FOOD & DRINK / When al fresco means al Tesco: A summer picnic need not be a major production. Browse through your local supermarket, says Michael Bateman

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The Independent Culture
A picnic is no fun if you have to endure hours of anxiety beforehand. Most people don't have the time or the inclination to stagemanage the outdoor banquets we keep reading about, which require days of planning, shopping, preparing, cooking, chilling, packing, transporting and serving.

Luckily we don't need to. One of the most delightful picnics I remember was staged by an actor friend, playing in an Alan Ayckbourn play in Scarborough. He emerged from the first half with his make-up still on, spread a tartan rug on a grassy slope in the park beside the theatre, and produced a feast from his bag: taramasalata, houmous, kalamata olives, quiche, smoked salmon and chicken sandwiches, peaches, strawberries with creme fraiche and chilled sparkling wine. How on earth had he found the time? 'I just walked into Marks & Spencer,' he said.

So is it heresy to take the easy road, pop in and pick up a picnic at your neighbourhood supermarket? I put the question to Claudia Roden, whose classic Picnic has just been reprinted in Penguin ( pounds 10.99).

Not at all, she said. As she makes clear in her book, the essence of a happy picnic is simplicity. Her aim is to extract maximum pleasure from minimum effort. At that very moment, in fact, she was preparing a spontaneous picnic in the garden for some childhood friends who'd just dropped in. 'I'm making a platter of roast vegetables to serve with good olive oil.' Simple, and quick: Claudia Roden roasts the aubergines, red and green peppers and tomatoes in a very hot oven for half an hour until tender, and scrapes the skins off. She puts in sugar peas (mange-touts), asparagus, and spring onions to cook for the last five minutes. With a little sea salt and freshly milled black pepper, the juices of the vegetables mingle with the oil, to be mopped up with freshly baked bread from the supermarket. 'I bought ciabatta, brioche and walnut bread.'

She sees no reason not to buy picnics from the supermarket if the products are good. 'There's nothing better than a platter of smoked fish, salami or charcuterie with some pickles and olives, perhaps some artichoke hearts, a few tomatoes and a cucumber, a couple of cheeses, some good bread and fruit.'

We asked five of Britain's leading food retailers to suggest a menu for an instant picnic.

MARKS & SPENCER

M & S luxury sandwiches and quiches are a megabusiness, with 75 different sandwiches, 20 quiches. The deli, too, has taken off with 180 products.

Cold soups: asparagus, watercress ( pounds 1.65), leek and potato ( pounds 1.25). Marinated black olives (75p), mezze selection ( pounds 2.49), antipasti ( pounds 2.99). Salmon: smoked salmon roulade with horseradish and cream cheese filling ( pounds 2.65), 18 smoked salmon appetisers ( pounds 6.99), gravadlax ( pounds 2.99). Sliced meats: jamon serrano ( pounds 2.75), wafer-thin meats, eg smoked ham (85p). Quiches: two picnic quiches lorraines (99p), ploughman's quiche ( pounds 1.49p), Mediterranean quiche ( pounds 1.69p). Salad: fresh guacamole - avocado - salad ( pounds 1.39). Seafood: Scandinavian herring selection ( pounds 1.85), dressed crab ( pounds 2.99), green-shelled mussels ( pounds 1.59). Chicken: Hot Spicy Buffalo (chicken) wings ( pounds 1.49 per lb) and Texas Barbeque chicken wings ( pounds 1.59 per lb). Sandwiches: Greek salad sandwich (99p), tomato, mozzarella in ciabatta roll ( pounds 1.99p), and prawn-filled pitta ( pounds 1.09p). Pies: Lancashire pies ( pounds 1.75), and miniature pork pies (69p). Breads: ciabatta (89p), pugliese (79p), and French sticks (59p). Drinks: cans of low-alcohol Buck's fizz (35p), kir and pina colada (39p). Ripe fruit ready to eat, tomatoes grown for flavour, ready-packed salads, and crudites. And there are desserts galore.

WAITROSE

Good delicatessen counter and breads, the foundation of a good picnic.

