Britain has always been a nation of avid picnickers, particularly as the mercury rises. But over the past few weeks in the cooped-up capital, the picnic has come to symbolise hope and relief too. As lockdown restrictions have eased, Londoners gingerly — and not so gingerly — began congregating in the city’s many green spaces, to meet up with friends and toast life returning to some kind of new normal.
Simultaneously, the humble picnic has been reinvigorated as many restaurants, cafés and delicatessens, looking to adapt to this age of social distancing, have started offering takeaways and bespoke al fresco menus packaged up for consumption at home or in local parks.
These picnics are admittedly a special treat: this is eating out, rather than a quick dash to the supermarket for the last remaining tubs of hummus and a baguette. But in this current climate, spreading out on the grass with a gourmet feast and something cool and alcoholic to drink is as good as it gets. For now at least.
At most eateries offering picnic fare, you need to put your order in a couple of days before and pick up your box of goodies en route (check that cups, cutlery and napkins are supplied). All you need to bring with you is a rug, and a vague whereabouts of the nearest public convenience.
Here is a selection of some of the finest picnics on offer from restaurants, cafés and other purveyors across London.
Petersham Meadows, Richmond
We are in London, but the scene is pastoral. Black and white Belted Galloway cows are munching the grass a few yards away, in the shadow of a large sycamore tree. There was a summer shower an hour ago, but the ground is dry. The river Thames is barely a stone’s throw away.
Laid out on our picnic rug is a £40 spread, from a range pre-ordered from Petersham Nurseries, a hundred yards away. This garden centre, which used to have the unusual distinction of having a Michelin-starred restaurant (the star has since gone) has partially reopened with all the usual covid-related queues, one-way walkways and hand sanitisers.
First on to the plate is some delicious focaccia with rosemary, sea salt and olive oil. Then there’s a salad with a delicious pesto dressing featuring dry roasted tomatoes, salted ricotta, and a chewy grain which at first I think is bulgar wheat but — it turns out — is farro.
Next up is a pair of boiled eggs. We gleefully crack off the shell before dipping them in a little paper packet of celery salt.
Petersham Meadows is so vast that although there are a dozen other families having lunch they all seem far away.
The package, a sort of cardboard hamper, includes two sausage rolls from Haye Farm in Devon, which are a little oily to the touch but taste incredible, packed with meaty flavour — augmented by the accompanying dip of apricot chutney.
There is also a packet of raw summer vegetables: carrot, radish, red pepper, fennel, with pea hummus, which is something I’ve never heard of before. Would I buy pea hummus again? Possibly not, but it’s zesty and brings novelty value to the spread.
The sun has come out above Richmond Hill and it feels like we are enjoying a timeless summer picnic in the countryside, despite being well within Greater London. A single plane — that rare sight these days — cuts through the blue sky.
For dessert, there are strawberries that come with a tiny paper and string packet of mint sugar and a fresh Amalfi lemon to be squeezed on. This comes with two biscuits which seem freshly baked.
Could we have used a chilled bottle of sauvignon blanc? Perhaps. But everything is so tasty and fresh and healthy — and we will still be full to the gunnels when evening rolls around. — Jim Pickard
Details: Order from Petersham Nurseries by 4pm for next-day collection.
The Bull & Last
The Bull & Last, squarely facing Parliament Hill fields since the early 18th century, is a much loved Heath-side pub and restaurant with a loyal clientele who book far in advance for their sublime roasts and other delicacies.
After lengthy renovations and the creation of six new bedrooms it reopened in early March, only to be promptly shuttered again much to the disappointment of all in the NW5 postcode and beyond. It has recently reopened for a period of time as a Tap Room, with a takeaway menu, as well as a wide selection of beers and wine.
The Bull & Last has offered picnic hampers for several years, and now has a new picnic formula on offer: a grab-bag for two, with all you need for a decadent feast in the 790 acres of verdant green space across the road.
The picnic is a mouthwatering seasonal mish-mash of the Bull & Last’s greatest hits, including a smaller self-assembly version of their fish board consisting of beetroot-cured gravlax, pickled cucumber and shaved fennel salad, horseradish cream and treacly freshly baked soda bread. This is accompanied by two hefty, oozy, mortadella, mozzarella, tomato and rocket-filled baguettes, a salad box of violet artichokes, peas and goats cheese with a pine-nut pistou, a pot of olives, a Scotch egg to share and a courgette, onion, watercress and salted ricotta tart. And, because chef Ollie Pudney is the undisputed pudding king of north London, two devilishly decadent dark chocolate and hazelnut mousse pots. It is generous to say the least, and in our case, fed two grown-ups and two little ones.
Booze-wise, you can choose from 500ml of wine from their new on-tap wine selection (we chose a piquant Cinsault Rosé), or a litre of beer, plus a bottle of still or sparkling water.
We were too greedy and hungry to walk far with our picnic, choosing to eat it on the nearest slope of Parliament hill. The sun casting long shadows across the grass, it was a hedonistic scene — surrounding us were groups of teenagers, laughing, drinking and smoking, together again at last. — Rebecca Rose
Details: The Bull & Last picnic is available on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, you can order online or on the phone; it is best to do so the day before. Cups, cutlery and napkins provided. £58 for two.
For the art of the picnic, what better canvas than Hyde Park? Whether you like to post up in front of Kensington Palace, stake out waterfront real estate by the Serpentine or admire the Italian gardens, the 350-acre royal park provides plenty of gorgeous locales for tucking into a socially-distanced, pre-packaged spread.
