Al fresco dining means different things to different people, it is a phrase we have adopted from the Italians , who probably eat outside most of the summer anyway and would never dream of using the expression, but as much as we love all things Italian, our climate and culture are poles apart. We are very envious of the Mediterranean diet and way of life, after watching too many ads on telly for pasta sauces and olive oil, with all ages tucking into delicious fresh food and wine, sitting under the canopy of a tree, everyone getting on, laughing and joking, with no whinging children hurling their food, then themselves on the floor, refusing to eat anything remotely out of the ordinary!!

We must literally do a rain check, and face reality, man up, get over ourselves, be British and stoic, and take every opportunity to eat outside as it comes, a bit like life really. Even if its not blazing heat, a bit chilly even, chuck on a fleece or our summer standby, a cardigan, and get on with it!

City al fresco eating means jostling for space on cramped pavements, being hemmed in with exiled smokers, and having to shade ones eyes from the sun: no parasols, please, we’re British. Unlike the continentals, we don’t have a habit of eating al fresco due to our usually inclement weather. Summer in Italy, France, Spain, it is possible to spend hours in small, cobbled, vehicle-free squares eating and drinking to your heart’s content. In the UK, where long wine-soaked lunches are now a rarity, the emphasis is on catching a nanosecond’s worth of sun, a quick scoffing of some sub-standard, over-priced food, then back to work.

But al fresco dining comes into its own in our gardens. Is there anything more life-affirming than dining outside in your own garden? There, you are surrounded by nature, can eat with abandon and enjoy the feeling that good food can give you. When you eat al fresco, there is no standing on ceremony. Kitchen towel doubles as napkins, plonk and tap water are the order of the day, in fact don’t have sugary drinks as they attract unwanted guests. Everyone is happy to pick at their food with their hands, tearing at whole chickens, scooping up salad leaves and nicking the occasional strawberry. So what if someone drops a home-made burger on the grass? Blow on it and put
it back in your ciabatta bun.

Trained to think of our gardens as an “extra room”, we have gazebos and sheds that double as offices and eating areas. We have huge parasols and swing seats. We can eat outdoors in style because we have spent a fortune on brightly coloured melamine plates and attractive cutlery, the type you get in French bistros. We have wine glasses built to withstand being inadvertently dropped on the grass. We have Moroccan tealights, the marketing men have worked their magic on us, and persuaded us that we need to invest in all this paraphernalia to make it an occasion. For me, my favourite cookery writer of all times, Elizabeth David, who hated fuss and pretension sums up Al Fresco eating very simply. “For the best outdoor eating, one needs to be near water, where you can sit and watch dragonflies, and listen to the birds or the sound of the fast flowing stream, drinking wine from a tumbler, sprinkle your bread with olive oil and salt, whilst eating rough country pate and sweet tomatoes”. Sounds good to me. It’s a shame that heatwaves come so infrequently, a bit like London buses that come in threes or not at all, so make the most of our summer weather and hope it holds out long enough for us to enjoy some al fresco meal before the clocks go back! Keep the food simple, something from the barbeque, excellent fresh bread, the best olive oil you can find to dip the bread into, your favourite cheese, and some inventive salads.

Warm Cooked salad

  • 2 thinly sliced corgettes
  • 3 carrots, cut into long strips with a speed peeler.
  • 3 tomatoes chopped.
  • Handful of french beans, cooked and refreshed in ice cold water.
  • 3 spring onions
  • Olive oil
  • Capers
  • A platter lined with washed lettuce leaves
  • Fresh thyme, chives and mint.
  • 4 tabs french dressing with 1 teaspoon pesto sauce.

Saute the corgettes slowly in a frying pan, turning when soft, add the carrots, spring onions and tomatoes, cook for 5-8 minutes still on a low heat adding the chopped thyme. Spoon contents of pan on to lettuce, sprinkle with chives, mint and capers. Spoon over a little pesto dressing. Eat whilst warm. This is a winner with everyone!

Anchovy loaf

This makes a welcome change from the ubiquitous bought garlic bread. Take your favourite baguette, sliced diagonally, slathered generously with anchovy butter, wrap in tin foil and oven bake or put on the side of the barby.

Anchovy butter

  • 100grams butter at room temperature.
  • 5 anchovy fillets soaked in milk 10 minutes.
  • 2 teaspoons anchovy essence
  • Black pepper.

Pound the anchovy fillets and mix into the butter with the essence and pepper, do not add salt. Spread between slices and on top. Put in the fridge till ready.

Writing this, I don’t have a choice as where I am going to eat tonight, but as our garden is looking so beautiful, why would be want to eat indoors, and its not raining, one has ‘to make hay while the sun shines’, otherwise I will end up eating my words!

Aggie