The perfect picnic

Laying on a spread of local delicacies for eating in the open air should be a breeze. Mark Hix makes the case for a thoroughly British feast in the great outdoors.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Eating in the great outdoors is one of my favourite pastimes. I don't know quite what it is about the open air, but it makes everything taste better, and it's so liberating sitting on a beach or a riverbank and getting stuck in with none of the usual dinner-table rules. Do it with a bit of style and you can turn lunch or supper into the kind of meal that memories are made of.

Of course, you can get everything you need for a picnic from the supermarket - ready- made salads, dips, celery sticks, cheese portions, plastic cutlery. But who wants to be breaking into all those plastic cartons to get at dinky little portions of tasteless processed food, and then be left with a load of empty packaging to remind you of what you've eaten?

Whether you're on holiday somewhere in Britain, or just having a day out in the country or your local park, it doesn't take much effort to prepare and pack a proper outdoor feast. Though even I get a twinge of picnic envy when I see those families that come fully equipped with great hampers or baskets full of fresh meat pies, chilled wine, napkins and proper plates and cutlery.

Being out of doors is no excuse for letting your standards slip. If you're on holiday somewhere in Britain there will be plenty of opportunities for picnicking and it's a great way to sample local delicacies in situ. If you're by the sea, look out for dressed crab and turn it into a salad, or buy local seafood and barbecue it on the beach. I love pitching up at my chosen picnic spot, lighting up the barbie and pulling a couple of lobsters and champagne out of the cool bag.

Wherever you are in the country there's probably a farmers' market (find out where and when from www.farmersmarkets.net) where you can pick up meat for barbecuing, pies and pâtés, and fruit and veg. Farm shops are also great for the freshest fruit and vegetables in season (www.farmshopping.com lists them), and treat yourself to a Victoria sponge or pot of home-made jam from the village fête or WI stall. Then there are the county shows and the giant vegetable competitions - though the vegetables aren't usually edible - for discovering the produce that particular part of the country is most proud of.

If you want the best local fruit, get on to the farm. Not only is it good and healthy family entertainment, but sun-warmed fruit that you've picked yourself (visit www.pick-your-own.org.uk for pick-your-own farms) tastes so much better than the chilly and under-ripe offerings you are likely to find in the supermarket, packed in impenetrable plastic.

With all this in mind, I've put together ideas for a picnic using fantastic, seasonal home-grown produce. If you're on holiday you won't have all the bottles and oils you're used to cooking with at home, but none of these recipes calls for a teaspoon of Thai fish sauce, for example. There's nothing too complicated, just the makings of a great British picnic in the great outdoors.

Health warning

Once you've prepared your picnic, do keep it safely chilled with plenty of ice blocks because bacteria just love multiplying in back-of-car summer temperatures without you knowing.

Crab salad

Serves 4

Eating a freshly picked crab salad on the beach with a glass of chilled chablis is one of the great pleasures in life. I prefer to pick the meat myself so I can be sure it's fresh, but a good seaside fishmonger should sell dressed crab. Beware the pasteurised crab that some fishmongers buy; it's pretty tasteless and doesn't warrant the amount you'll pay for it.

I've used garden herb and salad leaves like nasturtium, pea shoots, chives, parsley and chervil, but any small tasty salad leaves will do. To give it some crunch you can add samphire, either raw or blanched. If you're heading for the coast you can even pick some yourself.

300-400g freshly picked white crab meat
60-80g small salad and herb leaves
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

for the dressing

1tbsp cider vinegar
Juice of half a lemon
4tbsp rapeseed or olive oil

Whisk together the ingredients for the dressing and season. Dress the salad leaves lightly and arrange on a serving dish. Pile up the crab in the middle or scatter it over the leaves and spoon a little more dressing over.

