Al Fresco

by Sarah West

al fresco

I was buying bulk tea from my favorite local merchant this week when the friendly barista and I struck up a conversation, as we usually do, about drinking tea. She mentioned that the leaves I had just bought, a high-elevation-grown Nepalese black tea, she had recently brewed on a high-elevation hike, drinking it in the thin, crisp air someplace, I presume, in our mountainous backyard. Her face lit up as she described how different her experience of the tea’s flavor was, how the act of brewing and tasting it had been noticeably altered by the elevation or the view or the myriad other environmental details of her mountain perch.

It may sound strange, but tea has taught me more about tasting vegetables than any other plant. It is the perfect metaphor for flavor manipulation: at base level, all tea comes from the leaves of a single species, Camellia sinensis, for which there exists thousands of cultivars, growing methods, harvesting and processing techniques, the endless combinations of which result in an astonishing diversity of flavor profiles. And pairing tea with a certain trail, campsite or garden setting adds further nuance, extending the experience from mouth to whole body.

The first time I noticed this phenomenon was when I was drinking pu-er—a type of dry-fermented Chinese tea with a rich, earthy character—while camping at the base of Mount St. Helens. The full flavor and cedar aroma of the pu-er resonated perfectly with the forest’s moist air, scented by humus, nursery logs and leaf matter and overlaid with mineral freshness from the mountain stream nearby. As if the tea picked up some forest essence that day, I haven’t had a sip of it since without recalling that lush setting.

Eating and drinking outdoors is exciting—a wildflower meadow, garden alcove or cliff by the sea is a place fully alive and that vitality flavors the meal, whether it be a sandwich wrapped in a napkin or a multi-course dinner. I love to wait for the ideal picnic spot to reveal itself on a hike—a suddenly open view or comfortable streamside log. Cooking on the campfire adds ancient, elemental flavors to familiar recipes. Dining in the sanctity of your own garden is a way to relax and enjoy the company of the foliage, flowers and fruit you have worked hard to cultivate.

Your own patio may be the best al fresco dining in town: vegetables picked just before they hit the pan or plate, herbs at arm’s length for extra seasoning, the scent of lilies or gardenia filling out the late evening air as you finish your meal. This is why we toil, isn’t it? To sit, finally, and let our gardens be what they are: nourishers of experience.

And yet, I wonder if there isn’t something more at work while eating the tomato in its sunshine, the beans in their acrobatics, the greens near their soil. If there is not an actual flavor that eating amidst a garden brings (and I believe there must be, as the majority of our sense of taste is olfactory, and to eat in the outdoors is to breathe in the outdoors), there is an understanding, a deep anchoring of place. The way my cup of tea anchored me in that forest camp, fresh vegetables eaten in the freshness of a garden create a bond, a whole-body understanding that cannot be replicated by even the most cleverly designed restaurant interior.

Dining al fresco is a summer rite open to all who know where the nearest patch of grass is, to be practiced as frequently as your whims demand. The more you eat outdoors, the more you will feel compelled to do it again, until the cool autumnal breeze laden with thick raindrops forces the patio chairs back into storage and sends our gardens underground, to begin dreaming next year’s feasts.