Eating al fresco

An essay on eating outside, eating in the garden and the joys of al fresco dining with pretty table settings, on my blog, Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

“Shall we eat in the garden tonight?” was a line I lived for when I was little because it meant dinner would be fun food. Dinner in the garden meant potato salad and pizza and corn-on-the-cob and ice cream and no need to argue with my siblings over whose turn it was to lay the table in the first place, or wipe down the place mats afterwards. Dinner in the garden somehow made my parents a little more tranquil, a little less likely to tell us off or remind us to finish what was on our plates; it somehow made us kids a little less argumentative. It meant calling family friends over last minute, with no need to dress up in shalwar kameez (something I used to have to ordinarily do when my parents’ friends would visit).

Now that I am grown, with a small garden of my own which is budding with African daisies and poppies and honeysuckle, I love eating outside on summer nights.

Every year, we forget to buy enough garden chairs for all of us. Instead I unroll a large mat that’s big enough for all of us, and we sit on the grass or the deck. Here we eat thrown-together-food, sturdy simple food. The sort of fun, no-cook food I remember dinner in the garden always promised when I was a child. For us now this means means sliced up veggies and pots of humous and minty tzatziki; triangles of fried crispy tortillas; bowls of my favourite red baby plum tomatoes, chubby as a toddler’s thumb. Scoops of avocado; hunks of cheese and berries and mangoes I still don’t know how to slice despite all those summers in Lahore.

Lest this sound too idyllic, sometimes dinner in the garden is pizza ordered in. No one minds at all.

Sometimes, I’ll admit - dinner in the garden is more stressful than it needs to be or is supposed to be. Wasps, bees, flies; all the flying things my motley crew of children are frightened of. Sometimes the allure of garden toys is just so sparkling, it means no dinner is eaten at all. Some nights all they have is ice cream. Sometimes it all ends in tears because some small wise crack switched the hose pipe on to jet spray his siblings to boot.

Some nights, I carry them back inside over my shoulder, one by one, and do dinner all over again in the hope they might eat something, anything, before they go to bed.

It’s not exactly a challenge for me, to lighten up like this, but it’s not my normal way of doing things either. At the risk of sounding too much like some type A mother (the tendency is there, I’ll admit) I’m the kind of parent that is reassured by order. Ordinarily, for most of the year, dinner is always inside at the dining table and it marks an unsaid yet very clear shift in our daily routine. It means homework finished, bags packed for morning. It means toys tidied up; bath time round the corner and bed too soon after that. The last laundry load of the day. Counters, wiped. Everything, done. The satisfaction of it done well, too.

But summer dinners, schools-out dinners, dinner-in-the-garden dinners, throw all that order and timeliness to the wind. Instead, my floors are covered with the shadows of grubby feet, running outside and inside and outside again. My home is messier-than-normal. Fingerprints are smeared on back doors, ghosts of warm days. Baths become sloppy, skipped for soapy chases through the sprinkler instead. Bedtime is never quite so late, they simply remain unable to stay awake, but it is not quite with one eye on the clock.

I embrace this, even though it is so unlike the mother I am from September to somewhere mid-May, for how could I not? It does me good to let things go a little; to chill, so to speak. It does me good to slip into summer rather than try and time it or tick it off a to-do list. It does me good to remember. It does me good to recall what it was like to be little, to feel that ice cube cold delight when one of my parents would say: “Shall we eat in the garden tonight?”

Of course, you don’t need a garden for this sort of happy feeling. When I lived alone, a balcony was all I had and I’d sit there, a bowl of something on my knee. For a while, before we had a garden, I’d load the buggy up with pots of this and that from the fridge and we’d head out back for the dinner in the park. Any space where you can feel the sun on your face or the grass under your feet will do.

I guess all I’m saying is: it makes me happy, this time of year, when the honeysuckle tangles over the fence, when the day rolls into night, when we eat outside and we lose track of time and we realise that work and deadlines and all of that stuff doesn’t really matter anyway, never really did, but that all of this - this time - is the only thing that does.

Five favourite recipes for eating in the garden and dining al fresco

A summerhouse in Denmark, and other stories of a Scandinavian family holiday

A family holiday to Denmark and staying in a summerhouse on the Danish coast with children. More on my blog, ourstorytime.co.uk

It was the best bakery in town, or so we were told. We sought it out on our phones on purpose. We stepped in, sandy off the beach. The children gathered around the counter barefoot. It was the third day of our holiday on the Danish coast.