Smoked trout pâté

Serves 4-6

Smoked trout might sound like a 1970s dinner-party favourite, but it's perfect for taking on a picnic to spread on melba toast or savoury crackers. Look out for a local smokehouse where you can buy freshly smoked trout - it's nothing like the vac-packed ones.

2 smoked trout, fillets removed, skinned and boned
Juice of half a lemon
60ml water
100g butter, melted
2tsp horseradish
100ml double cream, lightly whipped
Salt and cayenne pepper f

Blend half of the trout with the water, lemon, horseradish and butter in a food processor to a coarse purée and season. Transfer to a bowl. Flake or chop the remaining trout into small pieces and carefully fold into the mixture with the double cream; taste and re-season if necessary.

Spoon into pots like ramekins or Kilner jars and leave for 3-4 hours in the fridge to set.

Scotch duck egg

Serves 4

Scotch eggs should be a treasured national picnic food on both sides of the border, but they seem to have become a bit of a joke in recent years, because they're mass produced, and more usually appear as just a leathery egg barely covered in gristly sausagemeat and covered with orange crumbs.

Try home-made and rediscover them. It's rare to find decent sausagemeat so buy sausages from the butcher and remove the meat.

In country areas you may be able to buy duck eggs straight from the farm.

4 duck eggs boiled for 6-7 minutes, cooled in cold water and peeled
350g good-quality Cumberland sausagemeat
Flour for dusting
1 egg, beaten
50-60g fresh white breadcrumbs
Vegetable or corn oil for deep frying

Divide the sausagemeat into 4 balls and flatten them into patties. Wrap the meat around each of the eggs evenly, moulding it with your hands. Have 3 shallow containers ready, one with the flour, one with the egg and the third with the breadcrumbs. Put the eggs through the flour first, shaking off any excess, then through the beaten egg and finally the breadcrumbs, re-moulding them if necessary.

Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 140-150C in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan or electric deep-fat fryer. Cook the eggs for 4-5 minutes, turning them every so often so they are evenly coloured. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on some kitchen paper.

Serve hot, cold or at room temperature.

Black pudding and apple sausage rolls

Serves 4-6

I've given the sausage roll - another debased picnic staple - a bit of a makeover here. Black pudding varies from region to region. The best I've come across on my travels is in Ireland, but there's a lovely one from Stornaway, and Bury in Lancashire is rightly famous for its black pudding too.

If you're making sausages rolls - or doing anything with puff pastry, I'd always recommend using good butter puff pastry, such as Dorset Pastry, which Waitrose sells.

200g good-quality puff pastry, rolled to 1/3cm
Flour for dusting
1 egg, beaten
300g black pudding
1 cooking apple, peeled and cored
1tbsp caster sugar

Chop the apple into chunks and put it into a small, thick-bottomed pan on a low heat with a lid. Cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring every so f often until the apple has cooked to a purée. Sweeten with the sugar, according to taste, and leave to cool.

Peel the black pudding, and mash the flesh with a fork and mix in the apple.

Spoon some of the mixture down the edge of the pastry then roll the pastry over the black pudding. Brush some egg where the pastry joins and trim the pastry to form a roll. Place the pastry on a baking tray and repeat with the rest of the mixture. Mark lines on the top with the point of a knife and brush with the beaten egg.

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Bake the rolls for 15-20 minutes, or until golden, then leave to cool. Serve cut into bite-sized pieces.

Tomato and chive salad

Serves 4

If you've got a beautiful tomato or two you don't need to do anything clever. Just a few spring onions or herbs - chives, basil or mint - is enough to turn them into a simple but special salad.

There are all sorts of different shaped, sized and even coloured tomatoes now - look out for heritage varieties grown in the UK. I've gone back to using good old Sarson's malt vinegar on tomato salads just like my Gran used to with my Grandad Bill's home-grown ones. It suits a British picnic so much better than balsamico.

300-400g mixed tomatoes
2tbsp finely chopped chives
Sea salt and ground black pepper
Sarson's malt vinegar

Cut the tomatoes into chunks, wedges and halves or leave small ones whole.

