Déjeuner sur l’herbe: the finest pleasures lie in the sensations that come with simple eating outdoors. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
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Ditch the posh stuff and enter picnic paradise

Keep things streamlined on the food front, so as to leave more room on the rug for important stuff, such as people.

I could never trust anyone whose heart didn’t perform a pirouette at the mention of the magic word “picnic”. “There is no more perfect way of spending a hot day,” the herbalist Hilda Leyel wrote in 1936. Even seaside drizzle doesn’t seem so bad with a squashed cheese sandwich and a damp bar of Fruit & Nut in your pocket. Jane Grigson wasn’t the first to notice how absurd it is that “a nation whose weather is so unpredictable should be such ardent and accomplished picnickers”, but there’s method in our madness. As usual, the Famous Five have already solved the mystery: “Food tastes so much nicer eaten out of doors.”

For reasons not yet understood by modern science (but rigorously tested by me), this is as true of a bag of Frazzles as it is of a fricassee of foie gras. As Grigson observes, the “food doesn’t matter a damn, so long as it is of top quality”. But though fresh air is a rare old seasoning, no mere “meal deal” could bring the same pleasure as Ratty’s “fat, wicker luncheon basket” in The Wind in the Willows, with its “cold chicken” and “coldtonguecoldhamcold- beefpickledgherkinssalad­frenchrollscresssandwiches­pottedmeatgingerbeer­- lemonadesodawater . . .”

Lucky old Rat had a rowing boat to transport all of this treasure. If you’re carrying yours on your back, I’d recommend the infinitely simpler spread that he puts together for his exotic, seafaring cousin: “a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far southern slopes”.

With the addition of some weepingly ripe summer fruit, it’s difficult to improve on his menu. As the sagacious rodent clearly realised, the most important quality in picnic food is patience, which definitely rules out the chicken mousse and chocolate soufflé recommended by Mrs Leyel in her gloriously impractical book The Perfect Picnic. It should be able to stand being jiggled up a mountain or across a city park with happy equanimity. It shouldn’t sweat or melt in the heat, unless that’s desirable (a sturdily boxed Brie is ideal, so long as you can cope with the whiff en route) and it should be at its best at air temperature, rather than cold or hot. Finally, it should be easy to eat with fingers – far more in the spirit of the whole affair than plastic knives and forks.

Keep things streamlined on the food front, so as to leave more room on the rug for important stuff, such as people. There’s no need to spend hours baking a quiche that will only get crushed during transportation when little gladdens the heart more than plump packets of home-made sandwiches, generously buttered to stave off sogginess, served with tomatoes or fat, pink radishes and a jar of yellow mayonnaise to dip, plus a paper bag of sweet cherries to finish. (Oh, and crisps. No picnic, however posh, is complete without at least one packet of crisps.)

To drink, well-insulated bottles of crisp beer or light white wine will never fail to satisfy thirsty picnickers (mellow cider has the advantage of requiring no advance chilling) but, in the absence of a Blyton-style babbling brook, take plenty of water, too. You never know, someone might actually get round to drinking it.

A good picnic shouldn’t be fancy. You don’t need to faff about with serving spoons or salad dressings or cocktail shakers when you’ve got good food and conversation. Pack those and you’ll have paradise on earth – after all, 50,000 wasps can’t be wrong.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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The government's air quality plan at a glance

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans.

Do you plan on living in a small, rural hamlet for the next 23 years? Or postponing having children till 2040? For this is when the government intends to ban all new petrol and diesel cars (and vans) - the headline measure in its latest plan to tackle the UK's air pollution crisis.

If the above lifestyle does not appeal, then you had better hope that your local authority is serious about addressing air quality in your area, because central government will not be taking responsibility for other restrictions on vehicle use before this date. Former Labour leader Ed Miliband has tweeted that he fears the ban is a “smokescreen” for the weakness of the wider measures. 

Here’s an overview of what the new Air Quality plan means for you (Health Warning: not much yet).

Will the 2040 ban end cars?

No. Headlines announcing the “end of the diesel and petrol car” can sound a pretty terminal state of affairs. But this is only a deadline for the end of producing “new” fossil-fuel burning vehicles. There is no requirement to take older gas-guzzlers (or their petrol-head drivers) off the road. Plus, with car companies like Volvo promising to go fully electric or hybrid by 2019, the ban is far from motoring’s end of the road.

So what does the new plan entail?

This plan is largely a plan to make more plans. It requires local authorities to submit their own initial schemes for tackling the issue by the end of March 2018 and will provide a £255 million Implementation Fund to support this process. Interventions could include retrofitting bus fleets, improving concessionary travel, supporting cyclists, and re-thinking road infrastructure.  Authorities can then bid for further money from a competitive Clean Air Fund.

What more could be done to make things better, faster?

According to the government’s own evidence, charges for vehicles entering clean air zones are the most effective way of reducing air pollution in urban areas. Yet speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Michael Gove described the idea as a “blunt instrument” that will not be mandatory.

So it will be down to local authorities to decide how firm they wish to be. London, for instance, will be introducing a daily £10 “T-charge” on up to 10,000 of the most polluting vehicles.

Does the 2040 deadline make the UK a world leader?

In the government’s dreams. And dreamy is what Gove must have been on his Radio 4 appearance this morning. The minister claimed that was in Britain a “position of global leadership” in technology reform. Perhaps he was discounting the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron also got there first? Or that India, Norway and the Netherlands have set even earlier dates. As WWF said in a press statement this morning: “Whilst we welcome progress in linking the twin threats of climate change and air pollution, this plan doesn’t look to be going fast or far enough to tackle them.”

Will the ban help tackle climate change?

Possibly. Banning petrol and diesel cars will stop their fumes from being released in highly populated city centres. But unless the new electric vehicles are powered with energy from clean, renewable sources (like solar or wind), then fossil fuels will still be burned at power plants and pollute the atmosphere from there. To find out how exactly the government plans to meet its international commitments on emissions reduction, we must wait for the 2018 publication of its wider Clean Air Strategy.

Will the plans stand up to legal scrutiny?

They're likely to be tested. ClientEarth has been battling the government in court over this issue for years now. It’s CEO, James Thornton, has said: “We’re looking forward to examining the government’s detailed plans, but the early signs seem to suggest they’ve still not grasped the urgency of this public health emergency.”

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.