Al fresco cooking in the Spanish garden

By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe, active gardeners and authors who have enjoyed over twenty years of Al Fresco cooking and eating in Spain.

In our book Your Garden in Spain we emphasise the joy of gardening in Spain and the delight of being able to enjoy the fruits of your labours by eating outside on most nights of the year and particularly so when one can cook in the open air the fruit, vegetables and meat grown in the garden.

To enjoy doing so requires that you design into your garden:

  • Shelter from winds.
  • Cooling summer shade and warm sunny winter spots.
  • Appropriate terrace space.
  • A range of cooking facilities that go beyond the barbecue. Twelve possibilities are described below.

Twelve ways of cooking outside in Spain

Barbecues

They are undeniably a convenient way of cooking meats, fish and vegetables. On the grill bars, on a griddle plate or wrapped in tin foil on top of the grill bars or in the charcoal ash if using a charcoal or wood barbecue.

If you like barbecued food there are a number of options worth considering.

  • A fixed brick, stone or tiled permanent unit. Perhaps built into the naya (a covered arched terrace attached to the house) with an extraction fan, in a special cooking hut (casita), or on a convenient terrace wall. The heat for cooking being by provided by charcoal, logs or gas.
  • A moveable barbecue trolley with cooking by charcoal or gas.
  • A once off charcoal barbecue pack sold in many supermarkets and hardware shops. Light and very portable. Can be used anywhere in the garden, on the naya or on an upstairs or apartment terrace.

There are three important decisions when deciding on a barbecue.

  • Firstly ‘Would a permanent feature fit into the style and layout of our garden or would we be better off with a portable barbecue?
  • Secondly ‘What surface area will we require to cook the necessary quantity of food in one or two goes if we have a party?
  • And thirdly ‘do we want to cook on charcoal, wood or gas?’ The latter being the cleanest but not imparting a genuine barbecue flavour to the cooking .

Garden Ovens

Many Spaniards have ovens in their gardens, sometimes a century or more old. They are good for cooking a wider range of foods than barbecues. Roast meats such as legs of lamb, suckling pigs, roast chickens or quail. Vegetables such as peppers, aubergines, courgettes and squash. Also arroces al horno (rice dishes cooked in an earthenware dish rather than a metal palero), homemade bread and flans.

Purpose built ovens are available but many tend to be harsh in design and construction and therefore look rather urban and insufficiently rustic in many gardens. However a traditional domed ovens can be easily self built from refractory bricks and covered with small rocks to blend it into the garden or with a brick front in a cooking casita. The building of the dome may look daunting but from personal experience it creates no problem if you build up a sand dome to build on for the final central part. But let everything dry and set for a few days before you remove the support!

Earthenware Mexican Ovens.

Our Mexican oven kills three birds with one stone. First we can use wood and charcoal. Second we can use it with the lid open as a regular barbecue for fish or meat while jacket potatoes cook in foil in the ashes of the fire. Thirdly we can close the lid and cook meat, fish and vegetables such as potatoes, aubergines, courgettes and peppers wrapped in foil as if in an oven. Also while eating the main course bananas wrapped in foil can cook slowly in the residual heat.

And an additional benefit is that it is an attractive ornament when not in use. If we want to move it into the garden for a party it is easily carried by two people.

The only negative is that if it gets wet it is necessary to let it dry in the sun for a few days before next lighting a fire. If not there is a risk of cracking the unglazed earthenware body.

Tagine Cooking

Tagine cooking is fun both within the garden and under a sheltered naya in bad weather. Two 25cm tagines that rest on earthenware charcoal heaters are just right for a meal for two to four persons depending on the recipe. Two 50 cm tagines would cook four times as much for a party.

If visiting Morocco hunt out the shops/stalls the locals buy from. The are incredibly inexpensive. Alternatively buy them in Spain where they are still good value for money.

A Paella Pan.

A paella pan, stand and specially designed gas ring is a very convenient way of cooking. Pans are available in many sizes from 30 centimetres to a metre and more. They are very versatile and can be easily set up in any corner of the garden or on an apartment terrace. And are also easy to store away after use.

A paella party can be popular at any time of the year but the paella pans can be used to cook much more. They are also useful as large frying pans/griddles for cooking large quantities of sausages, chops or fish ‘a la plancha’ at a garden party. The food does not get smoky and is less likely to burn when left for a few minutes as can happen with a barbecue.

When cooking a paella use the correct sized pan for the number of people you are cooking for. If you are cooking 100 grams of rice per person for four you will need one of 40 centimetre in diameter and for twelve a diameter of 70 centimetres. Its useful to have a selection of sizes hanging in the garage.

An Earthenware Cooking Plate.

Placed over the low heat of a barbecue or paella gas ring with a heat diffuser an earthenware cooking plate can be used for baking fresh pitta bread or preparing tostados- toasted French bread cut across or lengthways. Kids love mixing up and kneading the flour, olive oil, baking powder and water to prepare the pitta dough.

A Migas Pan.

This large bowled pan on the end of a long handle is popular in some provinces of Spain for preparing traditional migas. A fun and warm winter activity whether cooked over an open fire or a paella cooking ring placed on the ground. Migas flavoured with chillies is tasty with barbecued sardines or an assortment of Spanish sausages. Traditionally grapes are also often served with the dish.

A Permanent Outside Kitchen.

Spaniards love to have a permanent outside roofed kitchen incorporating an oven, barbecue, paella ring and kitchen sink. Whether built in a traditional casita style with an arched front or just three walls and a sloping roof they can look very attractive and can be adorned with a collection of interesting old tiles plates and pots. We suggest that you consider incorporating one in your garden design from day one with a convenient eating terrace nearby, provided that it would not overpower the rest of the garden.

The Fondue Pot.

Nothing is easier than carrying the fondue pot and mentholated spirit heater into the garden for an easy to prepare meat, cheese or chocolate fondue. The latter with slices of fresh or dried fruit to dip in is one of our favourite deserts.

The Raclete.

As with the fondue an electric raclete cooker is easily set up in the garden with an extension lead.

Hot Stone Cooking.

In recent years the cooking of meat on a preheated stone slab has crept into Spain from the Alps. Provided one takes care in heating up the stone in an oven or on a gas ring and then transporting it to the table such cooking is excellent for the garden. Little space required, fun, different and no mess.

Solar Cooking.

This can be fun for children and a great project for a handy granddad.

If you hunt around you may come across a solar grill. If not you can easily construct one from an old TV dish aerial covered with silver foil. Sausages hung at the focal point of the reflected sunrays will sizzle without burning.

Alternatively construct a traditional straw box oven for preparing soup or a casserole. Take a large biscuit tin. Paint it black. Line it tightly with straw. Set the metal cooking casserole or saucepan into the straw. Close the lid, cover with straw and leave until you get back from the beach. Obviously it will only work on a hot day.

An Electric Griddle Plate.

These are now widely available and inexpensive. They are particularly useful for cooking a full breakfast or brunch on the table.

Practical ideas for all tastes and situations are included in the above list which expands on what we could include in our book Your Garden in Spain for lack of space. We hope that they lead to more enjoyable al fresco breakfasts, brunches, lunches and dinners. But as a gardener do make them memorable by ensuring that the views from each of your cooking and eating areas are among the best in the garden, that pleasing perfumes waft across on a balmy night and that the hedge is high and thick enough to give privacy and protection from cooler and hotter breezes.

© Clodagh and Dick Handscombe June 2008