Let’s go alfresco: your guide to life outdoors

Nell Card, Rebecca Seal and Sarah Turner
·15-min read
<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

Now the lockdown is easing, it’s time to get outside and embrace alfresco living. Whether you’ve got a balcony or a back garden, there are many ways in which you can create an idyllic outdoor retreat to entertain friends and family. We asked six professional hosts and designers to share their expert advice.

Warm it up Temperature is a key element when trying to create the perfect alfresco space – especially on a chilly evening. “If it’s cold, my new addition is a hot-water bottle for everyone to place on their laps,” says chef and presenter Clodagh McKenna. “John Lewis has a range with textured, faux-fur covers (£25) that are so soft and lovely. They make a huge difference.” As for rain: “There are ways of keeping dry that don’t involve a mac,” according to supper-club host Alexandra Dudley. “A pretty parasol, such as the vintage-inspired fringed options from Business and Pleasure Co (from £132), work as well as rain covers or sun shades.” Think about cover that is equally useful in good and bad weather, such as pergolas, shade sails and gazebos. Woodside sells an all-weather pleasingly pointed gazebo for £119.99 that can be assembled in under a minute.

Keep it comfortable “Although there are plenty of outdoor sofas on the market (go to Fermob or Hay for contemporary outdoor furniture; Garpa for something more classic) even a bench can be transformed with cushions,” says Harriet Farlam, creative director of the award-winning garden design studio, Farlam and Chandler. (Try homescapesonline for gingham alternatives.)

For cookery writer Skye McAlpine, author of A Table for Friends, deckchairs are essential. (Deckchair Shop has classic nautical-striped versions in a range of colours, from £69.) “They pack down flat and are easy to store and move around. Plus, there is something luxurious about moving from the table after lunch to a lazy chair in the sun, just to sit and chat, read a book or snooze,” she says.

If you don’t have the luxury of a lawn, softening paved areas with rugs and floor cushions is another of Farlam’s suggestions – in particular Nkuku’s range of hemp rugs (from £49.95). For small gardens and balconies, event designer Fiona Leahy recommends a set of bistro chairs and a little table (Beliani sells a set of table and two chairs for £119.99 in a choice of 10 colours.) “The thing is to embrace the bijou of a small outdoor space and not overcrowd it,” she says. “The woven chairs from Ceraudo are really chic.”

Conjure an atmosphere “It is about transporting your guests away from the familiar,” says restaurateur Jeremie Cometto Lingenheim, who has cleverly adapted his London venues by weather-proofing any available outdoor space. “Not to a distant foreign land, but at least to the English countryside.” At Westerns Laundry – his modern-industrial restaurant in north London – the cobbled courtyard has arrangements of herbs, shrubs and grasses, and dimmable festoon lighting and candles.

“If using artificial lighting outside, highlight plants instead of hard surfaces,” Farlam advises. “This creates a more subtle glow.” That said, nothing beats a naked flame and positioning lanterns along a pathway for creating ambience.” (Try Urban Outfitters for some lovely colourful lantern chains.)

“It is much easier to create a magical atmosphere in a small area,” claims McKenna. “Hang lights and candles to create a feeling of space.” All agree that hurricanes – vessels that protect the naked flame – are an outdoor table-top essential. Amara offers a good range.

Play to the senses “Atmosphere is not just visual,” says Farlam. “If you’re close to a road, the sound of trickling water can be used to create a sense of calm. Try Adezz for self-circulating water features.” Garden Site sells small babbling bowls in natural sandstone for under £270.

For Leahy, music is crucial. “My Block Rocker Sport – an all-weather stereo on wheels – is my best outdoor purchase ever,” she says. It’s also a bestseller on Amazon at the moment for £179.99. “You can even plug in a microphone for singalongs – but your neighbourhood popularity might take a nosedive,” she says.

For something more neighbourly, you could host a garden movie night. Outdoor projectors and screens are now available for under £100, also from Amazon. The perfect accompaniment is pizza. “We use our pizza oven throughout the year,” says Farlam. “It’s a great way of getting everyone involved in dinner.” Table-top models from Ooni start at £249.

