Aside from the occasional dreary spring day, the weather here in Canada looks to be warming up. For many, that means the advent of BBQ season – the all-Canadian pastime of rounding up friends and family, firing up the grill, and soaking in that vitamin-D-rich sunshine.
But Canada isn’t alone in this fresh air pastime. Particularly in Southern Europe, spring and summer is “al fresco” season (literally, “fresh air”), when loved ones and acquaintances congregate in the cool evening breeze to celebrate food and community.
Unlike our North American BBQs, which favour quick-grilling wieners and burgers, the food at an al fresco dinner party in Europe tends to be slow, methodical and from-scratch. And the décor is anything but slapdash – swapping paper plates and fold-up chairs for good cutlery and elegant table settings.
If you’re keen to switch up your summer cookout, consider hosting an al fresco dinner party with these straightforward tips.
Check the Long-Range Forecast
Item number one on the list is an obvious one: check the forecast! While Mediterranean countries like Greece and Spain can bank on warm weather through the summer months, we Canadians aren’t quite so lucky. You might still hit a flash downpour in Toronto or an unseasonably chilly evening in Vancouver.
Long-term weather forecasts are never 100% reliable, but they will give you a rough impression of safe days as you plan your al fresco dinner party. Further in the article, read about creating a contingency plan in case the weather turns sour at the last minute.
Learn About Mediterranean Cuisines
Mediterranean cuisines make the most sense for an al fresco dinner party. In cultures like Spain, Greece, Italy and Southern France, outdoor dining is practically a way of life, a philosophy. In these cultures, it’s all about stopping time, drinking in the fresh air (and a glass of wine or two), and sharing lovingly crafted food with your immediate community.
For inspiration on dishes, dining norms and food history, consult an authoritative online food wiki. The wiki linked to the right features painstakingly gathered information on cuisines from around the world, and makes a fantastic launchpad for learning the intricacies of al fresco dining.
Opt for Light, Bright and Satisfying Dishes
As you research, you’ll find information on Greek dinner party staples like moussaka and souvlaki, Italian dishes like risotto and cotoletta Milanese, and much more. What to choose!
When the weather is sunny, you can’t go wrong with light, bright dishes. Find main dishes that get a bump of bright flavour from citrus and fresh herbs. Pair satisfying slow-roasted meats with zippy salads. And let the olive oil flow, lending its grassy, herbaceous quality to your dishes.
To get you started, here are a few typical al fresco favourites that never fail to crack a smile:
- Bistecca alla Fiorentina (steak done in the style of Florence)
- Paella (Spanish rice laced with fresh seafood and spiked with lemon)
- Greek salad with tangy feta (and a generous glug of Greek olive oil)
- Turkish Kofte (grilled meatballs served alongside blistered peppers and tomatoes)
- Panzanella (Italian tomato salad with crusty croutons and sharp red onion)
As always, work around your guests’ dietary restrictions to create a multi-course menu with something for everyone. If you’re attempting to serve more than three or four dishes, consider a mix of make-ahead items (like salads), slow-cooked centrepieces (like Greek lamb leg) and quick-cooking “a la minute” dishes (like paella).
Serve Food “Family Style” to Foster a Convivial Atmosphere
When it’s time to eat, resist the urge to shuffle your creations to a separate table. Rather than this “buffet line” approach to a dinner party, make the food front and centre!
Serve the meal family style by lining the centre of a long communal table with dishes. When guests break (literal) bread and pass along food to one another, it fosters a convivial atmosphere of togetherness – which is crucial for a Mediterranean al fresco dinner. Guests can chat, pour each other wine, and share in the joy of food.
Lean into Your Natural Environment with Décor, Table Settings
As for décor, lean into the natural outdoor setting. Instead of purchasing costly exotic flowers, take inspiration from your immediate surroundings.
Pluck a few branches from a nearby spruce tree and lay them on the table. Gather some trilliums from the garden to make a simple centrepiece. Or ask a local winery for grape leaf cuttings to reinforce the Mediterranean theme.
Keep Guests Safe from the Elements
As mentioned, you can plan for everything except the weather. As a responsible host, it’s your job to shield guests from all those undesirable elements that might get in the way of a good time.
Consider providing umbrellas to shade from the intense late afternoon sun. Light a few citronella candles to ward off mosquitos, black flies and other aerial pests. And develop an “indoor contingency plan” in case it rains (essentially, make sure you can comfortably seat your guests inside in a worst-case scenario).
Finally, as the late spring light dims around 8 pm, ensure that you have ample torches, lanterns or lights to guide your guests. Hanging string lights around a pergola or trellis is a particularly Mediterranean way to illuminate an outdoor party!
With these simple planning tips, you’re ready to throw the ultimate European al fresco dinner party. Be as creative or lenient as you like with the rules (i.e., you can require guests to wear all white to reinforce the garden party theme, or simply allow guests to come as they are). And feel free to add your personal touches to the décor. Buon appetito!