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On my plate: Take a walk on the wild side and discover a new way of cooking

© Andrew MontgomeryGill Meller’s search for simpler, stripped-back styles of cooking leads him outdoors
Gill Meller’s search for simpler, stripped-back styles of cooking leads him outdoors

Cooking outdoors might seem like a bit of a chore, when you start thinking about all the elaborate bits of kit you need to bring with you to make your meal shine.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth for Gill Meller, who’s happiest when 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 over-complicate the food – let the ingredients speak for themselves, that’s always been my philosophy.

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

Meller – who has worked with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage for 11 years – has had a lifelong love affair with cooking and eating al fresco. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed being outside,” he shares. “Whether that’s just hanging out and playing with mates, being outside has always been something I’ve longed for.

“Growing up in the countryside makes it a bit easier to head off and spend time outside safely – I always used to like getting campfires and cooking something. Whether it was edible or not was always up for discussion.”

As a professional chef, Meller’s meals are now more than just about edible – but his love of the outdoors remains.

“If I had a choice, I’d always much rather cook and eat outside than inside, if the weather is favourable,” he says – and his latest cookbook is “a celebration of our connection with being outside, and the food that we eat”.

It’s not just about cooking over fire (although there is a lot of that). You’ll find plenty of options for enjoying nature, whether that’s preparing a picnic indoors and taking it out with you, or foraging for ingredients.

Ultimately, Meller says: “It’s good for our soul, it’s good for our wellbeing, it’s good for our mental health. It’s good for us to reconnect on a fairly basic level with the environment and the world around us – and being outside enables that to happen more easily than being in an office, or in the four walls of your kitchen.”

And using fire is “more rewarding than cooking on a gas hob in the kitchen”, he asserts. “We are tapping into a very ancient 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’re able to really connect with such a primal, instinctive way of cooking, I think it helps us rekindle some of that natural instinct that we have – that 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, for a lot of people, has become so desensitised. It might just be as simple as putting a meal in the microwave and waiting for the buzzer to ring, and that is the level of engagement in the food they’re eating. But when you step outside, you’re engaging with it on a whole new level. If you’re starting your own fire, it’s worlds away from the cooking we’ve got used to in our modern-day lifestyles.”

Gill Meller (Pic: PA Photo/Andrew Montgomery)

It might be primal but that doesn’t mean cooking over fire is always easy. “What can happen quite often is the fire gets slightly out of control – and that usually happens when you’re cooking with something quite fatty, and the fat can cause the fire to flare up,” Meller admits – and it’s something he’s fallen foul of before.

“I remember putting a tray of mackerel fillets into a rather hot wood oven with the flames at the back. The tray got so hot it warped, and the fish leaped 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?’”

Thankfully, things did eventually work out on that occasion… “We retrieved most of the fillets – some were slightly more charred than the others, but a little bit of charring goes a long way with mackerel.”


Grilled mackerel with lemon, smoked paprika, oregano and black pepper

© Press Association Images
Grilled mackerel from Outside by Gill Meller (Pic: PA Photo/Andrew Montgomery)

Serves: 2

“Summer wouldn’t be a thing without fresh mackerel. It’s a fish that has an undeniable affinity with smoky fires and searing coals – they seem drawn together,” says Gill Meller.

“This is a particularly delicious way to cook fillets of mackerel or whole fish. The flavours I’m using are punchy, but the fish carry them all beautifully.

“I usually serve with warm, crusty bread and a salad of ripe tomatoes and basil, dressed with salt, red wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil.”

You’ll need

  • 2tsp smoked paprika
  • 1tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 garlic cloves, grated
  • A small handful of oregano, leaves picked and chopped
  • 1 rosemary sprig, leaves picked and chopped
  • 1tbsp black peppercorns, crushed
  • 4 fresh mackerel fillets
  • Sea salt

Method

  1. Combine the smoked paprika with the oil, lemon zest, garlic, oregano, rosemary and peppercorns and season with the salt.
  2. Use the back of a spoon to spread the garlic mixture out over each fillet. Light your fire and when you have a bed of hot, glowing embers, set the mackerel fillets, skin-side down, on the grill. Cook for four to five minutes. You’ll notice the flesh change colour as it cooks. When the mackerel’s nearly done, turn the fillets and give them a further one minute on the other side.
  3. Carefully lift the mackerel off the grill to a plate, and serve.

Outside: Recipes For A Wilder Way Of Eating, Quadrille, £30, out now