There is nothing worse than getting up at five in the morning, cooking for a crowd, and lugging all the food in a hamper while everyone else has the fun." As if to demonstrate his distaste for the idea, Jeremy Lee, head chef at London's Blueprint café, plunges his hand into a bucket of crabs, extracts a victim, and violently smashes it with a mallet. Thus dismembered, the unwitting crustacean – cooked earlier in boiling salt water and then left to cool – is added to the rising tower that will form the centrepiece of our menu, designed with the great outdoors in mind.
Lee is particularly well-placed to hold forth on this subject. After working alongside Simon Hopkinson at London's Michelin-starred Bibendum, he took over the Blueprint kitchen in 1995. Perched above the Design Museum overlooking the Thames, the café specialises in local, seasonal cooking and boasts one of the brightest, airiest glass-lined terraces in town. Unfortunately for us it is not, today, one of the sunniest. A knot of purple clouds has gathered to the West, and is currently making its way over Tower Bridge and towards our planned lunch spot. Typical British summer, eh? Fortunately Lee is skilled at all-weather preparations (of which more later) and so, for the meantime, he is not letting his feast be stalled.
The reason we have chosen crab (aside, that is, from the matter of its sheer fleshy deliciousness) is that it can be prepared a day in advance. "If you don't want crab, you could just as easily have mackerel or trout," says Lee. "Trout served cold is delicious. And if you are watching your money you could have a kind of smoked fish pate which will make a little bit of fish go a long way."
Whatever you go for, though, try to avoid cooking at the eleventh hour. This, says Lee, is the First Rule of Al Fresco Dining. Hence our menu consists also of pork (grilled and left to cool) asparagus (cold), grilled courgettes (cold), home-made mayonnaise and two types of salad. Only the salads' preparation is left to the last minute. The pork, asparagus and courgettes could just as easily be done on the barbecue; an instrument which, Lee points out, the English tend not to employ with the greatest sophistication. "People don't realise that the heat should be quite low. And you can cook all sorts of exciting things on it. It's not just burgers – burned on the outside, raw in the middle."
His Second Rule is to stick to your seasons: if you are going to enjoy the English summer outdoors, the food to eat is the burstingly fresh produce you can find around you. For dessert, we have a tumble of peaches, raspberries, meringues and cream. "If it's a picnic that you are planning, see if there is a farm shop en route to pick up the cream," says Lee, as we plop dollops of the stuff onto the meringues (again, made yesterday) in a quiet corner of the Café's kitchen. "Otherwise, invest in a cooler. You get good ones these days – they used to be so cumbersome."
Just as crucial is finding the appropriate table-settings. "No plastic wine glasses, please!" trumpets Lee. Whether dining in the garden or in a remote field, he has the same rule: use tumblers. Not, I point out, the most practical of decisions, though he is insistent. "They are much better for wine, you can use them for water and, if you get a set of them, they aren't difficult to carry at all."
Happily that's where aesthetics give way to practicality. Those travelling before dining are recommended to stock up on mini plastic bottles (the sort used to store cosmetics when travelling is perfect). These can hold dressings and sauces without adding too much weight to your load. Individual crockery meanwhile – be it paper, plastic or fine bone china – is far from a necessity. "All of the food on the menu can be eaten with your hands," says Lee. "And that's what you want when you go outdoors: something that you can take hold of, full of flavour and texture. You can wear a big bib if you're worried about mess." For dishing out his feast Lee opts for gigantic steel oyster platters – sturdy enough to withstand a battering, and tarnished enough for it not to matter. "They're gorgeous aren't they?" he asks as we carry them from the Blueprint kitchen to our increasingly well-stocked table on the terrace. They are – if a little on the heavy side.
"Your own back garden, if you have one, is the ideal place to enjoy eating al fresco, but if you're picnicking," says Lee, "I would always, always try and eat somewhere that has facilities. It is just so much more comfortable to eat at a table. A picnic rug looks pretty but it's not always easy to just sit on the floor like that. And if there is a river, all the better. Take a piece of yarn and tie it to your wine bottles. Then you can float them in the water to keep cool." On which picturesque point, a further note: stick to screw top. Not only will it save on-site uncorking disasters, but you won't need to lug a bottle opener (all the better for lugging those oyster trays). Finally, provide plenty of water – particularly if your chosen dining spot required a hike to get there.
Wine, water, food and – a finishing touch – bread (baked the day before, but refreshed after a sprinkling of water and a stint in the oven) on our table, we are just about ready to start our al fresco feast. Except that we are not, in this instance, al fresco. It's raining.
Inevitably, planning for rotten weather is almost as crucial as remembering the wine when it comes to dining outdoors in the UK. And sure enough, the lack of crockery, of bottle opener, of hefty bottles of oil, would, indeed, have been very handy were the storm to have broken out midway through a meal in the garden and necessitated a mad dash for the dining room. What, I wonder, is Lee's advice for coping had we headed further afield, away from cover? "Plastic ponchos," he tells me. "And laughter!" Of course.
Be a garden gourmet
* Prepare your dishes in advance, if possible the night before, to save last-minute work.
* Eat fresh, seasonal produce only.
* When picnicking, try and find a spot that has tables. Proximity to a river and a farmers' market are bonuses, too.
* Invest in decent picnic ware: tumblers for wine, mini plastic bottles and a decent cooling container. Once you've got the al fresco bug, you'll want to use them again.
* Stick to screw-top wine.
*Don't forget to provide plenty of water.
Jeremy Lee's recipes for the ideal open-air meal
Grilled Middle White Pork, asparagus, herbs and lemon
With a cut of Richard Vaughan's so very delicious Middle White pork, only seasoning and judicious cooking is required. We particularly love the neck for this.
1 neck of Middle White pork
Freshly ground pepper
Two sprigs of thyme
A sprig of rosemary
Two leaves of sage
A very good olive oil
Set a grill upon a gentle flame. Once heated, salt the pork and let sit undisturbed until a good crust forms. Roll the joint round and continue thus for an hour or so until the joint is fully cooked, but very much not dried within, and beautifully crusted all over. Place the joint on a small tray and squeeze the lemon thereon, add the herbs, plenty of pepper, 4 or 5 tablespoons of olive oil and roll the pork well in this.
Wipe the grill and place on a few sticks of asparagus for each person. When done, toss in olive oil and herbs remaining under the pork. Great cold. Serve with lots of watercress.
Grilled Courgettes & Co
One courgette each
A soupspoon of cow's or goat's curd each
5 mint leaves each
1tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Slice the courgettes lengthwise. Grill them, toss in olive oil, salt and pepper. Chop the mint and mix roughly with curd, olive oil and seasoning. Heap together on a plate. A few drops more oil is pleasant.
2 egg yolks
125ml olive oil
125ml peanut oil
A teaspoon of Dijon mustard
Juice of 1 lemon
Whisk the egg yolks, mustard and lemon juice well, then start adding the oil in spoonfuls until thickened. Add salt to taste – bland mayonnaise is no fun.
The usual way works best, a big pan of boiling water, very well salted. Kill the crab first. Then drop into the water. Return to the boil then switch off the heat and let cool in the water. Crack and hack at will to allow ease in getting to the meat. Big bibs are wise.
Meringue with summer fruits
Take one large meringue cake or six or seven smaller meringues.
Roughly spread 500ml whipped cream over the meringues. Over this, heap slices of ripest figs, white peaches and raspberries. Scatter with roast flaked almonds then trickle a few spoonfuls of light, delicate honey and serveReuse content