Hyde Park’s expanses across central London mean you won’t be hard-pressed to find somewhere to stock up on provisions en route. My usual stop is Laurent’s, a Franco-Italian delicatessen in W2, to pick up an assortment of their very buttery savoury pastries, and potentially a future heart attack.
But, needs must. With important investigative journalism to conduct, it came time to try Pique, the ultimate posh picnic purveyor. The Battersea-based company specialises in gourmet picnics, offering a range of menus that include brunch, ‘movie night’ (one to keep in mind if drive-ins take off) and ‘Pimm’s picnic o’clock’, which includes tinnies of pre-mixed Pimm’s with your al fresco feast. Prices start around £40 for two people.
The signature hamper, the ‘Pique Nique’, is one of the more expensive options — but what a treat it is.
The picnic includes crowd pleasers such as sweet chorizo sausage rolls and jammy-yolked scotch eggs; there’s roast chicken with romesco sauce — a perfect partner to the orzo, pesto and pea salad. More freshness comes with the tomato and shaved fennel salad that’s crowned with clumps of burrata, though cheeselovers will be delighted by the charcuterie and Brie box. Though the highlight may be dessert: gooey double chocolate brownies and British summer strawberries.
The obvious downside is that it’s expensive: £70 for two people, and it doesn’t include beverages, whereas many other picnic providers will throw in a bit of wine. But every biodegradable box in Pique’s hamper contained a generous portion of something moreish. Us two hearty eaters could’ve fed a third person too; we were able to stretch the leftovers into another light meal — and I polished off the leftover lemony hummus while writing this. — Niki Blasina
Details: Pique will deliver within six miles of their Battersea kitchen. Orders must be placed 48h in advance, and the basket includes compostable plates, cutlery and napkins — and they can provide a blanket too.
De Beauvoir Deli
A central failing in my life as an Australian based in London is the absence of a back yard. No back yard means no barbecue. In Australia, this would be less of a problem. Most parks of any size have public barbecues to use, an underrated national treasure. In London, these sadly do not really exist. But there is green space and plenty of it. That means picnics in the park.
For 20 years, I have been lucky enough to live 150m from Hackney Downs. It is not as big as nearby Victoria Park or as hipster-clogged as London Fields. But it is a 16ha expanse much loved by the huge diversity of locals and is the site for my picnic on the hottest night of the year so far.
I have chosen a basket from De Beauvoir Deli, which I picked up en route to the Downs, which are about a 10-minute drive or half-hour walk away. In the wicker hamper, there is some rich and delicious chicken liver pate; a sourdough from the excellent Dusty Knuckle bakery which operates out of old car park site in Dalston; a slab of Comte cheese; a container of olives; a jar of cornichons and a whole Tunworth soft cheese. In addition, there is a bottle of prosecco and an array of charcuterie of parma ham, finocchiona or fennel sausage, salame Milano and chorizo from northern Spain.
The choice of Tunworth — easily my favourite English cheese and akin to a pungent Camembert — is an indicator of the overall excellent quality of the fare here. The hamper, at £72, is not cheap. But you get back £10 if you return the hamper and overall, it is better value than a number of the overpriced, hip small-plate restaurants nearby. And for my small family, it is more than enough for a couple more picnics in this glorious summer weather. — Tony Tassell
Details: Order from De Beauvoir Deli at least 48 hours before you want to pick up. Cups cutlery and napkins for two provided.
Artusi & Marcella
HORNIMAN GARDENS, FOREST HILL
The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill has been attracting visitors to its curious exhibits — notably its vast array of taxidermy — since opening in 1901. But its attached gardens are somewhat of a hidden treasure in south London.
Though the park lacks the vast open spaces of nearby Peckham Rye, it more than makes up for that with points of interest — from the sweeping views across London and a series of manicured gardens (the American prairie is a highlight) to its small but perfectly formed menagerie, complete with a pair of alpacas. The whole place is lush and alive with colour, even in the midst of a heatwave.
We take a spot under a tree on the main lawn to enjoy our picnic from the popular Italian duo of Artusi (in Peckham) and Marcella (its Deptford sister). We’ve eaten at both a few times, and have been booking the occasional cook-at-home delivery from them during lockdown — think fresh cavatelli with sausage and saffron ragu.
The picnic is a pared back affair. We kick off with a generous tub of huge green olives, the kind that make you feel like you’re gnawing at a salty apricot. Then it's on to zerbinati melon — the sweetest I’ve ever tasted — and prosciutto. The two-year old gets to the wafer-thin slices of mortadella first, but it’s rich and flavourful, so a little goes a long way. The rest of the spread consists of two salads — borlotti bean and tuna (perked up with citrus peel of some kind), and another of Cuore del Vesuvio (a very posh tomato) and teeny slippery olives. The home-made ricotta is quite bland on its own, but makes the perfect adhesive for sticking all of the above to the bouncy rosemary focaccia.
The meal is rounded off with its best dish — sweet and fluffy whipped crème fraîche with vermouth-soaked strawberries and crunchy, bashed-up biscuit. A cool bottle of prosecco, included with the hamper, lubricates the £55 experience.
We’ve been lucky. The park is wonderfully quiet, despite the clear blue skies and searing sun. Two violinists have set-up in the Victorian bandstand, and the music washes over us. We leave full and ready for a nap. — Josh Noble
Details: Artusi & Marcella deliver picnics, meals and wine across south London from Tuesday-Saturday.
Have you discovered an epic picnic pack? Share your tips in the comments
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