WE ATE lunch outside last Sunday for the first time this year, and the fresh air and warm sunshine made it quite the best meal I've had for months. Admittedly we were happily ensconced on the terrace of a restaurant, but I did rather regret not having had the forethought to plan a picnic. It may be optimistic, even with a promising weather forecast, to consider picnicking in late March but, let's face it, in Britain you have to be optimistic to plan a picnic any time of year.

Happily, dire weather has never succeeded in dampening our national enthusiasm for outdoor eating. One of the best picnics I can remember (vaguely) was on a relatively balmy March day on the peak of Primrose Hill in north London.

One decadent picnicker turned up with a flask of chilled vodka martinis, and after a couple of those, we probably wouldn't have cared much if the heavens had opened to flood us out. The only problem that day was finding a decent-sized patch of grass free of dog dirt, but you can't blame that on the season.

It's certainly worth hazarding a picnic if you're planning a day out at this time of year, and so what if it does bucket down? The most memorable picnics are inevitably those that don't go quite according to plan. There is nothing like a hasty retreat - gathering up all the food and making a run for it as the rain begins to pelt down - to make you feel part of the national pageant.

However, chattering teeth and chilled fingers can eventually become dispiriting. It would be wise in these early days of spring to go prepared for the icy worst. Snow is not yet out of the question. Any keen picnicker knows that the vacuum flask is his or her best friend, and that a brace of large ones is even more convivial.

To be on the safe side, I would make sure that one of them was filled with warming soup (the other takes tea or coffee, both pretty awful from a flask, but essential none the less). Later in the year, I might make up a large batch of soup that would taste as good chilled or hot, such as watercress or leek and potato, so that I would be able make a last-minute decision based on the weather report. Right now, however, my inclination is towards a hot, substantial, filling soup that would guarantee some form of internal central heating.

That's about my one hard and fast rule for a March picnic. Perfect picnic food is very much a personal preference. I like to have some form of fresh salady stuff whatever the weather - bags of radishes, cherry tomatoes, sticks of carrot, all of which can be eaten with the fingers - and fresh fruit to balance the inevitably doughy portable foods, whether they be sandwiches, pies or sausage rolls.

When it comes to making sandwiches, the one fundamental is good bread. Luckily it is not so hard to come by, now that most supermarkets and many bakeries sell wider selections of 'speciality' breads that actually have both flavour and texture. Second, never be mean with the fillings: a good sandwich is a generous one that you can really sink your teeth into; and that goes for something as simple as a cheese and pickle butty right through to the more

esoteric, such as ciabatta laden with parma ham, rocket and sun-dried

tomato.

To pack in extra flavour, make up your own flavoured butter; try processing butter with lemon zest, juice, chilli and coriander leaf, or black olives and a clove or two of garlic. Choose flavourings that will enhance the filling, and make up the butter a day or two in advance, if you can plan ahead. Any left-overs can be stored in the freezer.

Picnics are not made of savouries alone, though. Oh no. There's got to be some sort of treaty sweet substance to round off the proceedings. Quite what will depend on the kitchen time available to the provider.

Of course, some wonderful gooey cake is sheer delight, though it may not be the most convenient thing to eat huddled on the back seat of the car. A few bars of chocolate may be more the ticket, or a bag of classy fudge.

THIS thick, warming, bitty soup is based on Italian bean soups, though I've cut some corners, timewise, by using tinned beans rather than dried. It reheats well, so you can make it a day or so in advance.

Haricot bean, celery and ham soup

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 4tbs olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

4 sticks celery, thinly sliced

4oz/110g thickly sliced cooked ham

3 cloves garlic, crushed

2 x 15oz/432g tins haricot beans,

drained

1 bayleaf

2 sprigs of rosemary

2 pints chicken or vegetable stock

2tbs chopped parsley

salt and pepper

Preparation: Warm the oil in a wide, large pan. Add the onion and celery, and fry gently until lightly browned. Cut the ham into small strips and add to the pan with the garlic. Fry for a further 2-3 minutes. Now add all the remaining ingredients except parsley, and bring up to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pick out the bay leaf and rosemary stalks. Process about half the mixture until smooth, then return to the pan. Stir in along with the parsley; taste, adjust seasoning.

