Gil Meller on the primal power of al fresco cooking – Low Calorie Diets Tips

Cooking outdoors might seem like a chore when you start thinking about all the intricate bits of equipment you need to bring to make your food shine. But that couldn’t be further from the truth for Gill Meller, who’s happiest when she’s keeping things simple.

“My whole approach to cooking is the less-is-more, simple approach,” says the chef and author. “I work very closely with the seasons and don’t overcomplicate the food – let the ingredients speak for themselves, that has always been my philosophy.

“That’s what I do when I’m cooking inside, so that follows outside — but I think when you’re cooking outside it makes even more sense to pull things back and get rid of the unnecessary stuff. You’re trying to escape the conventional cooking you do on a daily basis, and you’re opening doors to a much simpler, much gentler, and much slower way of doing things.”

Meller – who has worked with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage for 11 years – has a lifelong love of cooking and al fresco dining. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved being outside,” he says. “Whether it’s just hanging out and playing with friends, being outside has always been something I’ve always craved.

“Growing up in the country makes it a bit easier to get out there and be safe outside – I used to love making campfires and cooking. Whether it was edible or not was always an issue.”

As a professional chef, Meller’s dishes are more than just edible today – but the love for nature remains. “Given the choice, I would always much rather cook and eat outside than inside, weather permitting” – and his latest cookbook is “a celebration of our connection to the outdoors and the food we eat”.

And it’s not just about cooking over a fire (although there are plenty of those). You’ll find plenty of ways to enjoy the great outdoors, whether it’s preparing and taking out a picnic indoors or scavenging for ingredients.

Ultimately, Meller says, “It’s good for our souls, it’s good for our well-being, it’s good for our mental health.” It’s good for us to reconnect with the environment and the world around us at a fairly basic level — and being outside allows that to happen more easily than in an office or in the four walls of your kitchen.”

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And using fire is “more rewarding than cooking on a gas stove in the kitchen,” he assures. “Because we use a very old way of doing things. I’m specifically talking about making a fire in a simple way, maybe just making a campfire on the ground.

“If you’re able to do that, if you can really connect with such a primal, instinctive way of cooking, I think it helps us revitalize some of our natural instinct — which our early ancestors had.

“It makes us happy to do something different. Eating has become such a norm that we don’t think about it much. Cooking has become so desensitized for many people that it could be as simple as preparing a meal in the microwave and waiting for the buzzer to ring and that is the level of commitment to the food they are eating. But when you go outside, you deal with it on a whole new level. When you start your own fire, it’s a world away from the cooking we’ve become accustomed to in our modern lifestyles.”

It may be original, but that doesn’t mean that cooking over the fire is always easy. “What can happen quite often is that the fire gets a little out of control — and that usually happens when you’re cooking something pretty greasy, and the fat can get the fire going,” Meller admits — and that’s something that he failed from before.

“I remember putting a large tray of mackerel fillets in a fairly hot wood-burning stove with the flames to the rear. The tray got so hot that it buckled and warped, and the fish jumped off the tray into the fire. I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got 30 people inside waiting to eat this mackerel, what are we going to do?'”

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Luckily, on this occasion, it finally worked out… “I think we managed to get most of the fillets back – maybe some of them were a little more charred than the others, but a bit of charring goes a long way with mackerel.”

Ultimately, Meller relishes this unpredictability. “I like the fact that you don’t know 100% how it’s going to turn out,” he says. “I love the way you adjust and account for the twists and turns that an outdoor cooking recipe can require. Nothing is ever the same when cooking over the fire – it will always be slightly different from the last time you made it, even if it’s the same dish.”

Meller lives near the fishing village of Lyme Regis in Dorset, but he accepts that not everyone can easily experience the great outdoors. “It’s not the most practical way to eat,” he says. “But that’s what makes it so special. If you can find time to get out on the weekends or spend an afternoon going to the country—perhaps your local park—do it and have a picnic.

“I just feel like the food we eat outside tastes so much better than inside.”

Outdoors: Recipes for a Wilder Way to Eat by Gill Meller is published by Quadrille. Photography by Andrew Montgomery. Now available.

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