Park life: Tracey MacLeod and John Walsh test-drive five al fresco feasts

Spring is in the air – and picnic season is nearly upon us. But why settle for a cold sausage roll when you could indulge in a truly epicurean hamper?

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Hold hard a minute, then!" said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in the landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval appeared staggering under a fat wicker luncheon-basket...

"What's inside it?" asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

"There's cold chicken inside it," replied the Rat briefly; "coldtonguecoldhamcold-beefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonade-sodawater–"

"O stop, stop," cried the Mole in ecstasies: "This is too much!"

The picnic in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908) is deservedly famous. But the lure of the al fresco banquet isn't confined to cute woodland creatures in Edwardian classics. In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, it's a democratic arena where masters and peasants, grandees and serving girls can briefly co-exist in harmony. In Jane Austen's Emma, the out-in-the-open quality of a Box Hill picnic prompts the heroine to a moment of unguarded rudeness to the rattletrap Miss Bates.

The concept of le pique-nique was created by the French as part of the social rituals of hunting. In Le Livre de Chasse (1387,) Gaston de Foix describes the open-air feast that preceded the chase: baked meats, pastries, rabbit and ham. Two centuries later, the English hunting enthusiast George Tubervile explained that, at the hunt's end, the captured deer would be cut up and cooked – and the participants would eat a secondary picnic there and then.

By the 18th century, the English had refined the event, so that food – and wine – were served from picnic 'hampers' on porcelain plates. The Victorians took the picnic to their hearts, as a promisingly unruly event. In Dickens's first novel, Mr Pickwick and his friends go hunting, followed by a picnic: Mr P. drinks too much, tries to remember a nursery song, falls a-slumber and is woken by the local squire, Captain Boldwig, who has him wheeled to an animal pound where he is pelted with vegetables. The dangers of al fresco relaxation were never more nakedly revealed.

The picnic's symbolic function, in literature and art (remember Monet's Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe?) is clear. It brings the indoors outside and deconstructs its conventions. A rug stands in for a table; a hamper for a kitchen; paper plates, cups and napkins for posh porcelain and napery. Sophisticated palates, used to delicacies and subtle flavours, are invited to scoff cold chicken drumsticks and hard-boiled eggs, held in their fingers. Victorian picknickers lolled and reclined like feasting Romans, enjoying luxury while surrounded by nature. Men and women lay in recumbent postures, chatting in an unbuttoned way, almost as though they were in bed. A fume of subversion, of indecorum, hovered in the air with the ever-present wasps...

So when Tracey MacLeod and I were asked to test-drive five picnic hampers, we jumped at the chance. Clad in going-steady green jackets, accompanied by an Edwardian-style entourage of young bravos, serving-maids, hamper-wallahs, wine-bearers, stylists and cameramen, we strolled through Holland Park in unseasonal sunshine (it was late March) found a bosky dell, laid a tartan rug on very hard earth and started the blissful business of unpacking the finest al fresco treats modern catering could devise. Aerial bombardments by wasps didn't bother us. The food, on the other hand...

John Walsh

Gourment Picnics

Serves 2, £140

*****

Tracey's verdict: Intended for two, but easily big enough to feed four, this all-Cornish seafood-oriented selection lived up to the 'gourmet' billing, and was amazingly fresh, given the fact that it had travelled overnight from Cornwall. Potted crab with Melba toast and dressed crab both delivered a heady seaside rush, crayfish tails were zingy with lime and coriander, a mackerel/bulgur salad was posh-restaurant quality. Low point: the lone meaty offering – some rather clammy roast beef with horseradish cream. Star turn: the immaculate lobster claws with herbed mayonnaise. They had been carefully de-shelled, but when torn into by hand, released a fine mist of lobster juice, causing John to regret his reckless decision to wear white trousers. This was a picnic for the person you wish you could be; the careless, Boden-clad campervan driver, unpacking a hamper on a remote Cornish beach. Not the person shivering in the windy inner-city park, surrounded by curious dogs.

John's verdict: By a mile the most generous-spirited and madly expensive of the hampers at £140 for two (very hungry) people. Most of it was delicious. Dressed crab (white and brown meat) was fresh and succulent, though the accompanying lemon was sliced too thin to be squeezable. Dressed lobster was a symphony of carmine and flesh colours; the claws could have been shelled five minutes before, so lepping-fresh were they. The crayfish tails in lime and coriander jumped with flavour like a gastro-hornpipe. It seemed odd to follow such crustacean bliss with slices of beef 'n' horseradish, or with a Cornish cream tea and scones, but we appreciated their throw-everything-in spirit.

True Cornish Picnic for two, gourmetpicnics.co.uk

Mount Street Deli

Serves 2, £30

****

Tracey's verdict: As you'd hope, from an outpost of the high-toned Caprice Holdings group, this was easily the best-presented of our samples, delivered in a covetable wicker basket. The breathable cardboard cartons ensured everything had stayed fresh and crisp. Aubergine quiches, the pastry short and buttery, and a butternut squash salad, punched up with mustard seeds and rocket, were both great. The French beans in a potato salad retained their snap. And some ready-for-their-closeup fruit tarts tasted as good as they looked, the pastry still crisp despite the custardy filling. Unfortunately, we didn't dare risk one of the thoughtfully included Peppersmith mints, for fear of a Monsieur Creosote incident.