BREAD of some sort is the essential companion to soup, though out in the open the last thing you want is to be attempting to slice a loaf as you juggle with flasks and mugs. These scones, perked up with Parmesan and plenty of thyme, are small enough to be passed round with minimal fuss.

Serve them just as they are, or slice in half and butter them before you leave home. Like any scone, they can be stored in an airtight container, but they taste best soon after they are made. Luckily they don't take long to bake, so if you can squeeze it into the schedule, make them a few hours before you set off.

Parmesan and thyme scones

Makes about 15

Ingredients: 8oz/225g plain flour

2tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

2oz/55g butter

1 1/2 oz/45g freshly grated Parmesan

1tbs finely chopped parsley

2tsp thyme leaves or 1tsp dried thyme

1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1/4 pint/150ml milk, plus a little extra

Preparation: Sift the flour with the baking power and salt. Rub in the butter until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the Parmesan, parsley, thyme and pepper. Add the 1/4 pint of milk and mix to a soft, smooth dough. Roll out to a thickness of about 1/2 in/1 1/2 cm on a lightly floured surface. Stamp out 2in/5cm rounds, and lay on greased baking sheets. Brush the tops with milk and bake at 220C/425F/gas 7 for about 12-15 minutes until nicely risen and lightly browned. Cool on a rack.

DUKKAH is a strange-sounding Egyptian concoction of roasted nuts and spices that is a miraculous way of animating the raw vegetable element of a picnic. Take the dukkah along in a jar or a plastic bag, and dip radishes, small tomatoes, sticks of carrot, celery or even hard-boiled eggs into it before you eat them. It's far more convenient than an oozing jar of vinaigrette, and it tastes sensational.

This makes a substantial quantity, but save the rest for another day. Try sprinkling it over grilled meats, or toasted bread drizzled with olive oil. It's so good that you're bound to find plenty of ways to use it up.

Dukkah

Ingredients: 1oz/30g hazelnuts

4tbs sesame seeds

2tbs coriander seeds

1 1/2 tbs cumin seeds

1/2 tbs black peppercorns

2tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tbs salt

Preparation: Spread the hazelnuts out on a baking tray and roast in a hot oven (about 200C/400F/gas 6) for 5 minutes or so, shaking once or twice, until they brown and the papery skin is flaking off. Tip into a wire sieve and roll around above a sheet of newspaper to catch the flakes of skin as they come off. Alternatively, wait until they are cool enough to handle, and rub between the palms of the hands to remove the skin. Chop nuts roughly.

Heat a small, heavy frying pan over a medium heat and add the sesame seeds. Shake gently until they turn a shade darker and smell deliciously nutty. Tip into a bowl. Repeat with the coriander and cumin seeds. Add to the bowl and cool until tepid. Mix with the peppercorns and whizz to a coarse dry powder in a clean coffee grinder, then mix with the cinnamon and salt.

Grind the hazelnuts coarsely - don't overdo it or you'll end up with an oily paste - and mix those in with the rest. Store the dukkah in a screw- top jar, where it will keep nicely for weeks.

THE great thing about these squishy date bars is that not only do they provide the requisite sweet finale to a picnic, but as they are made with dried fruit and plenty of oats, they somehow seem like a healthy-ish alternative (as long as you forget all that butter). Deeply satisfying on every count. The individual bars are quite crumbly, so it is probably best to transport them in the tin.

Date, raisin, walnut and oat bars

Makes 15

Ingredients: 6oz/170g stoned dried dates, chopped

2oz/55g raisins

juice of 2 oranges

4oz/110g plain flour

1/4 tsp salt

8oz/225g rolled oats

3oz/85g light muscovado sugar

3oz/85g walnuts, finely chopped

6oz/170g butter, melted and cooled

Preparation: Put the dates, raisins and orange juice in a pan with enough water to just cover. Bring up to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until very thick. Cool.

Grease a 7 1/2 -8in/19-20cm square tin and line the base with greaseproof paper. Sift the flour with the salt and mix with the oats, sugar and walnuts. Pour in the butter, stirring with a palette knife until you have a crumbly mixture. Spread half over the base of the tin, smoothing evenly with your hand. Cover with the date mixture, dot the remaining oat mixture on top, and smooth down to cover evenly. Bake at 190C/375F/gas 5 for 25 minutes until golden brown. Cool in the tin and cut into 15 bars.

(Photograph omitted)

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