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Airs and graces

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Sybil Kapoor on how eating outside completely changes the way we experience food

Sybil KapoorOver the centuries, chefs and writers alike have wrestled with the difficult question of how to make food taste better. New ingredients, implements and culinary techniques have all been developed to enhance our enjoyment of food. Much ink has been spilled in this quest, yet the one element that improves the flavour of most ingredients is rarely mentioned—namely, fresh air.

Eat an apple at your desk and it will taste pleasant enough, but pull it from your pocket and bite into it on a country walk and you will find its flavour infinitely sweeter and more fragrant. No doubt, this is partly due to your state of mind—happiness makes everything taste better—but it is also due to the smell of the air.

Obviously, said apple would not taste good were you to eat it downwind of a manure heap, but wander through a dappled wood filled with leafy scents and you will detect wonderful verdant, floral notes in your apple.

Watching dragonflies
In other words, any right-minded food-lover should seek out every possible opportunity to eat outside as the days lengthen and warm. Who can resist sitting by a river on a summer’s day, watching dragonflies flit across the water?

It makes you feel good about life. Add the company of friends and a picnic box filled with cold roast chicken, mayonnaise, cucumber sticks, crusty bread, a soft cheese and ripe peaches and you will have created an Arcadian feast.

There are so many delicious al fresco gustatory experiences to try, from breakfast through to late-night snacks. I still romanticise my rural teenage breakfasts when I would wake late and eat a breakfast of sausages, tomatoes and marmalade toast in the garden. To this day, if I smell a dewy lawn in early summer, I dream of those divine-tasting breakfasts—all marmalade, coffee and lilac blossom.

Greeting the dawn
Similarly, there are few things as idyllic as greeting the dawn with homemade bacon sandwiches after a night out. At such times, even London can smell sweet and fresh.

Any sensitive gourmand will match their food to the dominant smell in the air. Eating lunch on an urban bench, albeit by a tree or flowerbed, for example, calls for spicy food to match the prevailing street odours—in London this can be a peculiar mix of shop fragrances, street food and car fumes. Strangely, an onion baji or vegetarian samosa tastes very good in such conditions.

If you’re following the Thames walk, on the other hand, it’s best to avoid fishy-smelling foods such as salmon tart or prawn sandwiches. The damp smell of the river is better suited to softer flavours that hint at earth, grass and wind such as spinach tarts, cheese and pickle sandwiches or falafel wraps followed by a satisfyingly sweet slice of millionaire’s shortbread or chocolate tiffin.

Juicy ripe apricots
All can be packed into a knapsack with a bottle of water and some juicy ripe apricots for snacking.

Happily, London is filled with fragrant pockets of fresh air: from the Royal Parks and rivers, to shady squares and half-forgotten graveyards. Picnics can take many forms, from an elegant tea to an evening dinner party. Picnic teas are a brilliant way to meet up with friends and family—although elderly members don’t always appreciate sprawling on the grass.

Flasks of tea are easily packed, hot or iced depending on your taste, along with myriad different sandwiches, homemade fruit cake, biscuits, iced buns and, of course, some form of fairy cakes such as almond and rose or lemon.

My current picnic addiction is homemade chocolate gingernuts, using a good dark chocolate to coat. But I also love tiny crustless sandwiches. There is something decadent about eating them. Always make a selection of fillings, such as cucumber, egg and cress, smoked salmon paste or even Marmite and tomato!

Dinner party picnic
When I lived in a tiny flat, too small for a dining room table, I would invite my friends to lazy picnic lunches and the occasional dinner party picnic in my nearest park. Most London parks stay open until dusk has fallen in summer—it’s worth lingering just to see the bats flit through the avenues of trees.

In those days I made everything, but it’s much more relaxed if each guest brings something. This is invaluable when it comes to the carrying of rugs, drink and food to a suitable spot, preferably near a shady tree with long grass and a view.

If you’re short of time, just buy a lovely selection of cold meats, pâté, cheese and bread along with some cherry tomatoes, radishes and gherkins. As to pudding, few can resist easy-to-eat strawberries or cherries, but you could always bring an almond tart or head for the nearest ice cream stall.

Jellies or patisserie
Avoid fragile dishes such as jellies or patisserie and remember to pack paper plates, knives, forks, spoons, cups or plastic glasses and most importantly, paper napkins. I always include two clean damp J-cloths in a Ziploc bag to wipe sticky hands or knives. If you’re buying wine or beer, double check whether you need a corkscrew or bottle opener.

Keen cooks can have fun theming their picnic and creating anything from a Middle Eastern feast to a traditional British repast. The former might include a Persian cauliflower omelette, crisp romaine lettuce hearts, fresh herbs, spring onions, cucumber sticks, soft naan bread, labneh and dainty sanbusak (little spiced meat pies), followed by sugared almonds and juicy ripe nectarines.

The latter might conjure up the grand days of English picnics by serving cups of chilled cucumber soup followed by cold veal and ham pie, poached salmon and various salads, before finishing with almond meringues accompanied by clotted cream and raspberries. The ultra-sophisticated will, of course, have ensured that someone brought a flask of coffee and a box of violet creams!

A beautiful warm day
The wonderful thing is that it doesn’t matter whether you eat a jam sandwich or a perfectly composed meal—it’s going to taste far better eaten outside on a beautiful warm day than indoors on a wet day. If you don’t believe me, try it and see.