It's no picnic

Actually, it is. Thanks to gourmet food companies, mail-order specialists and hip hotels, even the weather can't hamper your outdoor feast
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Indy Lifestyle Online

OK, I know it sounds lazy, but there's a growing list of food companies that will happily do all the dirty work for your gourmet picnic or al fresco summer lunch. I've just eaten a picnic of delicious spinach and ricotta rolls; lamb kebabs marinated in yoghurt with moist, date-studded couscous; a luscious salad of cannellini beans, cooked fennel and rosemary; and a fruit tart and cheeseboard to finish. I've washed it down with an organic St Clements juice and I'm still nibbling on the saffron popcorn. And I didn't have to lift a finger. Tempted?

OK, I know it sounds lazy, but there's a growing list of food companies that will happily do all the dirty work for your gourmet picnic or al fresco summer lunch. I've just eaten a picnic of delicious spinach and ricotta rolls; lamb kebabs marinated in yoghurt with moist, date-studded couscous; a luscious salad of cannellini beans, cooked fennel and rosemary; and a fruit tart and cheeseboard to finish. I've washed it down with an organic St Clements juice and I'm still nibbling on the saffron popcorn. And I didn't have to lift a finger. Tempted?

Well, I picked everything up from one of London's top delis, Villandry (170 Great Portland Street, London W1), where a range of picnic menus is on offer – this one cost £35 for two. Alright, so not only is it lazy but it's fairly expensive too. Or, to put it another way, you could see buy-in picnics as "a triumph of commercialism over common sense". That's certainly the verdict of Clare Ferguson, author of Portable Feasts (Jacquie Small, £10.99). But, if your picnics always end up as limp egg sandwiches and packets of crisps, hampers-to-go are very seductive.

Here are three guilt-assuaging points to consider. First, on a Sunday morning, are you really going to cook a feast to rival, say, Villandry? Second, you'd happily pay the same money for food like this in a restaurant. Finally, and most persuasively, lazy days are what picnics are all about.

So, on a sunny afternoon, I sampled some of the best picnic feasts on the market. And although the Villandry hamper is hard to beat, top honours have to be shared with the Wapping Project (Wapping Wall, London E1, tel: 020 7680 2080), a restaurant-cum-art-venue converted from a hydraulic-power station. The menu here changes daily and the parcel I picked up really was a breath of fresh air. There were the committed flavours of a dense red-pepper gazpacho spiked with garlic; char-grilled nuggets of pink salmon on green beans with baby asparagus and perfect new potatoes; followed by coffee caramel cream with a stunning taste of real coffee. Plus, of course, good bread and water. It costs £15 a head and you must order a day in advance.

The service is a great example of the kind of innovation that's causing a boom in the market for ready-made picnics. Apparently, it was prompted because there is a patch of grass by the building.

If this still sounds pricey, try the popular Italian food store and café, Carluccio's. From its main store (29 Neal Street, London WC2, tel: 020 7240 1487) you can pick up a high-calibre package for £7 a head, though prices carry on up to £16. The cheaper menus, based around the firm's outstanding breads and delicious vegetable salads, come close to my idea of a perfect picnic. Towards the top end of its price scale, fancier dishes of asparagus and seafood kick in.

Heal Farm in Underleigh, Devon, hasn't forgotten traditional British fare – trout mousse, coronation chicken and strawberry cheesecake. That's the menu of its "feeds-eight" picnic, available by mail-order (tel: 01769 574 341) for £51.50. The farm hit on this retro idea as a Jubilee theme but it's proved so popular it's here to stay. If you ask me, it's too creamy. The mousse is very good but the chicken is in a soup of cream with raw curry powder, and the base of the cheesecake is a kind of salty digestive.

If you're determined to go retro, but not that retro, try calling Loch Fyne Oysters (tel: 01499 600 264 or www.loch-fyne.com). With 48 hours' notice, it will send you the finest smoked salmon; chunks of moist smoked roast salmon; smoked Islay beef (I tried it with mustard, don't make the same mistake – it's perfect as it is); pâté; smoked Cheddar; a bottle of Gros Plant du Pays dry white; and even a corkscrew. It's not quite a full menu (surely you want some salad and bread too?) but the quality is excellent. I reckon at least four people could feast on this, taking the sting out of the £64.90 bill. But try not to argue over who gets to keep the natty little coolbag backpack.

But not every company gets it right – and the first name on the "could try harder" list may come as a surprise. Harvey Nichols (Leeds, London and mail-order: 020 7201 8538) offers three menus, at £14.50, £19.50 and £29.50 a person. It's beautifully presented and the gooey barbecued chicken wings were tasty. But stuffed chicken breast (from the £19.50 menu) was hardly moist and the felafel (on the £29.50 card) was drier still, though it did come with an excellent labna yoghurt dip.

Also disappointing was the offering from Leaping Salmon (tel: 0870 701 9100, www.leapingsalmon.com). This is the company that specialises in meal-kits that you cook yourself at home – don't worry, the picnics come ready to eat. Both of its menus (priced at £12.50 and £25 a head) are workmanlike and let down by the basic quality of some items. Take the "Italian" olives. These pitted black ones do the country no favours. And as those entry-level Carluccio's menus prove, quality is everything. That said, Leaping Salmon's cheaper menu does provide good poached salmon, both options come with plates and tumblers, and the company runs a speedy, reliable service – delivery is within 24 hours in London, 48 hours nationwide and costs £4.50.

Hotels are also keen to join the foodie fray. As from Friday, you can get a coolbag of goodies thrown in when you book a weekend away at one of the stylish Atlas Hotels (the Barcelona in Exeter, tel: 01392 281 000, or the Kandinsky in Cheltenham, tel: 01242 527 788). They even provide you with a guide to suitable sites to spread your picnic blanket.

Picnics, however, do offer the excuse to really push the boat out. And if you want to impress, contact Table Talk (tel: 020 7401 3200; or visit www.tabletalk.co.uk) It will make your every culinary wish come true, booking locations and even providing staff, if that's what you're after. I ordered a hamper for two (think four to six hungry people and you're closer to the mark) for a staggering £315. For that you get champagne, antipasti, couscous with goats' cheese, chicken Ceasar salad, smoked salmon, red and yellow tomato salad, mini gorgonzola tartlets, giant cookies, strawberries dipped in chocolate and hazlenut brownies.

The dishes are very cheffy (head chef Jason Wild used to work at Daphne's) and you get to keep the proper white plates, smart cutlery and real glasses – sadly, though, the de luxe hamper has to go back. The only thing it can't guarantee to supply a perfect summer's day.

Picnic facts

The French invented the picnic – well, the word at any rate. It comes from the verb piquer, meaning to pick or peck. Originally, a picnic was a social gathering where everyone brought along a dish. Only later, some time before the 19th century, was the outdoor element introduced.

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