The summer-just-gone, while volunteering at a green festival, I attended a workshop on haybox cooking. I’d been carrying the image of a haybox — effectively a thermal stove which uses insulation to slow-cook contents that have been heated via hob or flame — in my mind’s eye since childhood, when one of my favourite books was The Children Who Lived in a Barn.
Published in 1938, the book tells the story of how five children maintain their independence when their parents fail to return from an emergency visit to Granny. If the do-gooding ladies of their village get their way, the children will be split up and sent to orphanages and adoptive families. So, turfed out of their rented home, they take up the local farmer’s offer of a barn and live as best they can on a tiny allowance from their father’s bank manager.
I don’t know why, of all the vivid details in the story, the single image that endured over the decades was that of the haybox. The barn had only a stove intended for heating sheep dip, so cooking was limited and entirely dependent on wood gathered from round about. So when a local tells them about a contraption that turns hot meat and veg into a casserole over the course of the day, the children leap at the idea. The oldest boy makes a wooden box lined with newspaper and hay and from then on the children have a hot dinner when they come in from school.
Somehow, my child-mind latched onto this pleasing image of self-sufficiency and the bounty of natural processes long before I had any notion of utility bills or energy crises.
Back in the future, the funny thing was that as soon as the workshop leader starting speaking, I remembered I’d been using the same fuel less method to part-cook for years. Sometimes I’ll start off a casserole and wrap it in a towel so that carries on cooking while I’m out. For the full process, the workshop leader advised taking whatever came to hand: a wicker basket or a cardboard box for the container and old duvets, sleeping bags or crunched-up newspaper for the insulation. In her experience, hay did not work well, and neither did wool (a remark that generated some workshop politics when an attendee left in disgust, afterwards telling me she wasn’t going to take any lessons from someone who was ‘negative’ towards wool.)