Picnics and packed lunches – think inside the box

Bento Box summer food shoot cooked by Charlotte Smith Jarvis.

Bento Box summer food shoot cooked by Charlotte Smith Jarvis. - Credit: Archant

Bento are those natty things the Japanese take their packed lunches to work in. Now they’re catching on here. Charlotte Smith-Jarvis has some ideas for fresh, local fillings. Images: Sarah Lucy Brown

Bento Box summer food shoot cooked by Charlotte Smith Jarvis.

Bento Box summer food shoot cooked by Charlotte Smith Jarvis. - Credit: Archant

“A bento box? What on earth’s that?” Quite simply, it’s a packed lunch that Japanese folk enjoy – a whole meal, usually rice, some protein and vegetables, all neatly tucked into one parcel. What a great idea. Healthier and a whole lot more interesting than a soggy takeaway sandwich at lunchtime.

So, I decided to make my own bento with some more familiar ingredients. Strawberries, asparagus, Suffolk lamb, salads and mackerel are all in season, and what better way to eat them than by turning them into tasty snacks to transport to the county’s woodlands and meadows, or events such as the races, outdoor theatre, concerts and the like?

Each of the boxes feeds two, but can be easily doubled up.

Bento Box summer food shoot cooked by Charlotte Smith Jarvis.

Bento Box summer food shoot cooked by Charlotte Smith Jarvis. - Credit: Archant


Smoked mackerel, horseradish, spring onion and lemon tartlets

(makes four tartlets)

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These savoury pastries are inspired by an early spring lunch I enjoyed with my mum at The Secret Garden in Sudbury. I’ve used Pinney’s mackerel, Marybelle cream and strong Shipcord mature cheese.


For the pastry: 100g unsalted butter cubed, 200g plain flour.

For the filling: 250ml double cream, 3 large eggs, zest of one lemon, bunch spring onions finely sliced, 1 punnet cress, 1tbsp strong horseradish cream, handful strong cheese, 150g smoked mackerel flaked, flour for rolling, salt and pepper


Rub the butter into the flour until you have breadcrumbs. Then add a dash of cold water to bring it together into a dough (I used a food processor though). Wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

Make the filling by combining all the other ingredients and a touch of salt and pepper.

Heat the oven to 200C. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface and cut out circles a couple of centimetres wider than your tart tins. Line the tins (I used a six tart tin from Lakeland) with the pastry, fill with greaseproof paper and pour in baking beans. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the baking beans and paper and return to the oven for five minutes to crisp up. Turn the oven down to 170C and add the filling to the pastry cases. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes until firm and just set.

Serve with boiled new potatoes and steamed asparagus dressed with lemon, rapeseed oil, salt and pepper.

Strawberry and basil jelly

(makes two little pots)


2 punnets strawberries, gelatine sheets, sugar to taste, 1tbsp chopped fresh basil


Blitz the strawberries in a food processor and pass through a sieve to remove all the pips. Now weigh the liquid and round it up to the nearest 100g/ml with water (so if it weighs 160g round up to 200g). You will need one gelatine sheet per 100g/ml of strawberry juice. Work out how many you need then soak the gelatine in cold water for 10 minutes. Pour the strawberry juice in a pan and warm gently. Squeeze out the gelatine sheets and stir in to melt. Add the basil and sugar to taste then pour into little pots and chill to set.

Gluten-free lemon shortbread

(makes lots but you can freeze the uncooked dough)

These go wonderfully with the jelly and the gluten-free flour gives them that brilliant crunch and shortness you need.


250g gluten-free flour, 150g unsalted butter, 90g caster sugar, 1tsp lemon oil, zest of 1 lemon, extra flour for rolling


Pre-heat the oven to 180C and line two baking trays. Put all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until combined (or mix them the usual way). You might need to add just a touch of water to bring the mix together.

Flour a surface and roll out to about 1cm thick and cut out your shapes. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes until golden brown around the edges. The bigger your shapes the longer they will take to cook.


Beet and blue salad

This salad hits all the flavour notes. Sweet from the dressing and roasted beetroot. Salty from the cheese. Aromatic from the garlic. And crunchy from the nuts and seeds. It is wonderful alongside grilled lamb too if you swap the blue cheese for feta. I used Aspall apple balsamic vinegar which has a great tangy sweet edge.


1 large beetroot roasted whole at 200C for one hour, 75g pearl barley simmered until tender (about an hour) strained and cooled, 120g strong blue cheese, handful walnuts chopped, handful pumpkin seeds

Dressing: 1 garlic clove, crushed, 2tbsps apple balsamic, 4tbsp local rapeseed oil, 1/2tbsp maple syrup, seasoning


Toast the seeds and nuts in a dry pan until you can smell the aromas. Set aside to cool. Peel the beetroot and dice into 1cm pieces. Combine the beetroot, seeds, nuts and blue cheese with the pearl barley. Make the dressing by mixing the oil, vinegar, garlic and maple syrup together. Add salt and pepper to taste then combine with the salad.

Wholemeal allium muffins

(makes 10 to 12 – they freeze once cooked)

Savoury muffins are delicious alongside salads and soups – they aren’t too heavy and carry flavours well. Spring onions (in season now) and nigella seeds work beautifully together. I’ve baked mine in silicon mini loaf tins – available from good kitchen shops – using the new golden wholemeal flour from Marriage’s.


150g plain flour, 100g wholemeal flour, 4tsp level baking powder, 1/2tsp bicarbonate of soda, 70g strong cheddar, 4 spring onions chopped finely, 1.5tsp nigella seeds. 2 large eggs, 80g melted sunflower spread, 200ml milk with a dash of vinegar


Combine the dry ingredients in one bowl. Mix together the eggs, melted spread and milk and pour into the dry ingredients and stir to just combine.

Set the oven to 200C. Pour the mixture into your cases (they should fill them by three quarters) and bake for 15 to 18 minutes until risen and springy.

Gooseberry, gin and elderflower fool

(makes up to 4 little pots)

This sweet and sharp pud is infused with the flavours of early summer. Use a really good gin – I recommend Adnams.


100g gooseberries, elderflower cordial, gin, 150g double cream, 2tbsps icing sugar


Stew the gooseberries with a dash of water in a covered pan until they burst and soften. