If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise - picnic time has gone gourmet. Conran chef Andre Garrett tells Sybil Kapoor how to make a tasty hamper

Picnic mania is taking over the country this summer. You cannot walk into a deli without being offered a custom-packed picnic box. And not just any old box - some shops are selling beautiful wicker hampers, sheep's wool-insulated cooler bags (Daylesford Organic) and even picnic backpacks replete with all the necessary accoutrements (Fortnum & Mason). Those in need of extra vim can even buy a Martini cocktail set in a zip bag (also from F&M). Deli owners have clearly struck a chord, and I have yet to meet a nationality that does not love picnicking during the summer months, be it Moroccans eating mezze in shady olive groves or Italians cooking spaghetti on the beach.

The British, of course, have always had a unique approach to picnics, which is characterised by unbounded optimism in the face of howling gales and persistent wasps. British picnics are regarded as a romantic adventure that pits us against the elements, regardless of whether we are munching squashed jam sandwiches on the Yorkshire Moors or lobster mayonnaise at Glyndebourne. After all, anything can happen when you eat outdoors.

Claudia Roden, author of Picnics and Other Outdoor Feasts (Grub Street, £18.99) believes you can picnic anywhere, even in your garden. "The whole point of a picnic is to have fun, so these days I try and keep it easy and don't make anything too elaborate," she says. However, Roden cautions against taking any foods that might stain or be difficult to eat, such as pickled beetroot or mangos. "The best picnics are often ones where everyone brings one or two * dishes and then shares their food," she says. "Salads, fresh fruit cut into easy-to-eat wedges, hard-boiled eggs seasoned with cumin-spiced salt, and cold omelettes stuffed with vegetables are all good; and if you have a chill bag, it's worth making marinated-chicken kebabs and cooking them on a small disposable barbecue."

The key is to buy good-quality food, regardless of whether it is organic bread rolls and freshly sliced ham from Daylesford Organic Farm Shop in Gloucestershire (also available from Selfridges in London), or a moist fruit cake from your local supermarket.

Many consumer-savvy grocers, such as the Rosslyn Delicatessen in Hampstead, London, are targeting their pleasure-seeking customers by creating special three-course picnics for local beauty spots. Thus, Kenwood concert-goers can dine on the Rosslyn deli's poached salmon with mango salsa and strawberry tart, while those partial to the leafy inclines of Highgate can nibble artichoke and asparagus tart, and apple strudel with crème fraîche.

Conran's Orrery Epicerie in Marylebone is no exception to this trend. Andre Garrett, Orrery's head chef explains: "We started selling picnic boxes in a low-key way last summer, but they've really taken off this year, especially with all the open-air events in Regent's Park." This is hardly surprising, since everything is made to order in Orrery's Michelin-starred kitchen. Garrett, however, admits that his perfect picnic is made by his wife. "We normally have smoked salmon, nice cold meats, beautiful bread and some Pringles - although I probably shouldn't say that." But then no British picnic would be complete a guilty pleasure.


Marinated wild salmon, fennel and orange salad

Serves 6

500g/1lb 2oz wild salmon fillet, skinned (from the thicker head end) 40g/11/4oz coarse sea salt
40g/11/4oz granulated sugar
10g/1/4oz crushed coriander seeds
1/2 bunch dill, roughly chopped

For the fennel salad:
2 large bulbs Florence fennel, trimmed
2 large oranges
1 lemon, juiced
200ml/7fl oz basil infused olive oil
Pinch of salt and caster sugar

Season the fish with all the ingredients. Tightly wrap in clingfilm and chill for 12 hours. Then gently wash the fish, pat dry and slice thinly. Wrap in clingfilm and chill.

Remove any tough outer layers of the fennel. Cut in half, trim the root and finely shave. Chill in an airtight container.

Peel and segment the oranges. Squeeze the juice from the orange membranes into a bowl. Add the lemon juice, then whisk in about 200ml/7fl oz basil oil. Season with salt and sugar, transfer to a bottle and chill. When ready, mix together the salmon, orange segments, fennel and dressing. Leave for a couple of minutes, then serve.

Grilled white asparagus with pink grapefruit mayonnaise

Serves 6

2 bunches jumbo white asparagus
150ml/5fl oz first-press extra virgin olive oil and an extra 2tbsp
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 egg yolks
2 pink grapefruits
2tsp Dijon mustard
350ml/10fl oz corn oil

Peel the asparagus to get rid of the stringy outer skin. Bring a pan of water to the boil. Tie the asparagus in bunches of 8 pieces and blanch in the water until tender. Plunge into iced water to stop the cooking. Untie and dry the asparagus. Place in a bowl with 2tbsp olive oil and seasoning. Heat a skillet pan and grill each piece of asparagus well on all sides, then set aside.

To make the mayonnaise, peel and segment the grapefruit, keep the segments and squeeze the juice into a blender. Add the egg yolk, mustard and 2tsp hot water and process on a low speed. Slowly drizzle in your oils being careful not to let it split. Season at the end and add the segments, give a last mix to slightly break them up. Keep chilled until ready to serve.

Cheese with cider jelly

"I serve this with Comte, Saint Marcellin and a good strong Roquefort with fennel and raisin bread from Baker & Spice in London," says Garrett.

Serves 6

375ml/13fl oz good cider and
an extra 2tbsp cider
200g/7oz granulated sugar
3 gelatine leaves

Vigorously boil 375ml/13fl oz cider until it has reduced by half. Dissolve the sugar in 200ml/7fl oz hot water. Add the reduced cider with a dash of cider to freshen the flavour. Soak the gelatine sheets in cold water for 5 minutes or until soft. Drain off the water, pour on the warm cider mixture, dissolve the gelatine and transfer to a clean container. Chill for a few hours to set. Serve with cheese and bread.

Champagne poached strawberries with sweetened mascarpone and shortbread

Serves 6

900g/2lb English strawberries, hulled
Enough good champagne to cover
1 vanilla pod
250g/9oz mascarpone
50g/13/4oz icing sugar

Put the strawberries in a bowl. Bring the champagne up to the boil, take off the heat and wait for one minute, then pour over the strawberries. Cover and chill.

Cut the vanilla pod open lengthways and scrape out its black seeds. Beat these into the mascarpone with the sugar. Serve with the strawberries and shortbread.

For the shortbread:

Makes 12-14 biscuits:

250g/9oz plain flour
Pinch of salt
250g/9oz unsalted butter, diced
100g/31/2oz caster sugar
3 egg yolks
1tsp vanilla essence

Sift the flour and salt on to a clean work surface. Make a well in the centre of the flour and put the butter, egg yolks, sugar and vanilla in it. Place the butter in the egg yolks, then, using a palette knife, lift and chop the flour into the butter, until it forms a smooth paste. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper. On a lightly floured surface roll out the shortbread dough into a square that is 1cm thick. Place on the baking sheet and prick with a fork. Bake for 12-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with sugar. Then cut into fingers.

Food Stockists

* Daylesford Organic Farmshop Daylesford, Near Kingham, Gloucestershire, tel: 01608 731 700, www.daylesfordorganic.com

* Fortnum & Mason 181 Piccadilly, London W1, tel: 0845 300 1707, www.fortnumandmason.co.uk

* Rosslyn Delicatessen 56 Rosslyn Hill, London NW3, tel: 020 7794 9210, www.delirosslyn.co.uk

* Orrery Epicerie 55 Marylebone High Street, London W1, tel: 020 7616 8036, www.conran.com

* Baker & Spice Various branches. Visit www.bakerandspice.com

'Picnics and Other Outdoor Feasts' by Claudia Roden is published by Grub Street, priced £12.99. To order a copy for £11.99 (including p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897