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On the Table: "Food simply tastes better alfresco"

Food simply tastes better eaten alfresco, so let’s embrace picnic season, writes Cambridge Cookery MD Tine Roche

Stepping into the warm sunlight, metaphorically and literally, after so many dark months, has felt absolutely amazing. Reopening the cookery school and the café has brought back life, laughter and a myriad of delights to the daily life of my small team, as well as to all our guests.

The joy is so clear and it just shows how much we need to be with each other, how delighted we are to sit with others around us, even when we don’t interact. It’s the shared experience that is such a boost. This is why we have so desperately missed going out to eat, hear a concert, watch theatre or dance or sitting in a cinema with the lights off and being enthralled by the massive screen and sound. We see it in the cookery school and we hear and see it on the terrace.

The weather remaining cold and wet just as restrictions were lifted and we were allowed to sit in as well as out, certainly emphasised our need to eat and drink outside. When thinking of summer food, and what it is I love most about this season, I realise that it is eating outdoors. Of course, certain dishes and seasonal ingredients mark the start of summer, but it’s the outdoors that makes it so uplifting.

The cold and wet spring was a disaster for local asparagus growers. They have only six weeks in which to harvest and sell their exquisite produce, but this year, growth was stunted and crops were decimated.

For the still-small but thriving English wine industry, bud growth is almost a month behind, but when the sun did finally arrive in all its glory for the late May bank holiday, vines were ready to roll and leap into action, putting on the extraordinary growth of climbers and pumping energy into buds and foliage alike. If you have never tried any of the superb English sparkling wines made with the Champagne method, do treat yourself to a bottle this summer. It is worth every penny.

As for eating, anything I can bring with me outdoors will do for me. I love mixing an ice cold cocktail and pouring it into a thermos flask, not least to cook a cock a snook to winter when the same flask carried coffee and hot chocolate. There is also something very wonderful about pouring a well chilled cocktail into pretty glasses when seated on a picnic blanket or by any spot offering a view, be it of the river or the very modest hills around Cambridge.

People have been known to call me a picnic snob, as I tend to feel very sorry for the picnics I see others unpack, and they are right. I love pulling out of my basket a whole roast chicken, a still warm focaccia, pots of hummus and good quality chilli dips, and ideally a lovely salad to go with it all. And yes, I admit, I probably have a rather unedifying smirk on my face.

I don’t always have a great deal of enthusiasm left for home cooking after a day cooking in my café or teaching in the school, but that all changes as soon as someone mentions the word picnic. I spring into action and will even make desserts, something I normally skip in order to focus on a really good cheeseboard, followed by a few choice pieces of good quality chocolate.

But if the food is coming out with me, I will happily make deconstructed versions of individual pavlovas or Eton mess, which can be assembled in situ. I think it might have something to do with the fact that dishes which would seem quite mundane when served indoors take on a new persona with more razzamatazz when served outside. And all food simply tastes much better when eaten al fresco.

If Eton Mess has made you think oh yes, perhaps I will make that, try mixing a little lemon curd into the whipped cream, or undiluted elderflower cordial and thin ribbons of freshly cut mint. It lifts this classic to a new level, and sings even louder of the best of British summer.

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