TRIED & TESTED; Eating outdoors can mean warm beer and rancid sandwiches. Our panel test coolers that keep picnics chilled when the heat is on
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It's Hot in the city and even hotter on the beach - but nobody wants rancid butter on their sandwiches or bottles of warm beer to drink. The secret of nicely chilled beverages on a picnic used to be dangling the bottles in a handy nearby stream on a piece of string - a poetic solution that would require more streams than these islands currently provide. More prosaically, manufacturers have come to the rescue of increasingly discerning picnickers with an ingenious range of cooling products, which we tested for their practicality, efficiency and style.


British standards award star ratings for the length of time taken for liquid with a container to rise from 5C to 15C. These star ratings are often displayed on the product's label, and as an approximate guide, one star means you can rely on the product to keep its filling cool for two to four hours; two stars four to six hours; three stars six to eight hours; and four stars eight hours and more. Solid foodstuffs are more variable in result and, in any case, as a nation we are much fussier about the temperature of our drinks. The larger the volume, the more efficient a cool bag will be - if you pack it to the brim, of course.


Our al-fresco eaters were wine buff Nigel Pinke; sports player Justin Silk; fisherman Donald Hudd; sunbather Justine Bartlett; picnickers Sally Ann and Andrew Thomson; and myself.


A range of reusable ice products, costing pounds 1.99-pounds 3.99

These low-cost, reusable ice products range from individually plastic wrapped ice cubes (pounds 2.99), through flexible ice "wraps" for cans and bottles (pounds 3.99) to award-winning ice "mats" in two different sizes (pounds 1.99 and pounds 3.99) for cool bags and lunch boxes. The manufacturers recommend storing all these products in the freezer in their own, specially designed, resealable plastic bags, and we soon appreciated why. After shoving them unpackaged into our very full freezer compartment wherever we could, they emerged frozen hard into a stormy, buckled shape, smelling oddly of, er, fish. But when frozen properly folded, the ice mat emerged as the most useful product by far, with all the panellists in agreement that it was "obvious why this one won the award" (Best New Product, Alliance of Independent Retailers).

We were not so impressed by the now ubiquitous and highly popular ice wraps for bottles and cans - "as if anyone would drink from a can wrapped like this," scoffed Andrew Thomson. Wine aficionado Nigel Pinke was not the only tester to protest that both the wine and champagne coolers (the latter is wider, gold instead of silver, and has "Champagne" written all over it), "look naff on the table" and more disappointingly, only chill a bottle of wine at room temperature down to 12C in the specified 5-10 minutes rather than the connoisseur"s preferred 7C. "It's drinkable, but not great," said Justine Bartlett. After twenty minutes the wrap had melted into a flaccid surround which "should be kept strictly out of sight in the picnic basket," she continued.

On the plus side, the reusable ice cubes were thought "excellent for cool bags", replacing both regular ice, which leaves your bag full of water, and heavy, plastic chillers, which restrict the bulk of cool air to a small area.


pounds 31

Anyone who invests in this chic, but pricey Australian insulated box for transporting two bottles of wine or champagne is surely serious about the quality of their alcohol consumption. So it seems fair to point out that, according to experts, white wine should be served at around 7C, since this "makes it taste fresher, emphasising the acidity". The rule is even more essential for champagne, apparently, "to prevent exploding corks and a tableful of froth." The Decor wine cooler, despite its cunning central reservoir of salt water (to be pre-frozen) allows the temperature of champagne to rise over a period of six hours from 5C to 10C, and you can certainly taste the difference. Hence the people on our panel who would consider spending pounds 31 on a wine cooler were disappointed, leaving only the design victims to stand up for it. "It is very stylish," said Sally Ann Thomson, pointing out the label advertising its place in the hallowed Museum of Modern Art in New York, "and it does keep the wine colder than all the other products."


pounds 17.50

As any fisherman will tell you, there is nothing like a hard plastic, insulated container for keeping things cool, whether a river is handy or not. "They may be heavy - and ugly - but at least you can sit on them," said Donald Hudd, while Justine Bartlett reported taking her Coleman cool box to the Wimbledon tennis tournament every year with very satisfactory results. "We leave it in the car, because once it's full it's the weight of half your fridge. But you can go back to it over a long day and take out cold drinks, which is a great treat." I took mine on a boat for a whole summer weekend, and still had cold butter on the Sunday evening. Given these testimonials, and despite the panel's collective penchant for aesthetics, we voted this box the winner in our test. Several testers complained that the box bangs against your legs as you walk, making it uncomfortable to carry, but this seems to be the price for greater efficiency. Its hard inner surface was easier to clean after spills than any of the other products.


pounds 59

It was hard for some testers to grasp the concept of this padded tartan picnic rug, which benefits from a unique insulation technique based on reflective fibres, developed by space technology. "Is it to keep your bottom cool?" asked Justine Bartlett facetiously, before coming up with the use which most of our panel found it best suited to: throwing over groceries in the boot of your car to stop them deteriorating on a hot day. The basis of the rug is the same as that of some very jolly picnic grips made by the same company and featured on this page earlier this year, which are both cheaper and more practical, since they zip up to preserve the temperature of cold or hot foods (British Standard two stars), whereas the rug merely has carrying straps, allowing you to slip packages into the middle. "It's impossibly heavy with a whole lunch in it," said Andrew Thomson, in summary. "We're better off with a coolbag and separate rug over one arm."


pounds 14.50

"Hideous," said Sally Ann Thomson in response to this canvas-covered, polystyrene-lined can carrier, while her husband protested that he would "definitely take this to the cricket" and very much approved of the racing green colour, illustrating the gender divide which was comically replicated throughout the panel over this product. The PortaCool uses simple technology to achieve the desired result; it keeps six cold beers (ie straight from the fridge at five degrees) below 12 degrees over a six hour period. "It's dinky," reported Justin Silk, "but you can only take four cans if you want to put your sandwiches in it as well, and then the beer gets warmer." Some you win, some you lose.


pounds 23.99

This brightly-coloured intricately made tote by Thermos was the softest and most comfortable to carry of all the cool bags tested - a real beach accessory which Andrew Thomson found "garish" but Justine Bartlett thought "lovely". The zip-up insulated compartment is at the bottom, has a two- star heat gain rating and doesn't hold very much - a modest lunch for two, perhaps - but the top pouch provides convenient storage for towels, hats, sunglasses etc, and a net pocket means you have somewhere to put wet swimsuits away from your other clothes. Several panellists commented on the way the beach tote stays on your shoulder whether "full of junk" or not, and Justin Silk loved the detachable money pouch; "I put my car keys in it, instead of scrabbling around in the bottom of the bag," he said.


Icy Cools products are available from large supermarkets. All other products tested can be purchased from John Lewis Partnership nationwide.