These are the picnic months. Time to dust down your wicker hamper, load it up with bone china and white linen napkins, and rise at dawn to make stacks of elegant sandwiches that no-one will eat, a vat of coronation chicken and enough potato salad to feed Poland. Then you fill your stainless steel flasks with coffee, your cooler bags with perspiring bottles of white burgundy, and your car with similarly perspiring, but somewhat less appealing, children.
Or just say no and repeat after me: Catering. One phone call, or in the case of Bluebird - eleven - and picnics suddenly seem enjoyable. luxurious, opulent sort of events. You can see yourself, dining by candlelight at Glyndbourne(spelling?), or lounging on the riverbank somewhere, wearing a floppy straw hat, with the punt tied up under a nearby willow tree.
Close your eyes and picture the scene... Got it? Good. Because the truth is that we're sitting in my suburban kitchen, surrounded by food containers and cardboard boxes, watching the rain drizzle over the windswept garden. It's like a gourmet Tupperware party and I'm there in my apron, popping plastic like a fifties hostess on speed. We had hoped to go off to the country and do the traditional wasp-swatting, chocolate-melting, sit-on-a-soggy-blanket-somewhere-rural thing, but after watching the fig tree blow too and fro in the rain we abandoned the notion and just set the table.
Welcome to the world of the indoor picnic.
We had three different types of fare. A three course meal The English hamper - a typical three course meal, one of three such options from Bluebird. This arrived in a stout reusable box and, according to Delphine - if you need to take your cat to the vet afterwards - this box is for you. Individual portions came in Chinese-style cartons rather than plastic - a slice of game terrine on a bed of mixed leaves, delicious cold poached salmon amid a tangle of watercress and chargrilled asparagus served with a herby mayonnaise. Pudding was fairly ho-hum - strawberries with a tub of sweetened whipped cream. There was also a farm-worker's helping of date and walnut bread with butter, three pieces of good cheese, one of which was extremely pungent, a bottle of water and an orange daisy. Perfect to match the down-town Havana crumbling tangerine walls of my kitchen. All it lacked was a smouldering, cigar smoking Hispanic guy with an accordion. Sadly, the box wasn't quite big enough for that.
The second was brought by a friend from Carluccio's - a still-warm lemon and parmesan risotto, a seafood brochette crammed with squid, swordfish and shrimp, a green bean salad and a small brioche. There was a chocolate mousse to follow, some fizzy water and a cute handbag-sized bottle of Campari, ideal for emergency posing. It's the kind of thing you'd pick up for a special be-good-to-yourself lunch, or take home for dinner if you wanted to be extra nice to your wife. Hold off on the flowers though, else she'll be going through your last ten calls on the mobile phone and checking all your text messages. One treat is thoughtful, two is suspicious.
Finally we had the sort of salad-based picnic you might be able to find in any decent deli. I went to my local - Mr Christian's in Notting Hill Gate, and gave Peter the chef a budget. This was the most varied of the three - with food that you could pick at for hours and something for all tastes: some bruschetta; avocado and potato salad wrapped in smoked ham, a loaf of rye bread and a charcuterie platter with olives, artichokes and pickles. Then came three salads, the nicest of which had beetroot, red onion, tomatoes and a red wine tarragon vinaigrette, and tomato and pesto tarts. This was finished with some cheese, chocolate brownies, a fruit salad and a small lemon cream tart, too reminiscent of packet cheesecake to be truly wonderful, but the only low note in an otherwise excellent spread.
The quality throughout was uniformly high - it depends whether you want a moveable feast, the laid back buffet, or dinner-in-a-box. Personally. I prefer the deli-experience to anything more formal, but, until I get my own personal mini-bar, the Barbie-bottle of Campari was very beguiling.
There were nine of us for a six person picnic, but we still had loads of uneaten food. I was soon in demonstration mode, snapping lids on containers and stocking up the fridge.
It looks like New York in here, said the husband, admiringly, opening and closing the fridge door as if he had just been transported to an American sit-com. With four children, our fridge is full so rarely that on such occasions one almost feels compelled to take celebratory Polaroids.
We had gourmet left-overs for days, though my young sons were less impressed by this than you might think. Taking coronets of smoked ham, and asparagus crostini in your packed lunch to QPR soccer school apparently does nothing for your street cred.
Carluccio's picnic box £13.50 per person - 24 hours notice 8 Market Place, Oxford Circus, W1 020 7636 2228 and 28a Neal Street, Covent Garden WC2 020 7240 1487 Bluebird English Hamper £28.00 per person - 48 hours notice 350 Kings Road, London SW3 020 7559 1136 Mr Christian's Delicatessen Picnic - £25 per head, by arrangement. 11, Elgin Cresc. London W11 020 7229 0501
other picnic purveyors: Fortnum & Mason. Selfridges, Villandry and Leaping Salmon (I can get you the numbers if you wish - Leaping Salmon is a website)