The art of the al fresco feast

Food & drink

The art of the al fresco feast

Outdoor communal dining hits different on holiday. Richard MacKichan and friends head for Menorca in search of the perfect conditions

Richard MacKichan

BY Richard MacKichan12 August 2022

You know the kind: sizes and colours you didn’t know tomatoes could be; flavours you didn’t know tomatoes could have. Chopped, drenched in a local olive oil, sprinkled with salt and served in a large bowl to a blur of jabbing forks.

Picnic at Finca Bellavista, a Zannier private estate | Mr & Mrs Smith

It can be that simple, although this isn’t a ritual defined by one single dish. It’s a nebulous concept, I guess. But let’s – in the spirit of such laissez faire situations – give it the working title of ‘The al fresco group feast’ for now.

Sure, of a summer you can ‘attend a barbecue’ or ‘have a picnic in the park’ or even ‘dine outdoors’ but these, fundamentally, do not qualify. There is small talk and questionably cooked chicken, there are rampaging dogs and too many other people, someone needs your table back. There is pressure. The purest AFGF exists in the kind of pressureless state only achievable when the group ranks equally on the ‘relaxed’ scale – best achieved next to a pool, with a beach in reach, a suntan, and a schedule everyone describes as ‘loose’.

Those vague principles established, a crew is hastily assembled and we head to Menorca – the home of Unesco-blessed beaches and mayonnaise – for the sole purpose of celebrating the art of the al fresco group feast. But before that: actual art.

A Menorcan lobster lunch | Mr & Mrs Smith

Menorca’s capital Mahón (hence ‘mayonnaise’) is one of the world’s largest natural ports and bestudded near its mouth is Illa del Rei: a steeply cliffed islet housing an 18th-century naval hospital. These days it’s not sick and wounded sailors arriving at its shores though; it’s art lovers. Esteemed gallerists Hauser & Wirth have transformed several of its outbuildings into perfect whitewashed exhibition spaces, freshly opened and hung with the expressive paintings of Rashid Johnson by way of inauguration.

The show is titled ‘Sodade’, adapted from the Portuguese term saudade meaning ‘nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for something or someone that one cares for’ which seems fitting when we take our seats for lunch at Cantina – the gallery’s charming pine-shaded al fresco restaurant – and realise we’ve had precisely that as we enthusiastically tuck into iberico ham, pan con tomate, a vast plate of rice and vegetables, and freshly grilled fish that flakes at the merest flirtation with a fork.

We blame our wearingly early flight for the fact our introductory al fresco group meal concludes without alcohol but we agree our relaxation levels have risen significantly. So it’s to home – our new, temporary one just outside the city of Ciutadella – for pomadas.

Nonna Bazaar restaurant by Zannier | Mr & Mrs Smith

And what a home Finca Bellavista is: a secluded and refreshingly wild 50 hectare estate with a welcoming whitewashed farmhouse at its centre and a private path to the prized Son Saura beach at its rear. Its hotel-worthy styling and service (concierges, babysitters, chefs and more are at your beck and call) is no surprise: it’s part of the Zannier stable, and beloved enough of its founder, Arnaud, that he chose to call it home for the best part of the year. For now, though, it’s ours, and I’ve bagged the room with the sea-spying terrace – though the pool is even closer for cooling-off purposes.

Late afternoon pool-cooling is an important pre-ritual for all the best al fresco group meals. It’s the wind down from any, ahem, exertions of the day. It’s quiet time, reading time, nap-between-dips time. Ultimately, it clears all thoughts beyond: ‘what shall we eat?’ But this time we don’t even have to go as far as answering because a chef arrives, bearing egg-white-pimped pomadas and a three-course menu of Menorca’s finest.

Technically the feast that follows doesn’t qualify for mention under the topic at hand as it’s hosted at the long wooden table in the finca’s very-much-indoors dining room. But it’s an exceptional end to the day nonetheless – baked skate wing, garden-fresh salads and plenty of ice cold rosé.

Dessert at Nonna Bazaar restaurant by Zannier | Mr & Mrs Smith

The next day’s plans revolve strictly around AFGFs, though, so we need to work up an appetite. Menorca obliges with some of the best coastal paths in the Balearics and we embark upon a circuitous cicada-soundtracked route round some unspoilt bays – their crystalline waters sparkling as the sun burns through the morning clouds. After significantly increasing our step count we eventually turn the corner to our home turf of Son Saura where, in an exquisite and welcome Zannier touch, a picnic awaits us in the shade of a pine tree.

It’s no exaggeration to say it’s the best picnic I’ve ever had: fresh tortilla, salsa-topped rose veal, salty-sweet anchovy-topped tomato bread and a whole lot more served in stone-skimming distance from the sea. We trade dishes – untroubled by wasps, unruly dogs or, well, anything really – declaring that we’re Picnic People now and we’ll never settle for cocktail sausages and lukewarm hummus again. The simplest of lunches, the fondest of memories.

Some of us while away the afternoon at the beach, some retire back to the pool but there’s a general air of excitement and it’s about dinner. Yes, thoughts move quickly to the next meal here and with good reason. Not content with applying their winning formula to hotels and private estates, Zannier have opened themselves a restaurant nearby and we have a table waiting.

Nonna Bazaar restaurant by Zannier | Mr & Mrs Smith

I say ‘a restaurant’ but Nonna Bazaar is much more than that. There’s an ancient chapel, an extremely tempting boutique, a children’s play area, a DJ booth, and a bountiful allotment which gardener Alejandro proudly shows us, pruning as he goes. It has the air of a refined beach club, albeit set in flat farmland grazed by cows (the terracotta-and-gold building at its heart is a century-old farmhouse).

We’re immediately cooled with glasses of freshly pressed lemonade and shown to our table. Their take on an hors d’oeuvre is ingenious: a DIY pan con tomate board, which immediately puts everyone into full communal feasting mode. Garlic bulbs are crushed, bulbous tomatoes sliced, freshly baked bread passed around – it’s rustic and it’s ceremonial. We dressed up for this. This is why we’re here.

To intricately describe every course that followed would be to miss the point of such occasions, but there is suckling pig, there is octopus, there is sweet and succulent chicken. There are overflowing side plates of griddled vegetables plucked from just over there. There are multiple desserts. Drinks flow and so does conversation. We share things with messy abandon. We use our hands. We laugh. A lot.

Nonna Bazaar restaurant by Zannier | Mr & Mrs Smith

Looking around as the festoon lights flicker on in place of sunlight and we see our scene repeated on multiple tables. The scent of cigar smoke lingers on the evening breeze. This, we all raise our glasses to, is the very reason we come on holiday. No one says ‘Sorry, i’ve got work tomorrow’, no one harries us out the door. Nonna Bazaar, it turns out, is purpose built for the quintessential Al Fresco Group Feast. We even buy hats.

The night blurs on, much like the rest of our trip does. But there’s always time for one more meal so on our final day we make a point of sitting down to one of the island’s most perfectly shareable dishes: the Menorcan lobster. We take an outdoor table at Ulisses, directly opposite Ciutadella’s vibrant fish market, where we’re presented, ceremonially, with a silver platter sporting a sizeable specimen sat atop skinny fries and garlanded with fried eggs. We dive in, the odd bit of shell flying across the table as we snap and crack our way to the perfectly pillowy flesh.

Back in London the following day someone invites me to a picnic in the park. I decline. It’s too soon.

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Additional photography by the author