An appetite for al fresco dining

Bohemian picnic featured in A Perfect Day for a Picnic by Tori Finch, photography by Georgia Glynn-Smith. Photo PA Photo/Ryland Peters & Small/Georgia Glynn-Smith.
Bohemian picnic featured in A Perfect Day for a Picnic by Tori Finch, photography by Georgia Glynn-Smith. Photo PA Photo/Ryland Peters & Small/Georgia Glynn-Smith.
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Eating outdoors is a summer pleasure but it’s essential to set the scene.

Gabrielle Fagan airs ideas on dining style for al fresco settings.

There’s something truly heroic about eating outdoors in Britain, as we either dodge the raindrops, battle against the odds to stop sandwiches curling and ice cream melting, or wave away the wasps.

Although it’s definitely not a venture for the faint-hearted, the rewards are great - after all, who doesn’t have fond memories of lazy days picnicking or sultry evenings dining under a starry night sky?

Small wonder then that our appetite for al fresco is increasing. “Generally, people are becoming much more keen to live outdoors and really enjoy entertaining there. It’s part of the whole home trend for blurring the boundaries between the indoors and outdoors,” says Steven Duggan, celebrity event planner.

“A meal is somehow more special if it’s eaten outdoors, and there’s a realisation that being creative about the whole setting - paying attention to every detail, from the table decoration to the lighting - makes it even more so. It’s quite common now to see chandeliers or lanterns hung from trees, elaborate centrepieces on tables using glass and flowers, and a theme such as a colour or style.”

Sir Elton John, Adele and Leona Lewis are just a few of the many celebrity clients for whom Duggan has created events, but he doesn’t believe a big budget is essential.

“Being imaginative is far more key. For instance, if a table’s too small for a large gathering, get creative and use an old door on trestles. It can be easily dressed with a white sheet and decorated with jam jars or milk bottles filled with freshly-picked wild flowers,” he says.

“The trend currently is an organic, back-to-basics look, where soft shades such as mustard and olive green feature as colour themes, but look out for stronger colour and vintage or kitsch pattern later in the summer.”

Turn the centre of a table into a focal point, he advises, by arranging a line of small glass vases, filled with anything from hydrangeas to buttercups, interspersed with tea lights in pretty containers.

“Add decadent detail with gold or silver-rimmed crockery and glassware,” he says. “Have a large candelabra or a string of outdoor lights draped along the table, and the effect will be magical.”

So take on the outdoors and win with stylish settings that will be a feast for the eyes.

Vintage garden party

This classic but simple setting needs only a few ingredients - colourful fabric, a collection of pretty china and blooms picked from the garden.

“Buy or make bunting - strips of patterned fabric tied onto a string line work well - and drape it around a garden or along a fence to make the garden look extra pretty,” says Jan Goodchild, marketing manager at Hobbycraft.

“If you’re planning a more intimate gathering, glass painted tea light votives or candles made using old tea cups and saucers as containers, together with a table runner or cloth made from a soft chintz pattern fabric, will help create a more vintage look.

“As always, it’s often a few finishing touches that can make an occasion memorable.”

Get the look: No one does that quintessentially English tea party look better than Laura Ashley. For the table: a set of three Flower-Shaped Melamine Dishes, from £12; a set of six Butterfly Tealights, £5. Accessorise with Butterfly Fairy Lights, from £21, and a Hanging Butterfly Tealight Holder, from £15.

Add to the effect with Paper Chains in a variety of designs, £4.20; Truly Scrumptious Bunting, £7, and Honeycomb Birdcages, £4.20 each, all from Talking Tables.

Bird-spotters will love Fifties-style plates, £26 each, featuring a Thrush, Wagtail, Robin or Blue tit, from Magpie. Alternatively, hang up a Wire Birdcage, £39.95, Oscar & Eve, and use it for a pillar candle or fill with flowers.

If you like making your own effects, be inspired at the Ideas Library at

Bohemian picnic

Moroccan style, known for its intricate patterns and jewel-rich colours, is fashionable in homes and works beautifully outdoors.

“The heady night bazaars of North Africa and the Middle East inspire this look,” says Tori Finch, author of A Perfect Day For A Picnic (Ryland Peters & Small, £16.99) which is filled with inspiring ideas for settings, as well as 80 recipes.

“To create the scene, hang Moroccan lanterns or patterned sari fabric from trees, or dot them around a ground rug - a Persian style one if you have it, or a large coloured tablecloth works just as well.

“Indian bunting looks very pretty, as do large cushions or pouffes to recline on. Beautiful earthenware pots and tagines make effective serving bowls for the delicious feast, and serve mint tea in pretty coloured tea glasses resting on a silver tray.”

Get the look: Set the scene with a set of six vividly-coloured Medina T-light Holders, £14.95, Dotcomgiftshop. Source sari fabrics from markets or specialist websites and add atmospheric lighting with Moroccan-style Solar Metal Star String Lights, £15, available online and in stores, and Selvedge Outdoor Lantern, £25, in stores only, Sainsbury’s.

Low-level seating is a feature of this decadent laid-back style and Graham & Green has a selection of Moroccan leather pouffes, from £139 each.

Beach barbecue

Lazy days by the beach call for al fresco meals, but even if you’re far from the seashore you can still enjoy a coastal-style feast.

“As a nation we’re becoming more adventurous with dining outdoors and there’s a big trend for the garden becoming an extra room in which to entertain and relax,” says Clare Barton at Sainsbury’s.

“Whatever the weather, the great British barbecue is a summer essential - perfect for a coastal or country setting. One of the first decisions to make is whether to cook on gas or charcoal, and this ultimately boils down to budget and personal preference. Supporters of gas swear by its ease and fuss-free approach, while charcoal barbecues offer authentic results at a minimal cost.

“Should you wish to be more creative with your cooking, look to incorporate smoking boxes to infuse food with a subtle smoked flavour, or barbecue planks which give food a uniquely woody, tender and aromatic taste. Fish grills, chicken roasters and sausage rollers are also a great way to make cooking effortless.”

Get the look: Blue and white is a classic combination and instantly evokes the freshness of a seaside setting. Laura Ashley’s Whitby Check dining accessories collection includes a Tablecloth, from £19.60, and Seat Pad, from £20 each.

Red and white features in Sainsbury’s Regatta tableware collection, from £2, a Beach Sign, £6, and a Red Picnic Tin, £12 (available in stores only).

Even if you missed ‘the big one’, flaunt a great catch with shellfish-decorated Serving and Salad Bowls, from £24.95 each, Richard Bramble. Don’t worry about sea breezes blowing out your candles; LED and battery lights are the answer. White Colour Changing Led Lantern, £1, Poundland. Finally, make transporting food easy with a colourful and lightweight Outdoors Woven Picnic Basket, £16, Waitrose.

A Perfect Day For A Picnic by Tori Finch, photography by Georgia Glynn-Smith, is published by Ryland Peters & Small, priced £16.99. Available to readers for £14.99 (inc P&P) by calling Macmillan Direct on 0125 6302 699 and quoting ref GLR 7YV