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 flavorful 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-colored 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 retro-nasally, 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 optimize the flavors: 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 spicy 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. 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.
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