‘If you want to eat in the fresh air, then go to the park. And if you have your pick, then obviously go to Hampstead Heath’
Unseasonal sunshine a couple of weeks ago brought me an early glut of inquiries from friends and readers about where to eat alfresco this summer, and as ever my answer was: Who is this Al Fresco? And why do you want to eat him? If you mean “outdoors” say “outdoors”. This is England, we are English, we fought on the beaches and on the landing grounds, we fought in the fields and in the streets, we fought in the hills, we never surrendered. So do not come to me speaking the language of Musso the Wop (“He’s a Big-a-da-Flop”) when you are looking for advice on a table outside an eating place.
And anyway why on earth do you want to eat outside a restaurant? It is a thing I have never understood. You pay to go into a place and eat, not to get quite close and then be made to stay outside. Men spent thousands of years inventing the roof – millions died in the rubble of early prototypes – in order to protect himself from the elements, and now, the moment it isn’t raining, you want to go and sit on the bit of land owned by the eating house that is not covered by the roof?
I suppose I can half see the appeal of it in a very hot country that is too primitive to have air conditioning, such as France, where it might be nice to sit outside under the shade of a vine, overlooking the sea, and be brought things to soak up the booze. But on some suburban English high street, outside Café Rouge in a grabbed hour’s weekday lunchtime, in direct sun, turning your face to soak up the rays and hasten the moment when your face turns a deep mahogany and slides off like an old hat, being gawped at by every passing oaf, hassled by beggars and charity thugs, deafened by the bleepbleepbleep of reversing lorries, assailed by the stink of bin vans and diesel, peppered with particulates, plane-tree pollen and pigeon shit, dogs squatting by lampposts in your line of sight as you swallow a lukewarm dusty sausage chunk…? It’s utterly mental.
When pushed, I tell people the River Café. You’re by a river there, at least, and it’s a courtyard so there’s no traffic noise or smell, and the food is very good. But the whole experience always makes me sad I am not somewhere else. The smell of grilled squid, a drizzle of good green oil on fresh bread and a swirling glass of Gavi di Gavi consumed in May sunshine might make you feel glad to be in Hammersmith, but it only makes me feel sorry not to be in Southern Europe. Which is no good at all.
And anyway, even the sainted River Café is ruined by smokers. Not their fault. Like it is not paedophiles’ fault or drink-drivers’ fault. But they do love an outside table. They think it’s OK if they’re outside. They don’t know what we’re fussing about. But there was one at the table upwind of me outside the River Café a couple of weeks ago, some desiccated old skank sucking on a cheroot and reminding me with its sick familiar scent, even as I slid a fillet off my whole roasted 35-quid Dover sole, of cancer, death, tramps, sadness, poverty, crime, death, sweat, muggers, desperation, vomit and death.
So, that’s outside tables. If you want to eat in the fresh air, then go to the park. And if you have your pick of parks, then obviously go to Hampstead Heath. Because while Hyde and Richmond and Regent’s are all perfectly decent outsized gardens for napping in on a warm evening, feeding the ducks and copping off with someone else’s wife, the Heath is something special. It is real countryside, more real than what lies outside London for the most part. It is heath, it has never been anything else. It is a fragment of the stunning, humming mantle that surrounded London before London overspilled its edges.
Coming over Parliament Hill and looking down as the greenness rolls into the city, you see London nestling there, twinkling, as it did once for travellers who came in by stagecoach, on horseback and on foot, long ago, in the High and Far-Off Times. There are woods here, and plains, and streams and lakes and ancient dwellings and great houses. It is all you need. If you want to eat outside, eat here.
But, of course, picnics are a pain in the arse. You go to all that effort, roasting and jugging and pickling things, and fitting them into the wedding list hamper with the proper plates and cutlery and glasses, and then you get to your picnic spot and you just drink the wine and eat crisps that someone else has brought because you can’t be bothered to unpack.
So next time you picnic you just take sandwiches in a plastic bag, and the hamper lies for ever on the floor of the coat cupboard, reproaching you every time you go in there for a scarf or a jacket, for being old and unadventurous and unromantic and ungrateful.
And the time after that you don’t even bother to take sandwiches, you just pick up a can of Sprite and a stick of Peperami at Costcutter and consume them on a bench by the lake, watching the alcoholics fishing for that giant carp you see sometimes in the local paper.
But there is an alternative. It comes courtesy of the Bull and Last on Highgate Road, at the southeastern corner of the Heath, and takes the form of a real wicker hamper, with proper plates and forks and knives and salt and pepper grinders and a pot of Colman’s mustard and then also a home-made Scotch egg and sausage roll, a slab of their ham-hock terrine with cornichons, a slice of excellent goat’s cheese quiche, a salad of heritage tomatoes, balsamic onions, Jerseys and leaves, and then a slice of bleu d’Auvergne and some oatcakes, some home-made bread, two fingers of the greatest carrot cake there is, a bottle of water and a quaint old Victorian bottle of real lemonade – £28 the lot and more than enough for two of you.
It is proper top-class provender, this. And packaged up the old-fashioned way (plus, admittedly, a number of more modern plastic pots because there are limits), it gives you the feeling of a proper picnic, not just a takeaway, and then you drop the hamper back at the pub after (to reclaim your deposit) and travel home unencumbered.
The items above will vary with the season, and there are any number of supplementaries for around a fiver a piece. There’s a sea trout, samphire, fresh pea and watercress salad that I love for £6; tea-smoked mackerel pâté and soda bread for £4; potted shrimp; gravadlax; roast beef and anchovy; asparagus and ham; strawberries and cream… the sort of list to have old Mole crying, “Stop, stop, this is too much!” as loudly as ever he did at Ratty’s picnic list in The Wind in the Willows.
I should phone in advance to book a hamper if I were you – this is the first year the Bull and Last has done picnic hampers in earnest and they may prove popular. And if you can possibly avoid the weekends, then do. You will have a more rustic time of it. And then go deep into the Heath, really penetrate, don’t perch on the periphery in earshot of the road, in the rubbish left on the grass by the ungrateful piglets from the local schools. Climb a hill, descend a dale, circumambulate a lake, get up on the escarpment behind Kenwood House, spread out your blanket (there’s one in the hamper), lay out your lunch, and relax. By July there is high grass and you can flatten a patch and disappear from view. Wear a boater, channel Ratty and Mole, Jerome K. Jerome and the Edwardians in general. Eat, drink a bottle of wine and then, finally, miles from anyone and miles from the world, then, if you must, you may lie back and spark up a fag.
(Hamper from) The Bull and Last
168 Highgate Road, London NW5 (020-7267 3641;thebullandlast.co.uk)
Heath (if it’s sunny): 10
Heath (if it rains): 6