Think about fragrance, too. “In the evenings I light citronella candles,” says McAlpine. “They keep bugs away, but also smell like summer holidays.” (The Cornish brand, St Eval sells citronella-scented candles as tea lights and in larger tins, from £7.55.)

Farlam suggests positioning a few perfumed plants. “For small spaces where plants often need to perform year-round, try a topiary ball of Osmanthus burkwoodii. The white flowers of this evergreen shrub are irresistible at this time of year,” she advises. (Go to Crocus for established shrubs, from £79.99.) “For pots of bulbs on tables, be include hyacinths for amazing scent”, she says.

Table dressing: keep it casual Retro coloured glasses and candle holders always make a table look pretty. (Check out Issy Granger’s for a vintage feel.) “I do love a tablecloth,” says the interior designer Kit Kemp. “Preferably embroidered with an earthenware pot of spring flowers looking higgledy-piggledy in the centre.” (For unique embroidered tablecloths, try Parna.) Pots crammed with bulbs will form the centrepiece of Farlam’s dining table this spring. “I like to keep tableware simple, giving the flowers and food on the table the attention it deserves. I add beeswax candles for an evening glow, blankets over laps and cocktails enhanced with herbs from the garden.” Where’s our invite?

Kit Kemp’s new book, Design Secrets (Hardie Grant, £25) is published on 20 May

Drinks with added sunshine

These cocktails and tipples taste even better outside, says Rebecca Seal

Slice of the action: Pimm&#x002019;s is the best known of the summer cups.
Slice of the action: Pimm’s is the best known of the summer cups. Photograph: Alamy

Milanese G&T I thought I invented these in lockdown, only to discover they’ve been around for years. Substitute half the gin in a normal G&T for Campari, giving you a more bitter, more refreshing, brilliantly pink drink which, with its orange wedge garnish, could pass itself off as spritz. Mix the gin and Campari in advance if you want to cut down the number of bottles in your picnic bag. A Tupperware box full of big ice cubes, stuffed into a decent cool bag, will stay frozen for a few hours.

Canned wine Maybe you don’t want to accidentally drink a whole bottle of wine in one sitting. Maybe you don’t want to carry a whole bottle of wine, along with the several rugs, jumpers and umbrellas, all crucial to enjoying a British spring park picnic. Whatever the reason, canned wine is really very handy, being lighter, easier to carry and only 250ml each (plus, you can tuck the even lighter empty tin back in your bag and recycle it later). I like Nice wine (as well as nice wine), especially the peachy pale rosé. £2.65, nice-drinks.co.uk; Sainsbury’s

Summer cups It’s a bit early for summer cup cocktails, but after the year we’ve just had I think wanting to get summer started asap is totally understandable. Summer cups – of which the best known is Pimm’s, but there are loads of good ones, including Sipsmith’s and Cotswolds’ – are pre-mixed punch and ideal for park gatherings. Serve lengthened with lemonade or ginger ale. (If you want to pre-mix at home, stick with citrus fruits and cucumber as garnishes, as herbs and soft fruits will bruise in transit.)

Canned mixers InTune makes a delicious range of CBD-infused sparkling drinks and mixers. Whether the CBD has any effect isn’t for me to say, but I love the mixers – especially Lemon +, which also contains grapefruit, rose, yuzu and gooseberry. I’m also a fan of Ginger + with chilli and ginseng. Both are refreshingly tart and although designed to be turned into cocktails, are also really good as grown-up soft drinks. From £2 per can, intunedrinks.com; Planet Organic; Fortnum & Mason

Tasty recipes with bite

Easy sarnies and top burgers to take with you. By Rebecca Seal

Thai-spiced sweetcorn burgers
Delicious and easy to make, these are brilliant for alfresco group meals.
Serves 4; preparation time 15 minutes; cooking time 15 minutes

Bring a pan of water to the boil and add 125g of frozen sweetcorn kernels. Bring it back to the boil, then drain. Set aside about a third of the sweetcorn in a bowl and put the remainder into a food processor. Add ½ tsp of ground cumin, 1½ tbsp of Thai red curry paste, 6 finely chopped fresh lime leaves and blitz, scraping down the sides once or twice, to form a paste.