When you have reached your destination, mix in the chives and season, then drizzle over the vinegar to taste.

Summer bean, ham hock and gherkin salad

Serves 4

Several years ago in Paris I had something similar to this at Chez Georges and it has inspired me to make my own variation. It arrived on the table in a big bowl and you could help yourself to as much or as little as you wanted. At Chez Georges they used only extra-fine green beans and salted ox cheek and a good Dijon vinaigrette.

I've used ham hock which is easier to find, and cheap, too. You can buy great smoked ham hocks from some smokehouses like the one in Orford, but it doesn't have to be smoked. Or if you like, and can find them, you could use salt brisket, silverside or salted ox cheeks.

Any summer beans will do, but runner beans are particularly British, I always think, and gardeners often find themselves with a glut of them. This vibrantly green, grown-up salad is an unusual way of using them up.

1kg ham hock, soaked in water overnight (250-300g if you're using salt brisket or silverside)
100g green beans
80g broad beans (podded weight)
150g runner beans, shredded on the angle
3 large gherkins, shredded
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the vinaigrette

1tbsp tarragon vinegar
2tsp Dijon mustard
1 clove of garlic, peeled
2tbsp olive oil
3tbsp vegetable or corn oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Wash off the ham hock under running cold water then put it into a large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 2-2 1/2 hours until tender, then leave to cool in the liquid. Cook the beans separately in boiling salted water until tender, then drain and refresh under cold water.

To make the vinaigrette. Put all the ingredients into a clean bottle or jar. Give them a good shake and leave to infuse for as long as possible at room temperature. Shred the ham or cut into chunks, mix with the beans and gherkins and then transfer to one of those plastic bowls with lids or something similar so you can season and toss the salad with the vinaigrette at the picnic.

Cherry fool

Serves 4-6

English cherries are not here for long, so it's good to make the most of them. You can't beat eating them straight from a bowl but if you want to do something with them I suggest cooking them lightly so they keep their shape and as much flavour as possible.

60g caster sugar
80ml water
2tsp cornflour
200-250g stoned cherries

for the fool

50ml white wine or grape juice
Juice of half lemon
40g sugar
250ml double cream

To prepare the cherry compote, stir the sugar and water on a low heat until dissolved then simmer for a minute, dilute the cornflour in a little water and stir into the liquid. Simmer for another minute, or until the liquid is thick. Stir in the cherries and cook on a low heat for 2 minutes, stirring every so often. Remove from the heat and leave to cool, then refrigerate for an hour.

For the fool, mix together the white wine, lemon juice and sugar. Add the cream and whip the mixture slowly with an electric whisk or by hand until thick. Then fold half of the compote into the cream mixture. Put into individual glasses or a serving dish and chill for at least an hour. Serve with the rest of the compote on top of the fool.

Raspberries with goat's curd and honey

Serves 4

In Italy it's quite normal to eat fresh cheeses such as ricotta with fruits; our equivalent would probably be goat's curd which can be bought from specialist cheese shops like Neal's Yard, or farm shops. It really makes a refreshing change from pouring thick double cream all over your berries and the addition of honey just balances the slight bitterness of the curd.

300g raspberries
150-180g goat's curd
4-5tbsp clear honey

Arrange the raspberries on a plate, spoon the goat's curd over, followed by the honey.

Pink grapefruit cooler

Serves 4-6

I'm getting into my Magimix juicer and at this time of year it's just great for fruity drinks. Once made, transfer the drink into plastic bottles so you can freeze it and use it as an ice pack in your cool box and then drink ice cold as it melts.

4 pink or yellow grapefruit, peeled
150g sugar
500ml water

Bring the water and sugar to the boil and leave to cool. Meanwhile put the grapefruit through a juicer, or blend in a liquidiser and strain. Mix the syrup and juice together and decant into a plastic bottle and freeze until required.

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