These are fictions of alfresco life, but in truth Mother Nature is a cruel mistress who doesn’t dedicate a fig for your carefully laid plans or meticulously sliced cucumber sandwiches- which is why it pays to come prepared for all eventualities. Here’s a guidebook to dealing with a few of the challenges likely to crop up as soon as the words” it’s a lovely day !” leave your mouth.
Surprise! I’m vegan
These days, most special diets are easy to cater for with a little notice- but when someone texts on the day to inform you they have gone plant-based, or gluten-free, it can be seducing to answer telling them to bring their own bloody lunch. Before you do, count to 10 and channels Yotam Ottolenghi: a Middle Eastern feast will keep everyone happy. Big bowl of hummus or baba ganoush, paired with a salad of roasted or barbecued veg and some falafel or vegetable fritters are sure to go down a treat with omnivores, too- add pitta or other flatbreads to bulk it out, then finish with fruit and meringues or damp, sticky polenta cake. Most of these are gluten free and can easily be made vegan too . Failing that, almost all supermarkets carry a wide range of free-from products- and everyone likes crisps, right?
Who invited them ?
Even the most perpetrated animal devotee might be hard-pressed to welcome our flying friends to the feast- but if you are eating outside, a certain insect presence is inevitable; to be fair to them, it’s where they live. The best way of deterring wasps and bees is thought to be to trap the first inquisitive scout before it returns to the nest weighed down with ketchup and alerts 250 of its nearest and dearest to the free buffet going on in your back garden. Avoid setting up camp close to ponds or the standing water beloved of mozzies and midges; instead, embrace the fresh air of a breezy hilltop- most flying bugs detest both wind and smoking, which is a great excuse for a barbecue or a campfire.
The crunch of sand between the teeth may seem as inevitable a part of eating on the beach as a stiff gale and a Mr Whippy for pudding, but there are ways to reduce your silica consumption. Run for food such as
wraps, filled baguettes and oranges that can be eaten straight from their wrappers( see below for eco-friendly alternatives) with minimal contact with the gritty surrounding. Make sure you rinse your hands, preferably with fresh water, before you even think of unpacking anything, although even a pail of sea water is better than nothing.
Obviously, sun is welcome whether you are planning a barbie in the back garden or a celebratory drinking at the top of a mountain, but it can be problematic maintaining food fresh in the heat. A good rule of thumb is to choose dishes from warmer climes: cured salami and ham are more robust than poached salmon or coronation chicken, just as parmesan, manchego or feta will do better than cheddar or stilton in sunshine.( That said, if you are eating at home, or can keep them flat in transit, bries, camemberts and their ilk come into their own after a few hours outside the fridge .) Crunchy carrots and radishes and
Mediterranean veg are preferable to leafy greens, and vinaigrettes tend to hold up better than mayonnaise in high temperatures. If you are inducing sandwiches ahead of time, consider replacing the butter with avocado mashed with lemon juice, or a soft cheese.
Parklife: a barbecue in the rainfall. Photograph: Alamy
This is more likely to be a problem in the UK than sunshine, sadly- but all is not lost if the forecast begins to look grim; one of the best picnics I have ever eaten was eaten in the very damp shadow of a dry-stone wall on Scafell Pike in December. As on a beach, select foods that can be feed straight from the wrappers, and avoid soft bread or delicate pastry: you’d be surprised how water-repellent a pork pie or scotch egg is compared with your median loaf of sliced white. If you are taking advantage of a brief break in the clouds to picnic, pack a waterproof layer to protect the carpeting, and your bottoms, from soggy grass. If the forecast seems similarly grim for a long-planned barbecue and you cannot fit the grill under cover, or prop a well-weighted umbrella over it, then go for dishes such as jerk chicken or ribs, which can be cooked in advance and then finished off either on a grill or a hot pan, depending on how the sky is seem, or opt recipes that work in the oven as well as on the barbecue.
If you are planning to eat a few hundred yards from your own kitchen, I probably do not need to tell you that a tray will come in handy. For picnics at distant beauty spots and barbecues on the beach, however, it pays to consider the very unromantic question of logistics. Some foods travel better than others; exquisite Parisian tarts will not look quite so pretty once they have been carted up a hill, but a
sturdy British tart with a hot water crust could probably be kicked up there without much damage. Hard cheeses, cooked meats, boiled eggs and crunchy pickles are all good selections, as are soft things such as hummus or potato salad, which won’t mind being shaken about a bit. If you must take ripe tomatoes or stone fruit, then wrap them in newspaper as carefully as fine china, and put them in storage boxes. Cold drinkings can be happily decanted into Thermos flasks full of ice.
This is not the time for tables and chairs. Photograph: Issy Crocker for the Guardian
One of the chief pleasures of barbecues including with regard to is their simplicity: unless physical necessity demands it, this is not the time for tables and chairs. Much lovelier to lounge about on the grass, sand or a sun-warmed stone and feel at one with nature as you shovel Pringles into your gob. In reality, all of those surfaces can be prickly, damp or downright spiky- so if you can manage to lug along a stout, preferably waterproofed carpeting as well as the food, all the better( a sheet of plastic, or a few big Ikea bags, underneath an ordinary carpeting, does the job just as well ). If you are planning to sit for a while, you might also like to suggest each guest brings a cushion as head support for an eminently sensible postprandial sleep, and consider bringing a parasol as a sunshade: though a hat apiece is substantially easier to carry. Proper cloth napkins not only give a picnic an air of sophistication but are much more useful than paper ones, which tend to disintegrate at the mere sight of mayonnaise- and, of course, they are endlessly reusable, as well as handy for wrapping any crockery, glass, boiled eggs and so on.
As above, if you are eating away from home, keep it simple. Go for finger food- crudites and dips, burgers, hot dogs or samosas– and all you need are napkins to wipe your hands afterwards, although a bottle opener is sure to come in useful at most British barbecues, as will some beakers.( Unless you want to be lugging those around yourself, ask everyone to bring their own- it will save on the washing up too .) If you are planning to barbecue away from home, invest in a small portable grill rather than wasteful disposable ones: some models are scarcely more expensive, and you will be able to enjoy them for many summers to come. Barbecues will never be the most eco-friendly option of course, but you can also help by fuelling them with sustainable British lumpwood charcoal.
A beach firepit barbecue. Photograph: Acik/ Getty Images/ iStockphoto
Naturally, this should be kept to a minimum- principally for environmental reasons, although aesthetically there is little to spoil the simple grandeur of a picnic like outrageous quantities of plastic wrap strewn across the rug. This should not be a problem if you are constructing the food yourself: there are plenty of good eco-friendly options out there, from sandwich wraps to Indian tiffin boxes, which are not only reusable, but far easier on the eye than tin foil, and a little better at their job as well. Unless you are feeding the 5,000, you are able prefer to decant condiments and seasonings into small jars( I collect tiny jam jars from hotel breakfasts for the purpose ), though always leave garmenting salads and sandwiches until the last minute, if possible, to minimise the risk of things going soggy and slimy in transit.
In theory, without all that rubbish to deal with, this should be relatively painless: box up any leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch, then sluice out dirty receptacles with water if it is available and going spare, and approximately dry with the aforementioned napkins before packing away. It’s always a good idea to take a couple of pouches for any disposable packaging and recycling you do manage to accumulate, and if you are likely to be somewhere without water, a few damp cloths in a waterproofed washbag will be invaluable for cleaning hands and faces before you release any trapped wasps, shake out the carpet and head home, smug in the knowledge you have done your patriotic duty by the great British summer.