A picnic spread should consist of delicate tarragon chicken, linen napkins and chilled rosé, rather than sandy sandwiches and boiled eggs.

For those familiar with the joy of Joyce Grenfell, there’s a choice moment in one of her unique monologues in which a seemingly endless search for a perfect picnic spot – ‘just over this next hill’ – in a jam-packed family saloon eventually concludes by a meagre riverbank, with ‘pretty white detergent foam floating by but really quite a nice spot when all is said and done’. Or some such similar words to so perfectly describe a ‘run out’ over a Whit weekend in the early 1950s.

I would absolutely hate such an outing and I don’t much like beach picnics, either – all that sand in the sandwiches and sticking to the boiled eggs. Mountain, wood and field don’t fare much better, truth be told. If it’s to be an outdoors affair for me, I like a simple table, a chair (folding is fine), glasses (stemless), small and simple knives and forks, plates (I don’t mind enamelled tin ones—in fact, I quite like them indoors) and linen napkins.

Possibly most important of all, there should be ample cool boxes and plenty of ice for well-chilled rosé or white wine – and plenty of it. Personally, I find that Champagne warms up too quickly; if you want
bubbles, pack Badoit.

Long-time readers of Country Life, it must surely be said – and with much respect – may well be familiar with the term ‘aspic’ (this former public-school boy first came across the word on the cover of a 1973 King Crimson album, Larks’ Tongues in Aspic).

Some, with horrendous wedding-buffet memories of shiny and stiffening cucumber ‘scales’ sealing a cold salmon to such an extent that it would take a small shovel to dig down to the fish buried beneath, will shudder. Others, however, will be more fortunate and may fondly recall being invited to a glorious weekend in a fine house with an excellent cook, who knew exactly how to suspend a soft-boiled egg in the most perfect, just-set, tarragon-scented savoury jelly, served for luncheon on a sunny terrace.

Tarragon chicken en gelée

Serves 2 (or 4, as a first course)

Impeccable when served with a cucumber salad dressed with sour cream and thinly sliced spring onions.

Ingredients

  • 2 large, boneless chicken breasts (each about 200g)
  • 50ml dry vermouth
  • 400ml good, fairly clear jellied chicken stock
  • Pinch of salt and a few peppercorns
  • Several sprigs tarragon
  • 2 gelatine leaves, soaked in cold water until softened

Method
Choose a stainless-steel pan in which the chicken breasts will fit quite snugly. Cover with the vermouth and stock, season and add 3–4 tarragon sprigs (save the remainder for decoration). Bring to a simmer and poach very gently for about 10 minutes or until the breasts feel just firm to the touch.

Remove from the heat, drop the gelatine leaves into the poaching liquid and swirl them around to melt them. Cover the pan and leave the chicken to cool in the liquid until lukewarm. Lift out the breasts and put onto a plate. Strain the liquid through a sieve lined with a dampened cotton or linen napkin, suspended over a small bowl, and leave to drip.

Neatly slice the chicken into eight and fan out on a deepish, oval serving dish. Decorate each slice with tarragon leaves and put into the fridge to cool.

Fill a bowl larger than the one containing the chicken broth – which is now, hopefully, nice and clear – with plenty of ice cubes, a teaspoon of salt and enough water just to cover. Immerse the bowl of broth in the iced water and begin to slowly stir the liquid with a serving spoon.

Once the broth begins to very lightly gel and is starting to coat the back of the spoon, remove the chicken from the fridge and deftly spoon the jelly over the breasts to fully coat them. Chill once more until ready to serve.

Snaffles mousse with prawns

Serves 6

I first came across this curiosity among the pages of The Good Food Guide Dinner Party Book, published in the early 1970s. Those cook chums of mine from a similar era also, occasionally, recall the same: ‘So easy to make. You just whizz it up and that’s it.’ Well, a friend of mine in Pembrokeshire admitted that once, for one of her bridge parties, she had made it after ‘perhaps a little too much sherry’ and forgotten to remove the final little layer of foil that sealed ‘the packet of Philly’ – this was, of course, long before it was sold in a plastic tub. The result, post-whizz, offered up tiny little flecks of aluminium to each and every player. ‘Played merry hell with all our fillings,’ Elinor confessed.

The original recipe advised the use of Campbell’s condensed beef consommé, which is now seemingly unavailable in the UK, so Baxter’s uncondensed it is – you need the gelatine
to compensate.

Ingredients

  • 6tbspn top-quality shelled prawns
  • 1 tin Baxter’s beef consommé (400g)
  • 2tspn curry powder (try to find the Bolst’s brand in an Asian shop)
  • 2 sheets leaf gelatine, softened in cold water
  • 300g Philadelphia cream cheese
  • 1 small crushed clove garlic
  • Scant tablespoon snipped chives

Method
Distribute the prawns between the bases of six ramekins and pop in the fridge. Pour 3–4tbspn of the consommé into a small pan, add the curry powder and the softened gelatine. Warm through until the leaves melt and then pour into a liquidiser. Add the rest of the consommé, the cheese and garlic. Process until very smooth, then strain through a fine sieve into a jug. Remove the ramekins from the fridge and sprinkle the chives over the prawns.

Pour the mixture over the prawns, making sure you’re careful with equal distribution as you go. Place the ramekins onto a tray and leave in the fridge until set – for about 4 hours or, for best results, overnight. Cover with cling-film when almost set.

You may also like to sprinkle the ramekins with a little cayenne pepper before serving. Best eaten with a teaspoon – and with some Melba toast, if liked.