When I am planning a picnic, I immediately think of Ratty and Mole. Their feast in The Wind in the Willows, with its lovely, hunger-inducing "fat, wicker luncheon basket", is just about the high point of outdoor eating in novels.
"What's inside it?" asks Mole, sighting the bounty in Ratty's hand. "Oh there's cold chicken inside it," replied Ratty. "Cold tongue, cold ham, cold beef, pickle gherkin salad, French rolls, cress sandwiches, potted meat, ginger beer, lemonade and soda water." It is at this point that Mole loses it: "Stop, stop," he cries in ecstasies. "This is too much." It is here that my interests and Mole's diverge quite drastically, because, to me, that sounds like just about the perfect amount – although maybe it could benefit from the removal of the lemonade and the addition of white wine.
Last week, the picnic I had, in a field by a lake in Gloucestershire, would surely have made Ratty happy. It was like something from the Field of the Cloth of Gold. I was at Cowley Manor, a modish country-house hotel – it was my birthday, so cut me some slack – and I was hungry. It was very hot, despite the fact that I had escaped fetid London, and was now in the sort of green and pleasant countryside that got Blake so hot under the collar.
So I dodged the restaurant and ordered the picnic the kitchen was offering for £30. Sounds a lot? Well, its contents took in potted salmon, Lancashire cheese quiche, Scotch eggs, charcuterie, coronation chicken, two leaf salads and one of potatoes, a rosemary sourdough loaf, five cheeses, an orange-and-polenta cake and a make-your-own Eton mess. Oh and some cider. I was confronted by a chaos of choices. And it was sublime. The food, the setting, the quantity of booze (enough to make you dozy in the sun): all were in perfect alignment.
What a picnic like the one I had gives you, like no other meal, is a miniature holiday: a vacation from everyday life. So, below, I present my cut-out-and-keep rules for an outdoor feast:
Avoid drinks in cans
They will be near boiling point before you even sit down. Take a dry white wine (Mâcon-Villages 2013 Louis Jadot, around £10) or a scrumpy cider. The glass may be heavy but they'll stay chilled for longer, especially in a wine cooler.
Buy, buy, buy
It's hot – spend the time in the sun, not in the kitchen prepping everything. Head to a deli or M&S and buy the staples and just make the posh/pricey things.
Utensils and receptacles
Unless you are a wannabe Mr Universe, leave the thick china plates at home. Do, however, bring proper cutlery – plastic won't cut it, literally and metaphorically.
Choose your location wisely
Avoid hills, ants, animals and people playing football. Find somewhere quiet with enough space to spread out in – picnics are always bigger when you get them out of the basket than when you put them in.
Keep it simple
Fruit, cold meat, potato salad (this is practically a statutory requirement), and lots of veg and salads. No one wants your special picnic beef Wellington
Have absolutely nothing to do with beaches
They may look nice, and yes the sound of the water is lovely, but you will end up with sand in your egg mayonnaise and the tide is likely to cut the thing short, abruptly.
And lastly - do it quick
Before the sun disappears.
The Cowley Picnic Hamper costs £60 for two people, excluding drinks (but with a key to the drinks chest) and is available 7 days a week July to September. Double rooms from £195 per night.