Year on year, ‘al fresco’ dining seems to be booming. Heather Barron casts a culinary eye over the joys of outdoor eating.

EVERY village, town, and city is now offering the opportunity, at an ever-increasing range of hostelries, to sit outdoors to eat.

It’s no longer just a beer garden at the back of a country pub, more and more restaurants and bars are creating pavement cafes as an extension to their dining areas, and coffee shops are offering a couple of tables in front of their establishments.

Whereas this was once the haunt of the sole smoker, it is increasingly the choice of customers who wish to enjoy a cappuccino and watch the world go by without a pane of glass in front of them.

The etymology of the phrase is borrowed from Italian for "in the cool [air]", although it is not in current use in that language to refer to dining outside. Instead, Italians use the phrases fuori or all'aperto. In Italian, the expression al fresco usually refers to spending time in jail.

Awnings are provided, in case of inclement rain or over-zealous sunshine; heaters, either wall-mounted or free standing, for the cooler days; and - how cosy - fluffy blankets for the braver souls who insist on enjoying the benefits of sub-zero temperatures.

Once upon a time, for most ordinary folk, outdoor dining was a picnic rug in the garden, in a field, or on the beach, with sandwiches in Tupperware boxes, a pork pie, and a bottle of pop. Or maybe fish and chips slathered in salt and tangy vinegar, eaten out of newspaper at the seaside.

We’ve come a very long way since those simple but halcyon days.

Now, every supermarket offers ‘food to go’, so you don’t even have to make your own sandwiches! Just fill your basket (or order on-line) with cake, pies, finger food, vol-au-vents, mini sausages - the list is endless and caters for every taste.

There are even companies that will create a hamper for you, so you don’t have to do the shopping yourself. Gazebos can be erected in a field, a table set with fine china and glinting cutlery, and – if you really want to push the boat out – a butler can be included in the package.

A favourite summer past-time is outdoor theatre where you can take your picnic to graze on whilst enjoying the thespian entertainment. A bottle or two of wine tops off the al fresco experience and adds to the enjoyment.

Whether you are watching with a vibrant setting sun illuminating the proceedings, or peering through a fine drizzle of typically English rain, everything seems better with a glass of fizz and a sausage roll.

Historically, food was eaten in the fields during a break from working, or hunting parties appeased their hunger with a quick snack prior to the hunt. This was food-on-the-hoof – a necessity rather than a pleasure.

Cowboys in the United States of America would grill their dinners outdoors during cattle drives – an early forerunner of the popular barbecue.

Formal picnics emerged in America in the 18th century where families paid to visit ‘pleasure gardens’ as recreation, with the opportunity to stroll through private gardens while enjoying some simple foodstuffs.

Literary al fresco eating can be found everywhere, from Jane Austen’s disastrous picnic on Box Hill in Emma, to the splendid lashings of ginger beer and potted meat sandwiches enjoyed by the children in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.

Whether impromptu or planned to the last detail, you can’t beat outdoor eating. The space, the weather (whatever may come), the freedom, adds an extra frisson that indoor dining could never emulate.