Tasty treats for a last-minute picnicBy Mike Pyle
September 04, 2012
Mike Pyle discovers the best places in Reading to pick up foods ready for a late-summer picnic:
So far this summer has been, shall we say, more umbrella than parasol but now the jet stream has headed north, the sun has come out and it’s time to get stuck into one of the great summer pastimes – the humble picnic.
But there is actually no reason for your picnic to be that humble. The days of fighting ants and wasps for a share of some floppy sandwiches and a Scotch egg are over.
Reading is absolutely packed with places to get great al fresco foods and I’ve been out to try just a handful of them.
For those who really like the finer things in life, Carluccio’s in The Forbury has launched it’s own Al Fresco range which completely saves you any of the bother of putting together a really fancy outdoor lunch or dinner. My girlfriend and I tried the Classic (£45) which serves two and is a cool bag containing a host of varied dishes.
There’s a selection of olives, roasted peppers, balsamic onions and cured meats, a red wine and raddicio foccacia, a mackerel salad with radish and caperberries, courgette, tomato, onion, pepper and basil tarts, a poached then grilled chicken supreme with saffron and olive potato salad, a Sardinian pasta salad with pesto and summer vegetables, raspberry and chocolate tarts and a couple of chocolate bars.
Now, the first thing you may be thinking is that I am either very greedy or there is no way that serves just two people.
In fairness, you’re right either way. It claims to serve two but in reality there’s enough for three, possibly four people here. That, and the fact that you get a cool bag make the price seem more palatable.
The other thing that redeems the price is the quality of all the food. Every single element is exactly as good as you’d expect it to be from Carluccio’s. Highlights for me were the chicken and potatoes with its subtle herbs and the chocolate and raspberry desserts which were like luxury jam tarts.
Picnics can be ordered 24 hours in advance or picked up on the day if you want the chef’s selection.
A children’s picnic, which serves one and costs £10, is available.
It would be remiss to do any picnic feature without going to the aptly named Picnic in Butter Market in the town centre.
Picnic has built up a special reputation on the quality of its salads so I decided to go with them. Each day Picnic has different salads available and on the day I went in the choice was three-bean salad (£3.40) or bacon quiche salad (£3.80).
The beauty of Picnic is in the originality of its offerings. The bacon quiche salad came with crispy leaves, a heap of cous cous, a tangy dressing and a light, tasty quiche. The three bean salad was similar but with kidney beans, butter beans and (I think) edamame beans and a nice dollop of hummus.
I’m usually the sort of unenlightened chap who sneers at salads and says things about rabbits when they are offered. But I make an exception for Picnic. They really know how to make a meal of it.
By the way of desserts I got some caramel shortbreads (£1.99 each). Picnic has different, fresh cakes and sweet snacks available every day. The shortbreads were perfect – a marbled chocolate topping, chewy caramel and a buttery base that would have Gregg Wallace purring.
For those who like their picnics more traditional you can’t go far wrong with local baker Waring’s. There are branches in Burghfield, Caversham, Hartley Wintney, Spencers Wood and two in Tilehurst.
I visited the branch in Church Street, Caversham, and came away with a duck, onion and cucumber wrap (£2.97), two sausage rolls (£1.55 for both) and two Eccles cakes (£1.76 for both).
With Waring’s you know what you’re getting but you also know that what you’re getting is going to be really good quality and value.
The sausage rolls were meaty and in crispy pastry even when they were cold, the Eccles cakes were full of fruit and the duck wrap was tangy and bursting with meat.
On a hot summer’s day – yes, I know that seems like a fantasy most of the time – it’s important to have plenty to drink. I went to Bill’s Produce Store in Chain Street to get things to wet my whistle and got a bottle of pink La Mortuacienne lemonade (£3.45 for one litre) and a Bill’s Beer (£1.95 for 275ml).
The pink lemonade is a picnic classic, the sweetness of the berries taming the bitterness of the lemon, and Bill’s Beer was rather good. It’s a soft, golden bitter and the small bottle is enough to drive on as well.
This barely scratches the surface of all the places to get top quality picnic items from in Reading. It'd love to have taken some Patisserie Valerie cakes with me, for example. A picnic can be an event in itself. If you take some good quality grub with you it can be the highlight of a day by the seaside, in the park or even a long car journey.
And, possibly best of all, if the food's good it won’t feel like too much of an anticlimax if Mother Nature forces you to beat a hasty retreat indoors.
Whether it’s a luxury choice from Carluccio’s or Waring’s wraps and sausage rolls can there be anything better than dining al fresco on an English summer’s day?