Lifestyle feature: Bushcraft with John Ryder

Hot rocks are prepared ready for the cooking
Hot rocks are prepared ready for the cooking

Fire is definitely an iconic facet of the bushcraft world, one any aspirant bushcraft student seeks to master.

Aside from the difficulty in learning how to actually start a fire consistently and in all weathers, there is also some wisdom we need to acquire in order to use it effectively as an aid.

The sedge matt

The sedge matt

Nowhere is this more evident than in its use for cooking!

Pretty much anything you can do in the home kitchen, (with the exception of microwave cooking) can be recreated outdoors using a little ‘know how’.


A good way to start using fire for cooking is to create the ground oven or hangi.

The ground oven is, as the name suggests, an underground method of cooking and can be effective for a wide range of meals from whole carcases to vegetables. The technique doesn’t change, only the size of the pit and the intensity and, more importantly, longevity of the heat source.

In essence, a pit deep enough and wide enough to accommodate the volume of food is filled with hot rocks, the food is placed on top of these rocks and the whole thing is covered to lock out oxygen, thus preventing your meal from being incinerated.

The real beauty of this system is that it is very difficult to overcook the food as the whole oven is constantly cooling down.

It is very possible however to undercook or vaporise in the first few minutes, your hard-won sustenance.

Either way, an empty feeling in the stomach is not something to take to bed with you.

Fortunately for you, I have on many occasions, to coin a phrase, ‘been that soldier’, and will hopefully be able to talk you through the pitfalls, pun intended.

Top tips

It can be very difficult to find a nice dry area in which to dig your ground oven and thanks to our climate, most months of the year will see the ground saturated to significant depth.

One of the mistakes I have made in the past is to light a fire outside the pit and then roll the hot rocks in.

I have found, however, that invariably most of the heat energy dissipates into the surrounding damp earth.

I now light a fire in the pit and then remove the largest pieces of wood, leaving just the rocks and a few stray embers.

The kind of rocks used can also make a difference both to the cooking and to your own safety.

Avoid rocks that are glassy, such as flint or rocks that have been in or around water for a long time. Both of these types are apt to break with heat, sometimes with alarming results.

Volcanic or igneous rocks are perhaps the best, with sedimentary a second choice.

However, I have found that using materials like sandstone, there is a limit to the number of times you can use them before they cease to store heat.

I can think of no better way to describe it other than it’s almost as if the rock wears out.

Nowadays, I use granite sets from the builder’s merchant, not exactly Davy Crockett, I know, but they are very practical and quite cheap.

It also saves long tramps carrying a Bergen full of rocks and associated wear and tear on the knees and back.

It is important to consider how hot the rocks need to be, a common mistake is to make them red-hot. Again I have been there and finished up with charred remains which could only loosely be described as food.

It does take a little experience to get this right, but try to measure the heat by colour and feel and match it to the amount of food to be cooked.

It is also a good idea to wrap your food in large non-toxic leaves such as burdock.


The photograph in this article shows a mat I wove from pendulous sedge fronds tied up with nettle fibres.

With practice, the mat can be made in as little as 15 to 20 minutes.

You also have a choice to make the oven dry or wet. A wet hangi involves introducing lots of succulent vegetation and adding water just before you seal it.

Personally, I find this makes everything taste like silage and prefer a dry hangi.

If cooking a full meal, put the food requiring the longest cooking time, eg meat, at the bottom, followed by root vegetables and finally leaves furthest away from the rocks.

The final stage is to cover the pit to exclude air. For convenience, I have used hessian cloth supported on small green sticks and then covered in soil.

The only thing remaining is to wait for it all to cook.

Timing can be difficult, but to give you an idea, the leg of lamb pictured took just over one-and-a-half hours on about eight rocks that were hot enough to allow me to hold my hand six inches away for four seconds.

When you are happy or at least reasonably sure it is ready, gently remove the covering, trying to minimise the amount of earth falling in on your food.

You may have to improvise a way of picking the food up without burning yourself. Enjoy your meal; finally, don’t forget the boil-in-the-bag ready meal in case it all goes horribly wrong.

A word of warning. Be careful not to cut or burn tree roots when making these sorts of oven.

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