french living – the al fresco dining season

by Sharon Santoni

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In France we just love to eat outdoors; al fresco dining is definitely my favourite and when I look through my book, I can see that we included quite a few al fresco meals while visiting with my girlfriends.

Here in Normandy, we like to think that by March we’ll be having our first  lunches outside and by late April hopefully, we’ll be able to have dinner in the garden too, although we’ll probably still need to cover up.    Which is why I am so impatient to start laying those tables and using the different parts of the garden for entertaining and for family meals.

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Even just a  meal for two can take on a whole new significance when the table is laid outside.  Sometimes I lay the table for my husband and I, way down the garden, so we get to enjoy a different view of the flowers and the house, and it sort of feels more special, as if an ordinary meal becomes a celebration.

I find it has the same effect on friends.  After a winter of meals in front of the fire and in the warm, we are all ready for a change of scenery and menu.     Out go the stews and the warm soups and in come the grilled fish, the big mixed salads and the barbecued vegetables.

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So what are the basic tips for a successful dinner outdoors.   Here is my check list, I wonder if it varies much for you?

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~ keep it simple ~

I try not to make al fresco dinners too complicated or heavy.   We tend to spend longer over the aperitif, with a nice mix of bite sized treats, accompanied by a glass of wine or champagne.  In fact, sometimes the aperitif will replace a first course, as we linger on easy chairs, or wander around the garden with a glass in hand.

~ keep it beautiful~

I love to wow my guests with a beautiful table scape, and generally this means flowers from the garden, and the table carefully laid with out being too grand.  A table may be quite simple, but if it is well laid table it is the promise of a carefully prepared meal, and those elements combined with good conversation and the right wine, often mean a love dinner  that stretches into the small hours.

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~ keep it fresh ~

Spring and summer menus should be all about fresh, vibrant food that doesn’t leave us worrying about our waistlines.

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~ keep it warm ~

Sometimes temperatures don’t live up to expectations, especially if the meal continues into the small hours.   I always  have a couple of shawls to hand for guests to wrap around their shoulders, and of course the big barbecue fire  is kept burning long after  the meal is cooked

dining al fresco on wooden deck

~  keep it safe ~

we are lucky here not to have many bugs or mosquitoes but, if ever they do make an appearance, we burn bug-repellent candles on the ground around the table

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So how about you, do you love to eat outside and entertain your friends beneath the stars?

All photos by Franck Schmitt

from the book My Stylish French Girlfriends

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27 comments

Taste of France April 11, 2016 - 5:04 pm

We have been eating outside for a couple of weeks. Since the time changed–that makes all the difference in temperature in spring. Yesterday we were invited to a paella, and my husband said, oh, we’ll be inside. I told him to take his cap (for the sun) and said, no, we’ll be outside. Indeed, we were outside.
The thing I find essential is a good tray. One with a nice lip around the edge so that if it’s tilted accidentally while walking or opening a door, everything won’t slide off.

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bonnie groves poppe April 12, 2016 - 8:19 am

Two trays are even better! Then you don’t have to remember to take the tray back in for the second batch of stuff. I’m in Provence, and we had our first bbq Sunday evening, what a great feeling!
bonnie in provence

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Juli April 11, 2016 - 5:41 pm

Hi Sharon
Was nice to read from you. How we all wait for this fantastic weather. it is so good to say goodbye to winter after all the long and cold days and nights.
For the bugs and mosquitoes and insects, best to plant some mint or/and place mint leaves in pantries, have them around where you are entertaining. Bugs and mosquitoes or insects will not show up because the smell of mint is their master for pushing them away. Mint destroys the insects’ sense of smell making them less likely to risk the possibility of entering. Grow them near doors and windows.
Cheers to you all in Normandy!

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Iona Spencer April 12, 2016 - 1:50 am

Thanks for that tip!

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Juli April 12, 2016 - 2:31 am

You are very much welcome Iona Spencer. I have already made small vases of them planted for each room in the house. ready to push away the summer insects. it helps so much.
Take care now

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Emm April 12, 2016 - 4:22 am

Good idea, but I learned the hard way how invasive mint is. Lemon balm, too. Now I plant them in plastic pots sunk in the ground, which keeps them from taking over the immediate world.

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Marilyn April 11, 2016 - 7:22 pm

I love meals outdoors. One of my favorite things.

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Colleen Taylor April 11, 2016 - 9:44 pm

Absolutely we do Sharon & right now is the perfect time of year for us. When the heat of the Arizona sun hits us for the summer, never! This usually happens about the end of May or the beginning of June. This is our “winter” time of year. I know, sounds crazy but you do adapt, never to be happy about it but you just deal with it until October. Then it’s wonderful once again. It will easily be 100 degrees at night during the summer & stay there throughout the night but it is for only about 4 months out of the year.

I love your settings, so beautiful.

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dottie monta April 11, 2016 - 11:00 pm

Definitely not out on the terrace yet, Sharon, so your exquisite settings are inspiring! We employ a large, out-of-the-way fan in mosquito season, as they do not like wind or moving air. I like your reader’s suggestion of the use of mint; did not know they are discouraged by such a charming little herb.
Like very much your use of the two antique candelabra.
Happy Spring!

