The dream and the reality are never so divorced as when dining al fresco. As soon as someone says “let’s eat outdoors”, the spirits lift. The imagination fires and we picture something cold and fizzy to drink, pressed gingham napkins, vibrant salads, excellent bread that tears easily without turning into cotton wool, a flavourful Scotch egg, and platefuls of berries at that perfect stage between ripe and ruin. The sun is shining, but the table is in the shade. Nature serenades, but she does not intrude.
The reality, all too often, is that the food is average, you are too hot or too cold, there’s a bug in your drink, and you are one big bodily tic as you attempt to avoid the wasps and ants.
People in northern Europe tend to assume that in the Mediterranean everyone eats outside, dunking bullets of bread in olive oil—the men in vests like something out of a Dolce & Gabbana ad, the women all like Monica Bellucci, a plate-throw away from a sexy tantrum. I am Italian, and it is not so. We might eat outside occasionally, but mostly we consume all that nice food in the kitchen, staying firmly out of the sun, with the breeze blowing through the multi-coloured ribbons of the fly curtains.
Things happen to food in the warmth of the sun. If you’ve ever made ice cream, you’ll know it tastes more intense just before it’s frozen completely. This is because sucrose changes at molecular level when heated, which makes it seem sweeter: from fridge-cold to body temperature, it can taste almost half as sweet again. Heat also increases the concentration of volatiles—gaseous molecules given off by food that are responsible for its aroma—and their smell plays a vital role in our enjoyment of eating. We actually get two hits of smell: one through the nose, or orthonasally, the other retronasally, when the molecules from the food we’re chewing go up the nose from the back of the throat. (This is why it’s a myth that you can’t taste if your nose is blocked: you can, although the experience will be blunted.) Thus the chef Peter Gordon, in his book “Salads”, recommends putting salad dressing in the sun for a few minutes to optimise the flavours: it works a treat, as long as the breeze isn’t so fierce as to blow away the volatiles.
But unlike animals, who rely almost exclusively on their olfactory system, we expect food to appeal to our somatosensory system—touch, temperature, pain receptors (nothing spiny or too hot) and vision. And primal triggers affect us. As a species, we love a fire; it taps into something deep within us, signalling protection, warmth, the ability to cook. Picture a piece of boiled chicken, and then the same piece char-grilled on a barbecue: most of us prefer our meat with caramelised stripes.
But does all this actually make food taste better outside? “It depends on previous experiences,” says Linda Bartoshuk, director of the Human Research Centre for Taste and Smell at the University of Florida. “It wouldn’t be the same for everyone. The major effects are going to be cognitive: what seems exotic to you, what your childhood experiences are.”
Childhood does play a part, since eating outside—or at least the idea of it—seems to bring out the child in us: it feels more playful, less formal and fussy, more exciting. At the Fat Duck in Berkshire, Heston Blumenthal gets diners to listen to an iPod playing recordings of crashing waves and seagulls while they eat his shellfish dish Sound of the Sea; in recipes, he has suggested spraying pickled onion juice from an atomiser when serving fish and chips. Perhaps this is the best combination: getting a whiff of the outdoors, while staying safely inside. Maybe we should eat our picnics at home, looking out of an open window.
While barbecues and picnics are largely for weekends, many of us now get the chance to eat outside every day, by going to a café. Pavement tables, like balconies, have become far more prevalent in the past decade; even Britain, with its damp climate, now has a few tables on every shopping street, and they are not just popular with smokers. In any block of flats, there seems to be at least one balcony where the owners have crammed in a barbecue, a table and two chairs, ever optimistic. But will they be rewarded? Will their food taste better eaten on that table, on that hopeful scrap of outdoors?
Bee Wilson, the food historian and columnist, points out that many people still don’t eat outside more than occasionally. “Therefore food tastes better when they do, because they feel liberated from the constraints of a table. For most of human history the majority of people have eaten outside not through choice—a jolly Enid Blyton picnic—but because they had to. Agricultural workers have always carried their lunch to the fields. And I wonder if their food tasted better to them than it would have done under the comfort of a roof.”
Nonetheless, you can’t deny we appreciate certain foods more fully outside: a cool ice-lolly on a hot day, or a hot soup on Bonfire Night makes us stupidly grateful. We remember it, and look forward to the next time. “I think food tastes the same whether eaten inside or out,” says Herbert L. Meiselman, an American scientist who has spent much of his career with the Department of Defence Food Research programme, exploring how people choose food. “But I think your appreciation of it is different. It’s about expectation—eating outdoors is idealised—and anticipation. For example, someone going to a fancy restaurant expects to enjoy their dinner, so they probably will enjoy it.”
If our experience of eating outside is coloured by all these things—smell, anticipation, context, childhood memories, even gratitude—whether or not it really tastes better ends up being subjective. And the truth is that although the prospect of an outdoor feast is clearly part of the fun, eating outside works best impromptu: you come across good food, which you just happen to eat outside. The best food I’ve ever eaten was all eaten indoors. But some of the best experiences I’ve ever had eating were outdoors.