Add 2 finely chopped spring onions, 1 tbsp of finely chopped fresh coriander, 50g of green beans in ½ cm pieces and 1 tsp of finely chopped red chilli to the sweetcorn bowl and mix, then add the sweetcorn paste into the bowl.

Add 50g of chickpea flour, ½ tsp of baking powder, a squeeze of lime juice and 2 tbsp of water. Season well and mix together into a thick batter that drops off a spoon, adding a dash more water if needed.

Pour about 1½ tbsp of vegetable oil into a wide frying pan over a medium-low heat. Divide the mix into 4 patties, each about 10cm across. Add 2 to the hot pan, then cook for 3-4 minutes on each side, until deep golden on the bottom – turn the heat to low if they are browning any faster.

Place thinly sliced cucumber and carrot, chopped red chilli and shallot, a squeeze of lime juice and sugar into a small bowl and toss together.

Spread a little mayonnaise on the bottom of 4 burger buns, add a pinch of chopped peanuts and a patty. Drizzle over a little sweet chilli sauce or sriracha. Finish with coriander, lettuce leaves and the bun tops.

Crispy baked fries
Crispy fries, but with only a dash of oil. (We’ve found the holy grail.)
Serves 4; preparation time 10 minutes; cooking time 40 minutes

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add 700g of large potatoes, peeled and cut into 8mm-thick fries. Parboil for 6 minutes, then drain. Spread out in a single layer on a tray and let dry out as much as possible.

Heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Grease 2 large baking trays with 3 tbsp of cooking oil. In a large bowl, mix together 1 heaped tbsp of rice flour, 1 tbsp of semolina, ½ tsp of garlic powder, a pinch of cayenne pepper (optional, omit if cooking for small children), salt and freshly ground black pepper. Gently tip the fries into the mixture and coat. Spread them on the baking trays in a single layer. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn them. Return to the oven for a further 7-12 minutes, or until golden and crisp.

Crab and fennel sandwich
These will make any park picnic feel like you’re at the seaside.
Serves 2; preparation time 5 minutes

Take 4 slices of good-quality bread – sourdough works here or brioche – and spread with mayonnaise, then top 2 slices with sliced cucumber and fennel. Squeeze over some lemon juice. Divide 100g of fresh white crab meat between the 2 slices, season with lots of black pepper (you probably won’t need any salt), then top with the remaining slices of bread.

Falafel and harissa wraps
Seves 4; preparaton time 15 minutes; cooking time 25 minutes

For the falafel, place 400g drained and rinsed canned chickpeas, 1 small chopped onion, 2 cloves of chopped garlic, pinch of salt, 1 tsp of cumin, 1 tsp of coriander, a pinch of cayenne pepper and cinnamon, freshly ground pepper and 1 tsp of lemon juice in a food processor and pulse until you have a thick, rough paste. Tip this mixture into a bowl, then add 1 ts of baking powder, 2 tsp of plain flour, 5 tbsp of chickpea flour and stir well to combine. The mixture should be scoopable, but not sloppy. If it seems wet, add another tbsp (or two) of chickpea flour.

Set a large frying pan over a medium heat and add about ½cm of olive oil. When shimmering hot, add a little of the falafel mixture to the pan and cook for 2 minutes, turning, then cool and taste. When ready to cook, use a dessertspoon to portion 3–4 falafel into the pan and flatten them into patties, each about 8cm across. Cook gently for about 4 minutes, or until deep golden brown – gently flip each one over and cook until both sides are crisp, about 3–4 minutes more. Remove from the pan and drain on a plate lined with kitchen paper while you cook the rest in the same way, adding more oil as needed (you’ll make about 12 falafel in total).

To assemble, lay out the flatbreads/wraps and place three falafel on each one, leaving some room at the bottom to turn up the wrap later. Drizzle over some harissa and tahini sauce, making sure it hits each falafel. Arrange some lettuce leaves, sliced cucumber, pickled chillies, crumbled feta or strips of fried halloumi next to the falafel. Turn the bottom of each wrap up to enclose, then roll the sides inwards. If you’re not eating them immediately, wrap in greaseproof paper and transport carefully.