This one, one of them said, pointing at a round yellow cake. Moon cake! exclaimed the one who can read. It’s called moon cake! But it’s not made of cheese! And they laughed and I did too because at the age three, that was a pretty good joke to have made.

The lady serving cut big slices up and placed them in a box tied with ribbon, a fancy thing that reminded me of the boxes of cream cakes my aunt used to routinely order in for late afternoon teas taken in the shade of her house in Lahore. I balanced the box on my lap all the way home, despite the little pleas: please can we open it now? Please open it now!

The boys ate moon cake in the garden of the summer house we quickly learned to call home for just a week or so. The baby napped in the car, parked under a tree on the lawn.

I guess I must have fallen asleep too because the next thing I knew, the baby was up and the boys, worn out from running laps in the wrap-around garden, were asking for pizza.

It was on the way to the grocery store that it all began. One kid throwing up, followed by the other. My husband and I looked at each other in horror.

That’s all, really, that you need to know.

It lasted two days. Two days out of a seven day holiday. I don’t know if it really was the moon cake or something else entirely, but I still cursed it with grown-up words and shoved the box angrily in the bin.

Two days of sickness was not great. But it was manageable.

And so we managed. We came through the other side. We vowed to eat home cooked meals made from scratch only for the rest of our stay. They were wiped out. We were too. So we kept the rest of the holiday low-key.

A family holiday in Denmark and staying in a summerhouse on the Danish coast with young children. More on my blog ourstorytime.co.uk

We caught the light. We took walks up and down the quiet country lanes that laced through the little village we happened to be staying in - me, nosily sneaking peeks at the beautiful houses we passed. We spent an afternoon in the gardens of Munkeruphus, an architect’s home-turned-museum, just around the corner. The day we visited, a dinner was taking place right there, beneath the great old trees in the gardens. They’d decorated the table with clementines, so pretty it looked like still life. We wound down narrow walkways edged with wildflowers sloping to the beach where our not-quite 100% kids built towers with stones and dipped their toes in the water, looking out at a lighthouse.

Another day we hesitatingly drove up to a coastal town called Gilleleje, and judged the boys’ complexions well enough to break that home-cooked vow, ordering brunch plates of fresh bread and cheese and blueberry jam. They survived; we ate there everyday for the remainder of our stay.

We played out on sandy beaches, looked across the water for Sweden, walked through woods, came close to Hamlet’s castle but gave up when little legs declared themselves tired, and that too felt okay because it wasn’t as though we had a list to tick.

In between, we stayed home, which wasn’t our home at all, and the kids ran wild shivering underneath an outside shower (not the only shower, I might add).

After the boys were in bed, we stayed up, searching for “house with wrap-around garden north London” on our phones. Imagine if we lived here, we said to each other.

Honestly, sickness or no sickness; it was one of the loveliest places I have ever been. Even if we didn’t venture far.

We’re heading back this summer, to the exact same summerhouse, tentatively adding more to our low-key plans.

We’ll catch the light for a little while.

Family holiday to Denmark staying on the Danish coast with young children. More on my blog, Our Story Time ourstorytime.co.uk

Where we stayed

This beach house on the Danish coast, in the tiny village of Munkerup in North Sealand. It’s about an hour’s drive from Copenhagen.

Places to visit on the danish coast

Munkeruphus is a beautiful sort-of museum housed in an architect’s home. Built like an American Colonial, it is airy, sprawling and perfectly positioned with beautiful views over the sea. You can wander through the rooms, be inspired by simple, understated but homely interiors and let your kids draw at a mini-architect’s table. When we visited, the gardens were full of hidden treasures for the children to discover as part of an exhibit. From the back, there’s also a breathtaking descent to a very secluded, very pretty little beach.

Gilleleje is the closest town and it’s a lively little harbour spot. We spent lots of afternoons here. The sandy beaches are untouched, surrounded by pretty little cabins and summerhouses. There’s also bike hire, lots of cute little independent shops and plenty of places for ice cream. Cafe Flora was our favourite hideout. From a practical point of view, Gilleleje also has a number of grocery stores you need for a self-catering stay.

