VICTORIA PREVER samples the joys of the English picnic season

We English are so deprived of the chance of an al fresco meal we ll head outdoors in all weathers. While our neighbours from warmer climates are still shivering in thick jumpers, we re sprawled on blankets desperately trying to make the most of the longer

We English are so deprived of the chance of an al fresco meal we'll head outdoors in all weathers. While our neighbours from warmer climates are still shivering in thick jumpers, we're sprawled on blankets desperately trying to make the most of the longer daylight hours.

May was mostly a washout, weather-wise although this weekend did bring hopes that June may reverse all that with a spell of sun soaked summer days.

But come rain or shine, the opening of the doors of the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre and (ordinarily) the start of the Kenwood season means it's picnic season. If the rain holds off for more than a couple of hours at the weekend then hordes of us will dash - blankets in hand - for Primrose Hill, Hampstead Heath or one of the many lovely parks we have in north-west London.

Picnics have moved on a bit. No longer squashed sandwiches, crisps and a plastic cup of warm plonk, there are now choices even more sophisticated than the (once poshest picnics) supermarket selection of dips, fancy breads, tortilla chips and fruit tarts.

This year, a number of delis and food stores are touting for our picnic business - pushing fine dining to go. They come complete with drinks, cutlery and even a container to hold it all in ready for you to haul off to your chosen picturesque destination. I've sampled a few, mostly - due to inclement weather conditions - from my living room, to help you find the top picnic nosh.

First out was the Carluccio's offer - a Ferrari of picnics in a bright blue, heavy cardboard box. The box was the most convenient of the picnic containers I saw. It was so laden, I'd have worried about the handle holding if I'd carried it far.

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Freshly baked foccaccia (still warm from the oven) went well with the two pots of antipasti - chilli stuffed olives, sweet sun-dried tomatoes and crunchy balsamic onions.

Also warm was the delicious chicken leg stuffed with mortadella and wrapped in pancetta, which may have been a little meagre for two diners. But as Grumpy is a vegetarian, it was all mine. With it were excellent salads - one with chickpeas, tomatoes, provolone and rocket and the second, buffalo mozzarella, tomato and black olive.

To finish the feast, there were two tarts - one lemon and one chocolate - and a huge lump of Taleggio cheese, so well wrapped you'd need your Swiss Army pen-knife to release it. To drink, there was a bottle of Sicilian red wine and two bottles of mineral water, complete with plastic cups as well as plastic cutlery and thick blue paper napkins. At £15 per head, it was great value.

Next, a chance to sample XO's fusion offer. Despite all the criticism they've received, I've eaten well there. They've opened XO To Go next door, selling much of the same food as on the XO menu for you to heat up at home as well as some lighter breakfast and lunchtime food choices.

The XO picnic is the poseur's picnic of choice - a good one to impress a date. I sampled a few of the sushi and salad choices. A plastic pot of edamame was tasty and nicely seasoned, but left us with a "where do we put the pods?" issue. Tuna maki rolls were fresh and tasty as were the two salads - a Thai beef salad and a vegetarian leaf version. Both had excellent spicy dressings and were packed with fresh salad leaves. The sashimi was fresh and bahn trang rolls filled with duck were so packed with flavour they disappeared in a second.

There are also packs of spicy wasabi peas and rice crackers. Only the banoffee pie dessert was a letdown.

Baker and Spice's picnic is the Bentley of boxes - with a price tag to match. The branded orange and black box contained a respectably chewy bagel packed with wild smoked salmon, cream cheese and dill. A cardboard box of chicken Caesar salad was good - with jumbo toasted croutons, generous parmesan shavings and good slabs of chargrilled chicken with separate pot of (excellent) dressing. Dessert was a slice of smooth, creamy blueberry cheesecake with a scattering of fresh blueberries on its own square china plate protected by a plastic dome lid. No biscuity base, but otherwise good.

The box wasn't particularly portable. There's one box per person and they need to stay horizontal so you'd need a pretty large bag to carry it in. It does come with disposable (recyclable in this case) cutlery and a tiny napkin. Very much a meal, it filled me up. But at the grand price of £22 per head, so it should be.

Gustoso's offering - the most traditional - was the only one to supply me with a proper mini wicker suitcase-style hamper. Unless you don't mind your food in little crushed pieces though, you'd need to cuddle it horizontally it in your arms.

Their range has quirky names like Simple Simon (the basic offer at £4.95 per head), Deeply Dippy (a range of dips and things for dipping into them plus some cured meats, bread and fresh fruit) and Cheese Please Louise (no prizes for guessing the focus of this one) at £8.95 per head.

My sample was a hybrid - perhaps a Simple Cheese Please Dippy. Whoever put it together liked their spice - some of the salamis and tomato salsa were fierce.

Ham and mushroom quiche was really good - a creamy, cheesey filling, packed with ham and mushrooms held together by a really tasty, crumbly pastry.

The treacle tart didn't seem to have been made by the same pastry maker - or had been fridged - as its pastry was soft, chewy and flavourless. The huge pot of summer berries with whipped cream helped ease my disappointment.

Generous portions of cheese came with crackers and sliced French bread. No wine with this one - although they can supply it (for an additional price) from their next-door Oddbins - instead there was a refreshing, sparkling pomegranate drink.

We enjoyed this picnic but it did feel a bit carb-heavy and could have done with some token "green stuff".

It was, however, more about what picnics should be - lots of bits to graze on whileyou're lolling on your blanket, so that when you struggle to your feet your waistband is straining.

With a wealth of gourmet picnic choices on your doorstep there's simply no excuse for tired sandwiches this year.

And with picnics like these, who cares if it rains?


32-34 Rosslyn Hill, NW3 1NH, 020-7794 2184.

60 St John's Wood High St, NW8 2TU, 020-7449 0404.

Brent Cross Shopping Centre, Hendon, NW4 3FN, 020-8203 6844.

Food: Four stars

Practicality: Four stars

Cost: £30/£45/£60 for two people. Children's

boxes £10.

24 hours' notice

XO to go

31 Belsize Lane, Belsize Park, London NW3 5AS,

020-7433 0880.


Food: Four stars

Practicality: Three stars

Cost: Items priced individually - salads £4.95-£5.50; sushi and sashimi £3.95-£4.50; edamame £1.50. Desserts at £1.

24 hours' notice.


6 Lauderdale Parade, Lauderdale Road, W9 1LU.

Food: Three stars

Practicality: Three stars

Cost: £4.95-£10.95 per person (certain picnics have minimum numbers).

Can supply on two hours' notice. Basket and rug subject to £20 deposit.

Baker and Spice

20 Clifton Road, London W9 1SU, 020-7266 3535

Food: Four stars

Practicality: Two stars

Cost: £15/£22/£29 for picnic boxes, £20 for afternoon tea hamper.

Two days' notice required.