool over his pictures and videos. Especially popular was a clip of him chargrilling a wood pigeon breast over an open fire. He dipped it in a pea and wild horseradish puree and ate it with his bare hands. He also got hundreds of Instagram “likes” for cooking a sea bream on the beach at Whitby and serving it with smoked lemon butter and a potato and dill salsa.
Making lentil soup on top of a mountain in the snow was challenging but he built a little igloo for his stove on top of the Lake District’s Blencathra. He also managed to make a lamb stew on Holme Moss in the snow and mist, and regularly cooks pasta using rainwater flowing off the moors.
The feedback from fans has helped the self-taught cook launch a new career that combines his obsession with food, foraging, photography and the great outdoors.
He gave up his office-based job as a graphic designer to pursue a career as a food writer, stylist and photographer. After a year of recipe testing, he has also launched a joint venture with Paul Jewison of This Green Moon at Swillington organic farm, near Leeds.
Their off-grid Fire and Dine events seat 10 people and are set in woodland on the farm. Paul, 45, cooks everything on a campfire while guests sit at the table on hay bales sipping wine from the neighbouring Leventhorpe vineyard.
“It’s magical and a real escape from modern life. I do four courses, all prepared on site using the finest Yorkshire ingredients, including the farm’s own organic meat, fruit and veg,” says Paul.
“We’ve had people from all over the world and we recently had a group from Los Angeles who were on a food trip to Britain and came to Fire and Dine after finding me on Instagram.”
They were tempted by the menu, which included Medjool date and Cumbrian cured pork skewers with Flat Capper Northern Brie; smoked Nidderdale trout crostini with a stinging nettle velouté; fricassée of Swillington Farm organic lamb with minted new potatoes, watercress and wild garlic; and ginger sponge pudding with a Yorkshire rhubarb compote and vanilla custard.
Producing a first-class meal like this on a large campfire took practice. “It’s a very primitive heat and it’s quick. You also might have strong winds to contend with or even worse, no wind, which means the fire doesn’t combust,” says Wakefield-based Paul, who was brought up on a staple Northern diet of meat and two veg.
His interest in cooking started when he was a student and his ambitions went far beyond the typical student spag bol.
His wife, an art teacher who is “brilliant at baking”, and their children are his guinea pigs and sometimes have to wait several hours for their meals while he innovates and makes notes. They sometimes accompany him on his “walkabouts”, though mostly he goes alone.
“I worked in an office for over 20 years and felt like a caged animal so hillwalking was a release for me, as was cooking. It’s creative and fun though you have to be prepared to fail,” he says. Celery leaf pesto was a recent disaster. The smallest leaves add a delicate flavour to a salad but they turned out to be bitter when crushed and blended with walnut oil.
Experimenting is part of his startling originality. One of his best campfire productions so far is hay-baked potatoes with creme fraiche, chives and bacon, along with onions wrapped in foil and baked in the embers until they caramelise.
“I average about 10 ideas a day. I once did an alphabetical cucumber pickle using cucumber, dill, elderflower, fennel, green chilli and hawthorn and I’ve done a dish where all the ingredients begin with P. That was fun but it’s about getting flavours right, which is a mix of experience and intuition,” says Paul.
Some of his recipes are easy to copy but others rely on foraged food. Rare cloudberries that he found in a remote and barren place in the Peak District are a joy each August.
More common is wild garlic and three-cornered leeks, which he uses a lot. White clover is used to make his white clover syrup. Meadowsweet, which tastes like aniseed, goes beautifully with wild cherries. Oak leaves are a favourite as is hawthorn.
“You can eat the hawthorn berries, leaves and flowers and use the wood for smoking dishes,” says Paul, whose favourites include cherry wood- smoked tomatoes and lavender smoke-infused ice cream. He also uses his foraged finds to make his own oils and preserves.
“I love what I do now and it never feels like work,” he says. “I love the outdoors and I love cooking and I hope that what I do inspires other people to have a go. Food always tastes better outside.”
For details of the Fire and Dine events at Swillington Organic Farm, near Leeds, visit www.yorkshiregourmet.co.uk or www.swillingtonorganicfarm.co.uk