North London's Cultural Guide

How to do a perfect picnic in 10 steps

Pastry chef Clare Zerny doesn't do it by halves. Neither should you - especially as summer's nearly over

Picnic boards Melrose & Morgan stylee. Photo: PR
Picnic boards Melrose & Morgan stylee. Photo: PR

An activity once reserved for wealthy hunters and those with country estates, a ‘pique-nique’ actually referred, by the 18th century, to a group of diners who brought their own wine to a restaurant.

This concept of a meal where all present made a contribution was embraced by the Victorians after a group of fashionable Londoners started what they called the Picnic Society. By the time it eventually dissipated, the idea of picnicking had been firmly established and lived on to become the prevalent pastime it is today.

If you’re planning on heading to the Heath before the blink-and-you-miss-it English summer is over, then follow my top tips to picnic perfection.

1. Choose your location wisely

If you’re bearing only sarnies and crisps, then hike away; but larger groups should remember that the darn thing with the, er, lack of servants these days is there’s no one to carry your goods. Paper crockery will lighten a load, but this is not meant to be military training. Speaking of which, consider your proximity to the nearest toilet: you don’t want to spend half the day hunting amenities (and boys! Avoid the bushes, purlease).


2. Take a comfortable covering to sit on

If you’re worried about ruining your favourite blanket, a vinyl tablecloth laid underneath will protect; and, if possible, set up at the edge of a shady spot, keeping perishables out of the sun’s glare – it will save both you and the cheese from over-perspiring.

3. Any girl guide will tell you the importance of being prepared…

…so while you may baulk at sacrificing edibles for sensibles, there are a few things that will make you surprisingly popular: insect repellent, sun-cream, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, bin bags, kitchen roll or napkins if you’re posh, condiments (especially salt & pepper), a bottle opener, sharp knife and chopping board. A flat tray for drinks is also handy, as there’s no use crying over spilt prosecco.

4. A cool box or bag is a must

But if you’re minus the requisite ice packs, freeze-drink bottles and pack them around the food. Not only will they help keep the contents chilled, you’ll have a refreshing drink throughout the afternoon.

Following her own guidelines: Clare Zerny. Photo: CZ
Following her own guidelines (but where’s all the food?): Clare Zerny.

5. Be it a rucksack or retro wicker hamper, packing is key

Take plastic storage containers that won’t leak, and empty jam jars lurking at the back of the cupboard which make great vessels for dressings, desserts and even individual salads. Separate breakables carefully and wrap in the blanket for safekeeping.

6. Think sturdy when it comes to food, items that won’t ruin if bashed en route

A meze of flatbreads, olives, hummus and roasted veg, or a Mediterranean platter of hams, cheese, olives and artisan breads are easy to assemble and great for sharing. Retro items like Scotch eggs, sausage rolls, quiche and pork pies are classic for a reason, easy to transport and even better served cold than hot. For a romantic tête-à-tête you can’t beat fresh seafood with champagne and strawberries.

7. Salad is an obvious choice but soggy leaves are a veritable no-no

Make-ahead salads featuring tabbouleh, couscous, potato, pasta and beans all last well. Leafy salads just need a little organising; in a large bowl layer the ingredients, heaviest and wettest like tomato at the bottom, finishing with the lightest leaves on top. A piece of damp kitchen roll on top will help keep it fresh, then serve by simply add the dressing and mixing up.

A little too blowy? Picnickers on Parliament Hill battle this forlorn English summer. Photo: SE
A little too blowy? Picnickers on Parliament Hill battle this forlorn English summer. Photo: SE

8. Good ol’ bread and cheese are perfect for picnics

But to avoid sweaty bread steer clear of plastic – simply wrap in baking parchment or a paper bag. When assembling your cheese board, a Camembert or a French Brie will ooze deliciously, Cheddar or Comte holds well in the heat, but keep out of direct sun to prevent them oiling up like an over-enthusiastic sunbather; and soft blues such as Roquefort are best in a salad as they’ve a habit of getting messy. Store all in the cool box, bringing out 10 minutes before serving to enhance flavours.

9. Unsurprisingly, dessert is a must in my books

Jam jars of summer berries in jelly or Eton mess with strawberries and clotted cream make ideal individual desserts – just don’t forget the spoon. A loaf cake like lemon drizzle is perfect for sharing, as are brownies, muffins and cookies. Just avoid anything with icing – it doesn’t behave well in warm environments.

10. All the best picnics are spontaneous

So, if you’ve no time to prepare (or you’re simply not inclined to) then get thee to a posh local deli for a cheat’s version. Around the Heath are a few corkers, including the Hampstead Butcher & Providore, Truffles in Dartmouth Park and Melrose & Morgan (Primrose Hill and Hampstead branches) for their PicMix and Match (pictured above, from £15): there are five boards to choose from, including a charcuterie selection, smoked fish with a divine trout pate, and a dessert board including a chocolate mousse. Recyclable crockery is included – oh, and a couple of rain-macs just in case. Just add booze.

Clare Zerny is an award-winning freelance pastry chef and patissier. Find out more about her on Twitter @clarezerny or at

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