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One of the areas of greatest debate and investigation for us, in our GR20in2020 challenge preparations, has been food. To be fair, as middle-aged(ish) family men, food is often on our minds anyway! We are determined to complete our challenge in the purest way we can, according to our rules, which means self-sufficient and unsupported. So we have to carry all of our own food for the whole expedition. That's five days. Six, rather - there's a contingency day built in for which we need to carry spare rations. That's a lot of food. And food is, well, heavy.
We've taken a look around at lots of different food options. Dehydrated, ready-made meals seem very popular as they are light weight, easy to prepare and require very little equipment. The big downside, it seems to us, is the price. The most affordable of these backpacking meals run at around 6 euros. That's 12 euros per day for 6 days - 72 euros for two of us, just for evening meals! (I'll not bother converting to British Pounds as they are essentially the same value right now! Thanks, Brexit.) Yes, specialist backpacking meals seem convenient, light and easy but are they worth the price?
Edit: it's worth noting that the particular meal reviewed here currently retails at around £10.
That's why we leaped at the chance to join the Base Camp Food tasting panel to try out their new-in Real Turmat Vegan Thai Red Curry. Base Camp Food put out a tweet back in early August and we were quick to reply! No, we aren't strict vegans - I've been vegetarian since childhood and Alex is 'flexitarian' - but we are both struggling our way towards a more ethical, plant-based diet; which only complicates our backpacking food selection further.
What arrived in the post from the kind people over at Base Camp Food was, basically, a brick. An incredibly light brick but a brick nonetheless. Not only do Real Turmat dehydrate their meals, they also vacuum pack them for a claimed shelf life of 5 years. So, a shrivelled, lightweight brick. Yum. I was sceptical to say the least.
It's worth noting that this particular meal is not only vegan friendly, it's also gluten and lactose free.
Real Turmat is a brand from the Norway-based DryTech company and they seem to have some reasonable eco-credentials. Dry Tech talk on their website and on product packaging about sourcing local Scandinavian ingredients and using only renewable energy from 100% hydroelectric sources. There are also references on the packaging to 'leave no trace' philosophies to which we ascribe here at Adventurous Journeys Spain, with consumers encouraged to carry their empty packaging off the trail with them.
This is an admirable effort by Real Turmat so I was slightly taken aback to find that their packaging is labelled with 'the green dot'. This circular symbol comprised of two arrows suggests that the packaging is either recycled or recyclable but the truth is it means neither. In fact, Dry Tech print an instruction to, "Treat empty package as general waste".
According to RecycleNow.com: "The Green Dot does not necessarily mean that the packaging is recyclable, will be recycled or has been recycled. It... signifies that the producer has made a financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe." A great initiative by Dry Tech but it would be better to see them use recycled and recyclable packaging in future.
So, the test. On a convenient and beautifully sunny day, I grabbed an old cook set from the AJ Spain gear store and headed to the garden. Yes, yes. I know. I walked straight past a perfectly good kitchen with a perfectly serviceable kettle and perfectly functional bowls and cutlery. Yes, that would definitely have been easier. However, my (extensive) research tells me that no-one chooses dehydrated backpacking meals for their gourmet credentials. This wasn't just about taste testing. We've got a long list of tasty, wholesome, nutritious, balanced camping meals in our repertoire. This test was about trying out how easy, convenient AND tasty this type of meal might be to prepare and eat on a lightweight backpacking trip. If we are going to carry less weight of food and make cooking as simple as possible - therefore also require less weight to be carried in pans, utensils and gas - we are prepared to compromise somewhat on flavour and nutrition; but only so far!
Step one is to boil some water. 3.5dl, according to the instructions. Why it's not phrased as 350ml, in line with the millilitre markings on most pans and measuring jugs, I'm not sure but, in case you can't convert or have no way of measuring in the field, there's also a handy fill line on the outside of the package. Simply tear the top off the pouch (usefully labelled 'open'), pour in hot water, stir well, reseal using the freezer bag style built-in zip-lock, and wait 8 minutes. So, very easy to cook. Not much can be cooked any faster.
The lightweight simplicity is clear in the preparation stage of this meal. Boiling up 350ml of water requires the most basic cookset, a simple stove and a tiny pan. It will also use hardly any gas at all and is super quick. In fact, the packaging states that the water doesn't even need to be boiling - just 70º-100ºC. There is no food bowl required either - the idea is to eat straight from the pouch - and only a simple plastic spork was needed to eat it. Plus, if you are on the trail eating one of these and want to minimise mess in your bag carrying everything out, ignore the instruction to tear off at the second dotted line (labelled 'eat') after the 8 minutes as this will remove the zip-lock; keep the zip-lock on the bag and use the pouch from the meal as your rubbish bin, which won't leak in your bag!
The taste? Well, it was fine. It tasted like a generic Thai curry. Not particularly spicy (probably good as water is REALLY heavy to carry) and with no overpowering individual flavours. Chinks of vegetables, mainly peppers, were just about crunchy. The rice was mixed in to the curry, inevitably, and there seemed to be very little of it. Equally, the texture was slightly odd, though perfectly edible. I didn't not like this meal. It was fine. No, it wasn't restaurant quality gourmet Thai curry. But it was tasty enough, just about big enough and easy, very easy.
That's the point, really, of these meals. They aren't the most satisfying meal to eat but they are good enough. Especially as they are quick, easy and simple to cook and eat. There's no simmering, no washing up, no mess and almost no weight. At 113g they are hardly noticed on your back and the process of cooking and eating requires only a superlight stove (we have the MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe at 87g) with a tiny pan and a spoon, fork or spork. Very little water is needed to re-hydrate and the amount of gas needed to heat so little water means very little fuel needs to be carried if living on these types of rations alone.
I'm not sure I could though. Do these meals have a place in our packs for the GR20in2020 challenge? Yes, I believe they do, for all the reasons listed above, which combine to save weight. Will I switch to only eating dehydrated backpacking meals on all future trips? No, sorry. I'll enjoy the weight savings they provide but at the same time I'll most likely take some of my other lightweight options to mix things up a bit. Save weight but also keep the satisfying, filling, hearty favourites I know for the end of those especially long, hard days.
We're delighted that Base Camp Food have become our official expedition partners as suppliers to our GR20in2020 challenge! As a bonus to our readers, we can offer you a fantastic 10% discount on all orders, plus free delivery on everything: specialist backpacking and ultralight meals (including Real Turmat), pots, pans, stoves and all related supplies for your next hiking and camping adventure. Use the code AJSPAIN10 at checkout.