Park picnics and garden gatherings are back – big time. (Well, they will be from 29 March.) Before we’re allowed to dine inside with friends again, an alfresco lunch is our chance to take this tiny amount of freedom and soak up the sun.
If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we’ll picnic anywhere: on a park bench, on a concrete step near a canal, or up that hill for some beautiful views. Wherever you’re sat, you deserve a feast – a sharing bag of crisps to yourself in one sitting with a tinny, perhaps, or bubbly with a mighty cheese platter.
Thankfully, cafes, delis and restaurants have switched to delivering picnic options straight to you, so you can let someone else do all the hard work.
We spoke to three foodie businesses to find out how they’ve adapted their offerings to accommodate alfresco dining in parks and gardens.
While lots of these are based in London, many are soon going to be offering nationwide. And it’s also worth asking eateries in your local area if they’re hopping on the picnic trend, too.
Ombra, a neighbourhood Italian bar and restaurant in east London, was an early picnic innovator. They didn’t close a single day during the cycle of on and off lockdowns in 2020, and converted the restaurant into an essential shop.
In the first lockdown, the team started assembling hamper selections of deli staples and quality snacks, dispatching alfresco dinners (with cocktails) direct to happy customers for £20, plus an extra £2 for local delivery. The aim: to provide all the joys of a picnic, without the prep or packing stress.
“Italian food lends itself to being picnic-friendly,” says head chef Mitshel Ibrahim. “Things such as fresh cheeses, bread, olives, and cold cuts. It didn’t really take much thinking or planning because we already made a lot of this stuff in-house. It’s just a no-brainer to package it all up for people’s convenience.”
Thanks to the restaurant’s location, wedged between three major London parks and right on Hackney canal, the order-to-the-park picnics were an instant hit. “We had really good weather back in April and on the weekends we sold about 50-60 hampers,” says Ibrahim of early lockdown.
The service has continued to grow. Things started with a simple Google Doc of customers’ details, “people dropping us their WhatsApp pin, and having staff cycling around shouting out names until we found you,” he laughs. “We’ve got an online shop now and two or three meeting points in the parks, so it’s easier.”
Enjoy a bag of freshly-baked goodies
Calvin Von Niebel, executive chef of the Ottolenghi group, has been developing a menu designed for the great outdoors with a daily selection of changing salads and bakery items to-go for a leisurely afternoon spent in the park.
“We’re always changing our menu to keep an eye on what people want,” he explains. “Good fresh vibrant food that’s easy to eat, such as roasted aubergine with harissa oil and masala peanuts, pea shoot feta and almond salad. Some items can be eaten cutlery-free like our sweetcorn croquette with green harissa and dill yoghurt dip to dunk them in.”
Von Niebel has plans to expand the menu and unveil the new ‘Ottolenghi in a bag’, which will be available nationwide from their online shop – though he’s not yet sure on dates. In the meantime, Londoners can enjoy their daily changing deli fare for delivery or pick-up from the three London sites.
“All the essential items you need for a glorious picnic,” adds Von Niebel, “all packed into our reusable organic cotton tote bags, which is better for the environment.”
Go lux to celebrate
Gone are the days of the simple Tesco meal deal – it’s time to go full-whack on the wicker hamper, brimming full of handpicked options such as consomme, ham hock terrine, sausage roll, scotch egg, perfect tiny sandwiches, and more.
They’ll be launching ‘freedom picnics’ soon, which include a selection of crudités, salads, and frittatas, alongside cutlery, plates, and napkins. You can also add on alcohol, fruity coolers, a picnic blanket, and even a surprise birthday cake.
The company has seen a massive uptick in sales in the last summer selling 200 hampers a week. “We wanted something to celebrate being able to go outside again,” Sophie Richardson, founder of Pique tells HuffPost UK. “London is our main offering, but we’re hoping to launch seasonal, limited editions where we can deliver nationwide in the next month or so.
“At the moment, we’re working on logistics, but we’re doing local park drops at certain meeting points. As restrictions start to lift, we’re going to promote the larger picnic-style events.”
If you can’t find somewhere local to you to deliver a picnic hamper, try out one of these tasty picnic recipes yourself – or go grab that Tesco meal deal.