John's verdict: This hamper looked a bit parsimonious, but it came handsomely packaged: a wicker basket Mole and Rat would have envied, with plates, cutlery, and napkins. The food was aggressively vegetarian, but delicious. Roasted aubergine quiche was a miracle of savoury lightness. Two colourful salads – butternut squash and pumpkin with rocket; runner beans and potato with tarragon and mayo – were a treat for the resting carnivore. The tarte aux fruits shattered on the lips to reveal a heavenly custardy base. The little bottles of fresh orange and cranberry juice were fine, though I'd have preferred just one, slightly larger, of Pouilly-Fumé.

Picnic hamper for two, themountstreet deli.co.uk

Melrose and Morgan

Serves 2, £44.95

***

Tracey's verdict: Deli-traiteurs of choice to the Primrose Hill set – I once queued there behind Sharleen Spiteri, who was buying startlingly overpriced Tunnocks teacakes – M and M's offering arrived in the sharpest packaging, complete with modernist red lettering. A chicken, ham and leek pie, with shiny cross-hatched crust, was good, as were the individual tubs of orange jelly, with pomegranate seeds and mandarin slices held in shimmering suspension. We also enjoyed a pale and interesting slaw of celeriac, radish and celery. A slab of nutty Montgomery's cheddar, and a tub of houmous with bendy crudités, we could have bought ourselves. More of a deli assembly than a picnic, but perfect for a group of young and foodish friends to eat on the top of Primrose Hill.

John's verdict: This super-popular and super-expensive (they're known as "Melrose and Second Mortgage") north London foodie outlet specialises in tarts, pies, quiches and similar picnicky stuff. Here was a five-course mini-banquet: colourful but boring crudités with excellent houmous; a hefty chicken, ham and leek pie, a little dry but zinged-up by pear piccalilli; celeriac coleslaw with radish slivers, for anyone who still likes coleslaw. To finish there were fat strawberries and a slab of super-mature cheddar with crusty bread. It was all a bit like a supermarket sweep in Wholefoods. All I later remembered with any relish was the orange jelly with pomegranate seeds.

Picnic for two, melroseandmorgan.com

Fortnum & Mason

Serves 2, £40

**

Tracey's verdict: One had high hopes of this. Surely Britain's poshest food retailer, by Royal Appointment, would have pulled out all the stops to create something rather special for Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee? But what the hell was this? Smoked salmon sandwiches in black bread – the rye bread overpoweringly sharp and a wee bit stale? The coronation chicken made with smoked chicken, and containing bits of mango? OK, so the Eton mess was delicious, but it was a mousse of whipped cream and puréed strawberries, and didn't contain any of yer actual meringue. If they were going to do traditional, they should have done it properly, not with what someone in marketing is no doubt billing as a 'modern twist'. One is off to chain oneself to Fortnums in protest.

John's verdict: For an outlay of £40 for two, I'd have expected more than three constituents in a "Jubilee picnic". (It's more an Austerity picnic, a Mean Sod picnic.) Fortnums have aimed at traditional British dishes, and missed. Smoked salmon came in sandwiches of rich, chocolatey and wildly inappropriate rye bread. Why? Coronation chicken was curried (which is as per Rosemary Hume's 1953 recipe) and smoked (which isn't) and given added fruitiness with mango bits. But it was dull, listless and uninspired. Eton Mess was a nicely creamy strawberry mousse with custard at the bottom, a pudding for six-year-olds. But where were the meringues?

Fortnum and Mason Jubilee picnic, serves two, fortnumandmason.com

Tamarind

Serves 2, £78

*

Tracey's verdict: Perhaps it was a mistake to opt for the vegetarian selection from this Michelin-starred Indian restaurant. We passed, with eyes averted, over the 'masala sandwiches' , and gave the 'Indian salted savoury' – more commonly known as Bombay mix – a body swerve. But there was no avoiding the roasted vegetable selection, a melange of sweaty, out-of-season veg, including asparagus and baby corn, which winked greasily from under a beading of oil. Dense, flabby pakoras and rubbery slabs of spiced paneer confirmed that Indian street food is best served crisp and hot, or at least from a tiffin carrier, rather than a polystyrene carton. True, the spiced apple pies did evoke the ghost of Kipling, but it was as the purveyor of exceedingly good cakes, rather than the chronicler of the Raj.

John's verdict: Even had I been starving after a Hindu Kush boar-hunt, this sorry display from the Mayfair restaurant still wouldn't have appealed. Fancy those sorry-looking Hovis crustless sandwiches? How about the Bombay Mix? Try the dry salad of mung beans and Indian cottage cheese? I thought not. The potatoey lumps of pakora with green raita held no charm, nor the okra-with-green-bean salad. And are those Mr Kipling apple pies? Strewth. The packaging is labelled "A Tamarind Great Day Out." That's almost the title of the first Wallace and Gromit film. Quite honestly, I'd rather have eaten Plasticine.

Tamarind vegetarian picnic, serves two, tamarindrestaurant.com

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