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Jennifer Clark April 12, 2016 - 12:27 am

I think there are times my dining room table feels lonely in summer. We eat almost every meal outside. But not yet this year. But we’ll have outdoor dining weather through October at least. Like yours, our meals are lighter, featuring local California produce we get from the farmer’s market. Some grilled things. Lots of composed salads.

But my favorite is aparitif on the deck. A glass of wine, a nibble and a chance to chat with my husband after work. That’s the best!

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Susan Umberger April 12, 2016 - 1:02 am

Here in hot, humid Kentucky no amount of mosquito deterrent will work. This is why we have a lovely shady screen porch with dining table. We can brave the outdoors till mid May, then again in September through November or later. Lovely to eat outside with everything grilled, and to pick salad and tomatoes from the garden…

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franki April 12, 2016 - 1:30 am

Well…if I had chairs like those pictured…oh, my!!! “HEARTS!” franki

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Madonna April 12, 2016 - 1:51 am

It is all so lovely. My grand had a small grape arbor that we ate under. I am always being surprised by how French she lived. I didn’t realize it was French, but wondered why others didn’t have an arbor to eat under. 🙂

I am in love with your glassware.

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Mary April 12, 2016 - 1:52 am

Hi Sharon, Love to dine outdoors, especially a hot coffee & cookies for breakfast at the beach here in San Diego.
Just received my Evoke magazine today, thankyou for the great tip! FAB!!!
Happy Spring,
Mary Johnston

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LA CONTESSA April 12, 2016 - 1:55 am

YES!
DOnot do it enough because it’s NOT WARM enough MOST NIGHTS even in SUMMER…………The negative of living near a BAY!The fog rolls in and BUURRR………….
I love setting a table TOO…………xx

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Ana Maria April 12, 2016 - 3:34 am

Here in Miami, Florida it’s just the opposite! Our outdoor meals, barbecues, outdoor farmers markets and flea markets are enjoyed from November through April, after that we run back inside to our air-conditioned homes because the heat and the humidity become unbearable. I love your blog and am reminded of my wonderful visits to Normandy! I also appreciate your lovely table settings and love how in France, outdoor tables are set with real china, real glasses and real cutlery – not a plastic plate or Styrofoam cup anywhere… how wonderful! Please don’t ever change!

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Marcia April 12, 2016 - 3:47 am

Hi Sharon! Really great post 🙂
Here in Brasil we’re in autumn but Rio seems to be still in summer! I would say we could eat outside on daily basis if it was not that hot (28/30oC = around 80/84F)…
So, I can’t hardly wait for winter here, maybe then… we can sit and appreciate nature a lit bit rsrsrs
kisses ML

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Denise April 12, 2016 - 4:10 am

Here in Melbourne, autumn is just beginning. It’s too cold at night to be outdoors (though the mosquitoes don’t seem to have got the memo saying summer is over !), but I love having breakfast outside on Sunday morning. We just move the table around every week as the sun moves. Denise

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Carol and Bedford Transou April 12, 2016 - 4:23 am

Did you notice the cat in the first photo? So nice that your dogs and you have a cat!

This is a pretty one – and I bet it purrs in French. It may, however, very quickly try to

jump up and get on the table. And then – what?

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Charmaine April 12, 2016 - 8:35 am

I have three outdoor areas under chipstone for outside dining and large shady trees. Of course, the cat is the main guest!

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Our French Oasis April 12, 2016 - 10:25 am

We have just started eating outdoors in the past few days, in the evening it’s all about lighting for me. Candles on the table and pretty lights tinkling away on the walls surrounding the terrace, nothing bright but enough to illuminate the old stone and plants and create a perfect ambience.

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Jacqueline April 12, 2016 - 11:54 am

I would love to know how you keep the courses warm (whether eating in or out of dooors) while you are enjoying the aperatif or first course? Here you talk about lingering over the cocktail and little appetizers, delaying the main course. I hate cold or even tepid food. How do the French do it? Eat courses leisurely yet serve the mail course hot and not dried out? (Not to mention some vegetables are better cooked at the last minutes)

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Jay April 12, 2016 - 12:33 pm

Ohhh, what an achingly beautiful sight your gorgeous table looks all laid ready to enjoy eating al fresco. Far too chilly in London yet !
Sharon, may I ask, do you ever come across the gold/brass (?) candelabras – you have two on your table ? Would love two of those . Thank you .

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The Enchanted Home April 12, 2016 - 12:58 pm

So beautiful..you have me daydreaming. Here its been cold rainy and raw, al fresco dinners seem so far away, but your pictures and this post inspires me:)

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Emm April 13, 2016 - 6:47 am

Puzzling over an object in the fifth picture. It’s a pale pink dome with a dragonfly (?) painted on, and I can’t decide what it is, or what it’s for. It’s lovely, whatever its function.

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Ros short April 13, 2016 - 7:09 am

Love the chandeliers on table at far end just purchased 2 from antique market in Southern Highlands “dirty janes” PERFECT ! Cold is creeping in upon us down under so bring on soups & casseroles .will have to wait til summer to go al fresco Enjoy Spring Sharon best Ros

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Lavues April 13, 2016 - 8:33 am

Hi! I enjoy reading your post. I like the nature feel of the pictures, so peaceful.

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