Perhaps it's with a longing look to the continent that the British have become obsessed with the idea of eating outside. If we can call it "alfresco" and crack open a bottle of rosé while our sea bass sizzles or our lamb cutlets roast, we can almost picture ourselves on the Amalfi Coast – as raindrops vaporise on the grill and we dash inside for a second jumper.
The May bank holiday traditionally marks the start of barbecue season but a balmy April saw thousands of middle-aged men in flip-flops stocking up on sausages and charcoal. With the World Cup in South Africa looming like an approaching cloudburst, retailers are reporting record barbecue sales as fresh-air eaters seek ever more elaborate ways to bring a taste of Cape Town to Clacton-on-Sea. No more the rickety, rusting barbecue neglected for half the year – now we want smokers, wood-fired ovens and entire outdoor kitchens. "As we become a nation of foodies faced with a recession, more of us are looking for new ways to make staying at home more exciting," says Brian George, the president of the National BBQ Association. "And whether you're sitting back with a glass of wine or hosting a huge al fresco dinner party, it's just more fun to eat outside."
Cloudy with a chance of meatballs
But first: the forecast. Forget the Met Office, which has stopped providing long-term predictions after a string of blunders, including, last year, the promised "barbecue summer" (which became a washout). Perhaps a more reliable projection comes from a tiny outfit in South Wales. Abergavenny-based Positive Weather Solutions, which has five staff to the Met Office's 1,800, predicted last summer's rain and the "big freeze". Call it a fluke, but who doesn't want to believe its assertion that average temperatures this June to August will break records, and that early August will bring with it a two-week heatwave. "It looks like it will be a sizzler," says a very happy Brian George.
The (hopefully sunny) sky's the limit for outdoor eaters with deep pockets but money can't buy the authentic smoky taste of a first-rate barbecue. Chef Chris Galvin of the London restaurant Galvin at Windows likes to reach for the skewers and tongs at his home in rural Essex, when he's not producing posh nosh on white tablecloths. "It's when the caveman comes out in most guys, isn't it," he says. Galvin uses a traditional oil-drum barbecue he got a blacksmith friend to build ("They're great because they're simple and create lot of heat") but says there are off-the-shelf alternatives for those of us who don't know a blacksmith. Online-only Barrel-barbecue.co.uk sells smart, painted barbecues made from real oil drums, while Argos does an imitation for a wallet-friendly £39. "Just be sure it has strong bars on the top that take the heat," Galvin warns.
A sorry little barbecue collecting puddles in the corner of the patio used to be enough to satisfy our outdoor dining ambitions. Now we're turning our gardens into building sites in a bid to cook the perfect pizza. Wood-fired pizza ovens made out of bricks and mortar have become hot property for those with the space and money. Gwyneth Paltrow owns one and Jamie Oliver used an Italian Valoriani oven (Orchardovens.co.uk) to mouth-watering effect in his Jamie at Home series. Forno Bravo (Fornobravo.co.uk) has a range of pizza ovens including the self-standing Primavera, which isn't much bigger than a large barbecue. "Wood-fired ovens are brilliant for cooking pretty much anything," Galvin says. "Once the heat gets going you can keep cooking all day." If you don't want a brick affair, George says a standard barbecue will knock out a decent pizza. "Most barbecues will run at or above normal oven temperature when you shut the lid," he says.
We don't all have huge kitchen gardens with room for brick ovens but there are dozens of barbecues to fit even the smallest outdoor space. Design outfit, Mode, offers a range of mini-grills including a stylish portable number that folds flat when not in use, and the popular Grilletto, which uses a smart, folding blast-furnace system to reach cooking temperature in 10 minutes (Mode.co.uk). For those of us without even a gesture of a garden, George suggests plugging in an electric George Foreman grill (Georgeforeman .co.uk) "You won't get the smokiness of a barbecue but at least you'll get the grilled taste," he says.
When it's not enough to move your oven outside, an increasing number of al fresco nuts are taking everything else – and the kitchen sink. In a sure sign of a growing trend, Tesco has started selling the Landmann Kitchen BBQ, a £1,600 10ft-long sideboard with integrated five burners, brushed steel sideboards and, yes, a sink (does it attach to the garden hose?). Fancier models incorporate drinks fridges, teppanyaki hotplates, granite work surfaces, elbow-height counters with bar stools and, crucially, full-size awnings. BBQ Island (Bbqisland.net) produces luxury models for as much as £20,000. One wonders if it wouldn't be cheaper to keep your existing kitchen and knock down the walls.
Cooking on gas
Or coal? Both, in George's case. He has barbecues to suit all occasions. "The small gas grill is perfect when you come home after work and just want to sit down with a beer and chuck on a couple of burgers, while I've got a charcoal oil drum barbecue for the weekend." If you're choosing one, decide what suits you best. George: "Charcoal is by far the best option for taste but it's hard to beat the convenience of gas, which you can just switch on and use." Or, in an effort to combine the best of both worlds, get a barbecue with lava rocks, which sound cool but also emulate charcoal by giving the fat from cooking meat something to drip and burn on – crucial for that barbecue taste. "It's about as close to charcoal as you can get," George says. Many gas barbecues come with lava rocks (Outback's Omega 200, for example – Outbackbarbecues.com). Most garden centres sell the rocks separately but be careful – they're not compatible with all barbecues.
Mark Hix, the award winning chef, restaurateur and Independent columnist, got so good at smoking salmon at the end of his garden he started selling his produce to Selfridges. Hix uses a Bradley, a hi-tech American smoker that resembles a fridge and is fuelled by Bradley's "bisquettes" (Bradleysmoker.co.uk). More rustic alternatives are widely available. George recommends the Big Green Egg, a grill that doubles up as an oven as well as a smoker for any fish or meat (Biggreenegg.eu). Macho masters of the barbecue will thump their hairy chests at the sight of the Landmann Grand Tennessee (Landmann.co.uk), which will not only smoke and grill anything you throw at it but also looks like Stephenson's rocket.