Pates: Ardennes (53p per 4oz), smoked salmon ( pounds 1.05p per 4oz), crab (99p per 4oz). Trout, spinach and ginger terrine (99p per 4oz), carrot and broccoli terrine (79p per 4oz). Individual quiches: cheese and onion, smoked ham and tomato (65p). Individual pies: ham and chicken (62p), duck, turkey and orange (69p), turkey, ham and apricot (69p). Sliced meats: pastrami, smoked turkey, honey-roast ham, smoked ham (from 89p to 75p per 100g). Salmon: smoked ( pounds 15.45p per lb), smoked salmon parcels ( pounds 1.99 each), smoked salmon roulade ( pounds 1.95p per 100g), gravadlax ( pounds 3.95 per 200g). Sandwiches: pitta bread with chilli chicken ( pounds 1.79) and with spicy prawn ( pounds 1.59). Salads (per 4 oz portion): gazpacho (89p), celery, cucumber and prawn (99p), Riz Oriental with prawns (72p), tortellini (69p). Breads: Italian pugliese (63p), Pan Gallego (72p), German coarse grain rye (75p) and ciabatta (72p). Desserts: tartlets with mandarin oranges (49p), banana and butterscotch (59p). Individual cheesecakes with blackcurrant, lemon or cherry toppings (69p). A variety of gateaux (99p). Also carrot cake ( pounds 2.29), and cappuccino mousse cake ( pounds 2.49).

SAINSBURY'S

Very wide range to choose from - bread, salads, fruits, and dairy, especially cheeses.

Starters: sliced Isle of Skye smoked salmon ( pounds 7.45 for 8oz), prosciutto crudo ( pounds 2.69 per 70g), quail's eggs ( pounds 1.19 per 12), duck and orange pate (92p per 170g). Savoury tarts: salmon and dill quiche ( pounds 1.79p per 375g), chicken, mushroom and courgette flan ( pounds 1.79 per 380g). Dips: blue cheese, mustard, chilli, garlic ( pounds 1.69 for 500g). Salads: herb (99p for 60g), frisee and radicchio with croutons ( pounds 1.15 for 120g), chunky potato (85p for 200g). Sandwiches: pastrami bagel ( pounds 1.59p), Mexican chicken pitta bread ( pounds 1.39), brie and tomato baguette ( pounds 1.69p). Breads: baguette de campagne (62p), ciabatta rolls (69p for 2). Cheeses: French brie ( pounds 2.12 per lb), Welsh goat's (99p for 100g), Gorgonzola ( pounds 3.54 per lb). Desserts: fraises de bois ( pounds 1.99 for 125g), with creme fraiche d'Isigny (75p for 200ml), kiwi, strawberry, grape tarts ( pounds 2.79 each), tarte aux pommes ( pounds 2.95). Drinks: freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice ( pounds 1.05 per 500ml), lemonade with blackcurrant (78p for 2 litres), Caledonian Spring water with lemon (54p per litre).

SAFEWAY

Strong on seasonal and exotic fruits, salad vegetables.

Savouries: smoked salmon ( pounds 5.99 for 200g), ham on the bone ( pounds 1.08 per 4oz), chicken satay sticks (28p each) with peanut or chilli sauce (39p per 4oz). Dip: award-winning taramasalata (39p for 4oz). Salads: Nicoise with tuna and pasta quills (79p per 4oz), prawn and cucumber with dill mayonnaise (99p per 4oz), tortellini stuffed with ricotta (69p per 4oz), citrus coleslaw (49p per 4oz). Pillow packs of Italian salad ( pounds 1.29 for 80g) and French salad ( pounds 1.29 for 100g). Bread: ciabatta (79p). British cheeses: per lb, Buxton Blue ( pounds 3.15), St David's - like the rich-smelling French Chaumes - ( pounds 3.84), English goat's - Velde ( pounds 6.49). Desserts: punnets of mixed berries ( pounds 1.99 for 300g) with double cream, yoghurt, or raspberry or orange creme fraiche (69p for 130g). Drinks: Bubbly Blackcurrant or Strawberry wine - 5.5 degrees alcohol, half the normal ( pounds 1.99 a bottle).

TESCO

Large range, good quality, competitive prices.

Dips: tsatsiki (69p for 170g), Bombay lime (59p for 170g). Pate: duck with port ( pounds 2.16 per lb). Smoked salmon: pounds 2.99 for 4oz. Sliced meats: pastrami ( pounds 1.19 for 100g), sliced peppered beef ( pounds 1.29 for 4oz), shaved smoked turkey ( pounds 3.20 per lb). Salads: Mediterranean pasta (85p for 180g), apple and walnut (99p for 180g), Royal Delicious tomatoes ( pounds 1.19 for 400g). Cheeses: Cambridge Blue, new soft cheese like a blue brie ( pounds 3.29 per lb), Swiss Gruyere slices ( pounds 3.31 per lb). Breads: mini white pittas (52p for ten), French sticks (47p). Desserts: traditionally made sultana scones (72p for 4) and strawberry conserve (85p), clotted cream (99p for 8oz), tiramisu ( pounds 2.29). Drinks: freshly squeezed orange juice ( pounds 1.95 a litre), Mountain Spring sparkling water (50p a litre).

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