As I sit in the office, looking out of the window, longing to head outdoors and enjoy the rare spate of sunshine and warm weather we’re experiencing, my thoughts to turn to al fresco dining.
Of course, the usual unpredictability of the UK weather means today’s picnic can either be a hastily assembled al fresco lunch spontaneously grabbed from the shelves of the local deli, or an elaborate Glyndebourne-style multi course supper eaten stoically by candlelight… under a dripping awning!
In either scenario there is still a true sense of occasion when eating al fresco, which of course should be reflected in the menu.
Not surprisingly, our continental cousins, with their reliable climates have nailed the art of picnic packing, and whether in France, Italy or Spain, the heroes of the picnic basket are always freshly baked bread, local cheeses, cured meats, fresh fruit and possibly a jar or two of marinated vegetables, a rich paté or rillette. All timeless and delicious!
We might follow the continental model, but for the British, picnics are less casual affairs and demand more thought and ostentation. We want more bling for our buck with a guest appearance of lightly-smoked Loch Duart smoked salmon, super-rare roast sirloin of beef with freshly grated horseradish crème fraiche, or fresh white Cromer Crab with a punchy mayo, combining the brown crab meat with smoked paprika and lemon.
British produce is undoubtedly the star of the show with chargrilled asparagus, Jersey Royals and Summer berries topping the bill every year (although we’re still not adverse to embracing our inner-Mediterranean with a flask of chilled gazpacho to keep Summer temperatures at bay).
And to drink? Forget the bubbles, instead, replace with a delicate blush Provencal Rosé or even a chilled Fleurie, perry or cider. Fill a water flask with ice cubes, take a watermelon and knife and the whole party will be quenched all afternoon long.
Like all entertaining, the setting is as important as the food and whether sprawled on tartan picnic rugs with mismatched cushions and eating from a cooler-cum-rucksack, or sat at a pop-up table and chairs unpacking the Fortnum’s hamper, the surrounding paraphernalia goes a long way to create the right ambience.
However, there are some rules. Whether a casual, thrown together picnic or an elegant Summer season soirée, napkins must be linen (even vintage tea-towels are preferable to paper serviettes), cutlery must be sturdy, and drinks MUST be enjoyed from proper glassware, although swap stemmed glassware for chunky Picardie tumblers which are durable, stack-able and fiendishly stylish.