Hornbaek and Dronningmølle are sometimes referred to as Denmark’s St Tropez but I found them both to be perfectly lovely, child-friendly sea-side resorts.

A little more of a drive up the coast, and you arrive in Helsingør, another harbour town to explore and home to Kronborg Castle, otherwise known as Hamlet’s castle. Our kids enjoyed hanging out around the Maritime Museum (there’s also some old ships for them to marvel out in the harbour) and watching the big ferries set sail.

From Helsingør, you can also catch the ferry over to Sweden. This is a handy itinerary for a daytrip from Helsingør to Helsingborg.

As you drive along the coast, there’s no end of woodlands with walkways down to the sea; do pull over and explore.

Psst….

Postcards Home, my online summer writing course on writing your first-person memories, is starting soon. It’s designed to inspire you to want to write, to fall in love with writing, and to do it in a small, simple ways that aren’t overwhelming.

The next round of Postcards Home begins on Monday, July 1st, 2019.

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Bicycles and birthday cake: on celebrating Eid

bicycle with basket leaning against a brick wall

When I was seven, Eid-al-Fitr fell on my birthday and I felt like the luckiest girl alive.

I was almost sure that I was going to get a bicycle - a lemon-coloured bicycle, to be precise, with a white basket. It was to be both a birthday present and an Eid gift; a double win. I was almost sure I was going to get it, because I’d picked it out and had already asked my parents for it already. And I was also pretty sure, because I’d caught sight of it, just a glimpse, in the corner of our garage a few days before. I loved surprises so I was sort of mad at myself for noticing it, but I was also willing to be patient and so pretended I hadn’t seen it at all. A bicycle it was, then.

On Eid morning, after we had been to the mosque and slurped milky vermicelli pudding out of my mother’s best china bowls for breakfast, I recall my bike being wheeled out of the garage, with a ribbon or two twisted around the handlebars. I don’t remember much about being a child. But I do remember that day, when my birthday (sort of) coincided with the sighting of a new moon, was a happy day.

My father had filled our dining room with balloons, hanging from the walls and the curtain rail, and my mother had equally filled the dining table with birthday cake and Pakistani sweets and all manner of dishes. Eid was the one day when dessert wasn’t on pause; instead everything was served up at once. It was not unusual to find a bowl of creamy kheer, a sweet, thick rice pudding dusted with ground pistachios, placed side-by-side next to a platter of puffed-up pilau or fat kebabs shaped like chubby thumbs. Hot naans were piled high in precarious tin foil towers, right beside plates of lurid orange jalebi, swirls of pure sugar in fried form. A bite of this, a bite of that.

Later, our home too was stuffed, full of friends and family who gathered around the dining table to sing to me. I blew out my candles, utterly charmed, utterly full.

Now that I am grown, I appreciate that there is a bit more to Eid than simply the celebration of food and the receiving of gifts. I understand now that it offers something symbolic and more meaningful; a sense of renewal, of starting over.

But all I remember on that day, when I was seven and only ever wanted a lemon-coloured bicycle with a white basket, was that after a month of fasting, Eid was a knock-yourself-out sort of day.

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This year, it just so happens that my middle child, my little boy in betwixt his brothers, celebrated his birthday on Eid. And it just so happens that he too asked for a bicycle.

This Eid, after a month of fasting and a morning of prayers at the mosque, after remembering the ones who are no longer with us and scattering petals at their graves, we gathered around my mother’s table once more.

She filled it with food, and I topped it up with birthday cake. We hung balloons from the curtain rail for him and we sung for him and I picked him up so he could blow out his candles and I stole kisses on that cheek while I still can.

We knocked-ourselves-out. We remembered how lucky we are that we can.

Will you join me?

Postcards Home is my online summer writing course on writing your first-person memories. It’s designed to inspire you to want to write, to fall in love with writing, and to do it in a small, simple ways that aren’t overwhelming.

Postcards Home will gently remind you to look out for the details in your everyday, both your present and your past, and take note so that one day, you too might remember everything you want to through your very own written words.

Postcards Home is available in two ways: as weekly essays released one by one (one each week), so that you may take your time to reflect and follow a writing journey, or as an immediate download for you to read through in its entirety,

The next round of Postcards Home begins on Monday, July 1st, 2019.

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