Are we becoming a nation of outdoor eaters?
Has lockdown changed the way we dine out?
The COVID-19 pandemic has had all sorts of strange knock-on effects on the way we live our lives, from how we shop, to how we walk past people in the street. Life from at this point has been changed in many areas, in many ways. Even down to how we eat. Or rather, where we eat?
Unlike our continental counterparts, Britain isn't a nation with thriving cafe culture. Spend any time milling about the bustling urban centres of Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Milan and the side streets, market squares and piazzas are packed with tables and umbrellas, festooned with people sipping macchiatos, cappuccinos, espressos and generally living the dolce vita. Meanwhile, on the drizzly side of the channel, we are much more used to dashing into a chain coffee shop, shunning their myriad of options, ordering a tea to go and rushing off to whatever it was we were supposed to be getting on with. Sitting down and quietly sipping a cup of something hot and caffeine-filled isn't something that exists in our lives any more than riding around on a small motorscooter waving "ciao" at each other. But the times they are a changing and so are we it seems.
Cafe breakfast outside? Slap it in a bun and you're good to go.
When it comes to eating and drinking outside the British are very much in a world of their own. We may not have the refinement of Europe or the lavish BBQ culture of the United States and Australia, but we do know how to do a good picnic. Give us a scratchy blanket, some paper plates, a pork pie and a glug of ginger beer and we are quite content. Regardless of the weather. When I was growing up my family had this brilliant trend of "extreme picnicing". Wherever we were, whatever the weather, we would enjoy the picnic that Mum had lovingly packed and Dad had carried around in a rucksack o'er hill and dale, through castle ruin, historic site, we would be having this picnic if it killed us. One incident that stands out for me is Dover Castle, I should have been about 12 at the time and it stands out courtesy of this being our summer getaway that year. A day spent touring the castle (a very good day out I should add) had brought us to lunch, and as luck would have it, a torrential downpour. The cafe was rammed with other guests seeking refuge from the weather, steaming up the windows as they dried off. We however donned our pacamacs (for those of you who aren't au fait with British fashion, this is a foldable raincoat that tucks into one of its own pockets, incredibly portable, supremely practical, but also with no ventilation so you become incredibly sweaty, but this is by the by, its a raincoat). So raincoats donned, we sat down and enjoyed our picnic. And I know we aren't alone in this deep-held love for eating outside.
Dover Castle, albeit less rainy and much more picturesque sunset here.
So when the latest stage of restrictions lifted here in the UK, freeing us up to eat and drink at establishments outdoors, as a nation we were chomping at the bit. Pub gardens were rammed, glasses littering every table, a semblance of normality returning to our lives. Lives ever so slightly changed, but lives to live nonetheless. In that moment as the restrictions lifted our humdrum lives of soggy picnics hybridised with the flamboyance of sipping a coffee out the front of a cafe on the coast of the Med. A new strand of culture had emerged. We had become more than a nation of picnic enjoyers, but a nation of outdoor eaters.
It's café culture Jim, just not as we know it.
Cafes and restaurants spilt out into the streets filling pavements with chairs and tables dragged out from the darkness. Town centres have become a bustle of activity, plates of food are ferried about by waiters in jackets to diners buried beneath mounds of blankets. Despite it being April, a month in which in the UK has the propensity to be quite chilly at times, diners still flocked out to eat and drink and be merry at a social distance of course. The one benefit to heading out for a cold one at this time of year is that the beer never gets warm as it would in the summer, so that's one positive. Although on the flipside, it is tricky to keep food warm when there's a howling gale trying to steal your chips. I've yet to see a side salad take off in the wind, but it is only a matter of time. In coupling European cafe culture to our resistance to terrible weather, life is essentially back to normal in the UK. Which is nice to see. Is it a habit that'll stick around? I'll report back on it when winter comes.