FOOD & DRINK / Haute cuisine sur l'herbe: The Great British picnic has gone soggy, but a new guide puts the style back into eating alfresco. Michael Bateman reports

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The Independent Culture
YOU DON'T have to like opera to enjoy Glyndebourne. And you don't have to like car parks to enjoy an England-France rugby match at Twickenham. But it helps.

Glyndebourne and the car park at Twickers open and close the English picnicking season. In principle, anyway. In fact, this year Glyndebourne is temporarily closed, and Twickenham car park never closes, as picnicking there goes on into the depth of winter.

The English picnicking season is an improbable world which Mary Smith has come to know well. This month she turns a lifetime of experience into a stylish book, Perfect Picnics (Pavilion pounds 9.99), which she has written with her daughter Debbie. She believes that if a picnic is worth doing at all, it's worth doing well.

She recalls a disconcerting picnic with the bubbling publisher, Anthony Blond. He picked the Smith family up in his yellow Rolls-Royce and drove them to the river near Eton. He enthusiastically produced a metal bucket which he filled with scrunched-up newspapers and set on fire using cooking oil. The consequent 'barbecued' sausages were soot-black on the outside and completely raw inside.

'Our children, who were under 10, thought it was the most exciting thing,' says Mary. 'But I believe a picnic should be enjoyed as a proper outdoor meal. Picnicking has become a dirty word, hasn't it? It's come to mean a sausage roll and a sandwich.'

She doesn't think you need take formality quite as far as the French, who sometimes wheel out dining tables and chairs, but a picnic certainly merits good tablecloths, crockery, glasses and cutlery, and original and interesting food. 'It's depressing when you go somewhere like Lord's or Henley and everyone is eating identical lobster salads from Marks & Spencer.' She hastens to add: 'I've nothing against Marks & Spencer.' In fact, if you're getting a meal ready for a dozen people, she says, it's not a bad idea to reserve your energy for the creative bits. So buy ready-peeled potatoes, or vegetables, or salad stuff - which would take you hours to do at home.

Mary Smith is not only a seasoned picnicker; she once picnicked her way through the Season. Grand Glyndebourne, aristocratic Ascot with its hats in the Royal enclosure, hooray Henley for boats and boaters, clubby Cowes, Lord's for the Eton and Harrow cricket match. This was not the act of an overeager member of high society. Her husband, the writer Godfrey Smith, was researching a book on the English Season at the time.

Mary Smith is Viennese-born, and one of those foreigners who has become more English than the English. She came to Britain when she was 10, and went to an English boarding school which she loved. She learned, among other things, how to play cricket. This has stood her in good stead, as her husband (generally known as 'God' or 'Godders') is president of the local village cricket club. This position may have something to do with the fact that Mary and her eldest daughter, Debbie, put on celebrated lunches for visiting teams.

Mary Smith's picnics are famous, starting with hot soups from wide-mouthed thermos flasks, served in proper soup bowls, not plastic cups. In the spirit of feeding the 5,000, she makes an extra terrine or pate to offer to unexpected guests and passers-by. Daughter Debbie, a passionate cook since the age of 11, is the creative half of the partnership. She used to unwind from the pressures of the classroom with a session in the kitchen. It was Debbie who invented the Godsmay salad, for her father's birthday in May; tender broad beans, radishes and watercress strewn with crispy pieces of streaky bacon and lightly-toasted pine nuts, dressed with a honey-flavoured vinaigrette made with grainy mustard.

Crab tarts were another of Debbie's inventions, designed to resolve the technical challenge of taking fragile pastries on a picnic. Solution: make the pastry cases and the filling separately, carefully pack the first in wrapping, chill the filling, and assemble on site.

Although they don't rule out spur-of-the-moment picnics, Mary and Debbie both believe success depends on thorough planning. Rather than old-fashioned picnic baskets, they use plastic containers. They cut down the dividers from old wine boxes, and put them in insulated picnic containers with ice-packs to store a dozen syllabubs or rhubarb fools ready filled, and chilled, in wine or champagne glasses.

The authors very helpfully supply a picnic checklist on the endpapers of their book, but here's an opportunity to compare it with your own. Corkscrew, tin-opener, toothpicks, pre-chilled freezer packs, ice cubes, unbreakable wine cooler, kettle and Calor gas cylinder, matches, salt and pepper mills, mustard, tins of savoury and sweet biscuits, milk, sugar and sweeteners, cheese, fruit, bread, butter, bottled water, beer, soft drinks, tablecloth, clips for tablecloth, moist wipes, napkins, wrapping foil, rug and cushions, lightweight folding table and chairs, first-aid kit.

The following three recipes are family favourites. In the spirit of our A-Z of treats, they all contain lots of cream - so it may be excessive to serve all three at the same sitting. Then again, a picnic is a special occasion . . .

CRAB AND CALVADOS TARTS

You can also serve them hot as a delicious dinner dish. Halve the quantity if you wish.

Serves 12

1lb plain flour

8oz butter, diced small

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon chilled water

4 to 6 crabs, white and dark meat

(crack the shells open)

48 Dublin Bay Prawns

(for the garnish)

1pt single cream

juice of 1 lemon

4fl oz Calvados

salt

freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon olive oil

parsley to garnish

Make the pastry in a blender, whizzing the flour and the butter to the texture of crumbs. Add the egg and whizz together for a few seconds. Add the water and whizz for a few more seconds. Turn out and flatten into a ball, cover with cling film and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6. Roll out the pastry, and cut 12 circles to fit 12 individual tart tins. Prick the bases with a fork and bake blind (covered with a circle of baking paper and some dry beans) for 10 minutes. Remove the paper and the beans and bake for five minutes more. Leave to cool in tins.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan, and warm through the crab meat, adding the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Add the cream and half the Calvados, and reheat. Dribble the remaining Calvados on top and set alight. Allow to flame for a few moments. Serve hot in pastry shells; or, for the picnic, allow mixture to cool. Chill and reassemble on the picnic site, garnishing with prawns and parsley.

BLACK ROE WITH EGGS AND CREAM

This starter is the most asked-for recipe in the Smith family picnic repertoire; it was first made for them by an Austrian friend, Ilse Yardley.

Serves 6

9 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled

8fl oz double cream

5oz jar lumpfish roe

(or caviare if you have it)

plenty of freshly ground black pepper

Cut the hard-boiled eggs in half and put the yolks in a large bowl, breaking them up completely with a fork until they are crumbly. Combine the yolks with the cream to make a smooth paste. Chop the egg whites finely. (Using a potato masher is the quickest method.) Blend with the yolk and cream mixture, seasoning with plenty of freshly ground black pepper.

Divide the egg mixture into six ramekins, smooth the surface and then put a small amount of roe on each, gently spreading it over the eggs. Serve slightly chilled.

RHUBARB AND GINGER FOOL

Serves 12

4lb rhubarb, after trimming

12oz caster sugar

finely grated rind, and juice,

of 2 large oranges

1 1/2 pt sour cream

6 chunks of preserved stem ginger,

drained, cut into matchsticks

Preheat oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Cut rhubarb into 1in lengths, and fill a suitable oven-proof dish, sprinkling with the sugar and orange peel and juice. Bake for 30-40 minutes until tender.

Pour off surplus juice through a colander (keep it for a delicious cordial-type drink). Allow rhubarb to cool, and puree the remaining pulp. Stir in the sour cream, adjust for sweetness, then add the ginger, keeping some for decoration. Transfer to ramekins or glasses, decorate and chill.

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