Harriet Walker: 'In warm weather, the city comes to life and food is at its core'

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The Independent Online

Living in London during the summer is something like living in the souks but with none of the exotic, spicy charm. About seven million of us crammed in higgledy-piggledy, in such close proximity to one another that no man's dinner remains unique, thanks to the person frying garlic on the ground floor. Even the rice pudding tastes of it.

Actually, that's a snapshot of London life all year round, but in winter your nostrils are too clogged with expanding frozen grime for you to smell anything. That's the reason nobody notices for months when an elderly neighbour dies in their armchair.

But in warm weather, the city comes to life, too, and food is at its core. We spill out into parks and on to benches, ripping our pale bodies free of cheap and shiny, bri-nylon suits like ravening Maenads, all the better to scoop up our superfood salads before their modified atmosphere packaging dries the alfalfa to crispy husks.

And we barbecue too – what a pointless practice that is. The Freudian miasma surrounding "man cook meat on hot rocks" is too tiresome to get into, so let's address the etiquette side instead: quite simply, do not invite people for a barbecue unless you yourself intend not to leave the infernal furnace unattended for a second.

The number of twee garden parties I've been invited to ("Hey bebz, come for some burgaz!") which I have then spent squirting lighter fluid on a pair of bangers are too numerous to count. My tactic now is to turn up with a bottle of wine and some gherkins, which will go nicely on a burger should there be any, but which are also perfect for eating on their own with a fork, should the meat never materialise.

There's something about stuffing your face in the fading light of a midge-filled back yard that makes you want to throw oodles of fresh leaves around and drizzle them in something delicate and fragrant.

Now, I'm no cook – unless you count frankfurters dipped in hummus – but even I, when reading up on summer recipes safe in the knowledge I will never try to make any of them, imagine myself recreating them for a rickety table on a terracotta terrasse somewhere hot. I like the subliminal precision of a summer salad – the beans, lardons, cous cous and curlicues of green all look like they are placed just so. But try it yourself, and it resembles more Pompei after Vesuvius: a pulpy mass with some trees poking out.

It's definitely harder to pull off an ideal summer repast than it is to cook heartily in winter. It's the difference between being naturally long-limbed and elegant, and really having to work at being less solid and clumpy.

My boyfriend and I have come up with the perfect seasonal compromise: our summer supper of choice is a bacon sandwich. Not that elegant, you might assume, but when served on toasted malty bread, with a layer of mature cheddar and rocket, the builders' staple becomes something entirely more sophisticated. Not to mention summery. "It's so great that I came up with this manna from heaven," says my boyfriend sagely, as he bites into his butty. "But it was my idea," I counter, tucking into my own. "You just said, 'How about a bacon sandwich?' and then I added all the swanky bits." "No, no," he says. "I think you'll find this was one of mine."

This annoys me no end, because last year I let him claim the world's greatest pizza as one of his ideas (it was, in fact, me who worked out the importance of adding chicken to the Pizza Express Padana pizza), and it was I who let him into the secret of putting Gorgonzola on pasta, though I let him tell other people about it, as it makes him feel important.

The British are, after all, mere temporary custodians of food culture in summer, because our strengths really lie in hotpots and stews. We merely curate other cultures from June to September, pretending that tzatziki is as rightfully ours as the Elgin marbles or that tomato and basil was a combination we all signed up to at Runnymede.

With that in mind, I spent a weekend break recently sampling that other British summer food of choice, the kebab, in its rightful habitat. But in Istanbul, I had to offer to sell my friend to the restaurant before they'd contemplate putting chips inside the wrap. And much good it did me; I have been laid low with something akin to dysentery for the past week. And that's not the only flipside of summer food: there must also never be too much of it, because you never know when you'll be called on to appear poolside in some skimpy outfit. It's one or the other, I'm afraid – go ahead and glut yourself on authentic Toulouse sausage and Roquefort – but don't moan about looking fat in a bikini afterwards.