Food and Drink

Van Life: How we fed ourselves while travelling the UK in our van

Is there anything more quaintly 2020 than travelling 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 Cookbook, in 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), Van Life 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.

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 favourite 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.

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

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.

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

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