Forget soggy sandwiches and wilting salads, says Siobhan Grogan. Top chef and TV regular Theo Randall shares his fail-safe tips to have a picnic with pizzazz
Like strawberries and cream, picnics are an essential part of British summertime. While we can never guarantee the weather, we remain committed to eating on the move, from squashed sarnies on the beach to gourmet packs-ups at Glyndebourne.
Cette année, Theo Randall, formerly head chef at the River Cafe and now at Theo Randall at the InterContinental, is helping to up our picnic game. He’s teamed up with Champagne house Charles Heidsieck and fellow chefs including Max Alary (Blanchette), Dean Banks (Haar) and Paul Askew (The Art School) to write Where Chefs Picnic, a guidebook revealing the chef’s favourite picnic spots and essentials. It’s available exclusively inside the picnic hamper of dreams, a hefty wicker basket that also features a luxe fleecy picnic blanket, a nifty champagne cooler, champagne stopper, pair of champagne flutes and the all-important Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs. It will make even limp lettuce and sausage rolls look special. Then just follow Theo’s advice to bring a little polish to your picnic…
Why do you love picnics?
I like eating outside in a beautiful setting in a relaxed environment. Picnics are a very social occasion and great fun for the family. I like the fact that you can set up a picnic where you want and when. As long as you don’t make them too complicated and produce food that won’t spoil, then they’re great fun. Also they’re a very nice way to enjoy food and wine together!
What’s the most memorable picnic you’ve ever had?
I remember having a picnic as a kid with another family in France by this beautiful river and having very simple baguettes with ham, mustard and cornichon. We had a little boat and went up and down the river all day. There were huge watermelon slices and ice-cold Orangina bottles from the ice box, then a selection of coffee and chocolate eclairs that we picked up from a patisserie on the way. I remember not wanting to leave.
What food should every picnic include?
Simple food that doesn’t perish. I find a homemade focaccia with tomatoes, sea salt and rosemary always a good thing to take, as you can cut up some mozzarella and put it on top or have some slices of salami.
What’s your go-to picnic dish?
The king of picnics has to be panzanella – a bread salad with grilled peppers, tomatoes, capers, basil, olive oil and anchovies. It can be made the day before and keeps well in the fridge. Place in a container with a lid and take it to your picnic – delicious served with a glass of chilled valpolicella or, even better, Charles Heidsieck champagne.
Describe the recipe you’re sharing with us (see below).
My favourite dish for a picnic is insalata di farro – which is wheat-grain boiled then drained and mixed with chopped cucumber, tomatoes, basil and olive oil, and finished off with grated ricotta salata. This is a dish that we always make or buy when we’re on holiday in Puglia. It brings back so many memories of my children sitting in the shade on a packed beach in August, eating bowls of this. It’s the perfect dish to eat when it’s really hot and it gets better as it marinades.
What’s the chef’s secret to a perfect picnic?
Prepare everything the evening before and make or buy any bread the morning of your picnic. I find it’s always good to have a chopping board and a knife on a picnic so you can cut bread and tomatoes when you are there – it’s great for cutting melon too. Most ingredients always taste better when they are just cut.
What’s the one thing you hate in a picnic?
Dips and crisps. I just find them so unimaginative and I’m not a fan of everyone double-dipping. Aussi, warm drinks! Always take a cool bag or box.
Where would your dream picnic be?
Under the trees on Half Moon Bay in Antigua. I would make a local lobster salad with aioli and have a glass or two of Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs champagne, and fall asleep in the shade, then watch the sun go down.
What mistake do you think people often make when preparing picnics?
Making them too complicated with ingredients that don’t travel well. The secret to a good picnic is a few dishes that are simple but great quality, like some lovely bread, focaccia, cheese, salami cut there, a simple salad like I’ve mentioned and an excellent bottle of wine. Always take some glasses too. There’s nothing worse than drinking out of plastic cups. Wrap some wine glasses in kitchen paper and put them in a box. That’s much nicer.
The Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Blancs luxury picnic hamper, comprenant Where Chefs Picnic guidebook, costs £225 from The Finest Bubble.
Farro salad with cucumber, tomato, mint, parsley and ricotta salata
This is a really simple summer salad to serve on its own or with other dishes.
Sert: 2-4 depending on portion size
3 plum tomatoes
3 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tbsp chopped mint
Juice of one lemon
4 tbsp good olive oil
75g ricotta salata
Place 2 litres of water on the stove in a large saucepan. When the water comes to the boil, add the farro. cuisiner pour 15 minutes and then drain. The farro should be al dente, not too soft. Leave to cool down.
Cut the cucumber lengthways and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut the cucumber into half lengthways, then cut across so you have 1cm pieces.
Take the tough core of the plum tomato out with a sharp, small knife. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthways then cut into quarters. Cut across like the cucumber so you have small 1cm pieces.
Place the lemon juice, olive oil and the chopped herbs into a bowl; add some salt and pepper, and place the drained and room-temperature-cooked farro in the bowl followed by the chopped cucumber and tomato. Mix really well and check the seasoning.
Place on a nice serving plate with the grated ricotta salata on top.