Adapted from Leon Happy Fast Food by Rebecca Seal, Jack Burke and John Vincent, published by Octopus at £16.99, or buy it for £14.78 at Guardian Bookshop

Pavement paradise

The best city streets to meet and eat. By Sarah Turner

London, England, UK - June 3, 2019: Pedestrians browse shops and restuarants on Exmouth Market in London.TRRGXR London, England, UK - June 3, 2019: Pedestrians browse shops and restuarants on Exmouth Market in London.
City hot spots: pedestrians browse shops and restuarants on Exmouth Market in London. Photograph: Joe Dunckley/Alamy

If 2020 was an aperitif, then this summer we’ll be taking alfresco dining and drinking to a new level, turning city streets into imaginative dining spaces. Bristol’s Cotham Hill has been closed to traffic to allow its restaurants and bars to maximise outdoor seating, including Spanish-themed Bravas. On the Downs, Breaking Bread will bringtogether a number of pop-up restaurants and bars under canvas, including the Pipe & Slippers.

In Birmingham, Colmore Row will also have sections traffic-free to help soak up outdoor trade this summer, including Hawaiian-style Kuula Poké and masters of molecular cocktails, the Alchemist.

A thriving area of independent shops and cafés just behind Edinburgh castle, the Grassmarket’s best eating spots will have plenty of outdoor seating. Top choices include good-value bistro Petit Paris and, for something more special, the Mussel & Steak Bar.

London’s Exmouth Market (above) will be crammed with delicious alfresco treats, from hearty Ghanaian stews to fiery burritos. Café Kick, and Moro are veterans now, but this summer Caravan and Santoré will also be helping to give this corner of Clerkenwell a Mediterranean makeover.

Chorlton in Manchester boasts numerous food co-ops and delis but, above all, it is lavishly endowed with restaurants that spill outside, thanks to its wide Victorian pavements. Local favourites include Mary & Archie and the Oystercatcher.

Bastion of indie shops and restaurants, Castle Quarter in Cardiff is also maximising outdoor seating around its arcade area, including award-winning cocktails at Pennyroyal, Indian street food at 3Bs Café and Caribbean-style curried goat and rotis at Turtle Bay.

Picnic areas away from the crowds

Pack up your hamper and head to a secret spot. By Sarah Turner

Get away from it all: chalk cliffs at Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight.
Get away from it all: chalk cliffs at Compton Bay on the Isle of Wight. Photograph: Patrick Eden/Alamy

When Glasgow’s beautiful Botanic Gardens gets too crowded, Pollok Country Park usually has greenery without the crowds. Covering 361 acres, it has its own a herd of Highland cows and a picnic by the weir of the old saw mill or on one of the suntrap benches is a tranquil delight.

Amid the high drama of the Peak District, Tideswell Dale is less visited but equally delightful. You can stock up at the village shops before starting a walk that follows the banks of River Wye, past former mills, with stopping points and benches en route.

If you’re looking for a less-crowded alternative to Victoria Park in east London to lay your rug, try Haggerston Park instead. Within its 15 acres you’ll find a community orchard and Hackney City Farm.

Just up the coast from Norfolk’s popular resort town of Great Yarmouth, Winterton-on-Sea, a historic fishing village, has the same expanse of glorious golden sand but a fraction of the visitors. After your picnic, head into the pretty centre and enjoy an alfresco pint at the 300-year-old Fisherman’s Return. You can even hire a classic Morris Minor from the pub, complete with a picnic hamper for the day.

On the southwest side of the Isle of Wight, the National Trust has admirably managed to keep the stunning Compton Bay rural and unspoiled. There’s a two-mile stretch of golden sand where the surf is excellent and the views across to the white cliffs of Tennyson Down are glorious.

The Y Graig nature reserve is one of the UK’s most remote areas and what makes the spectacular view of the sheep-dotted Vale of Clwyd so enjoyable is that you’ll rarely have to share it with others. Part of the North Wales Wildlife Trust, its greatest secret comes at dusk on summer evenings. Take a picnic here and watch when glow worms shine through beneath the wildflowers.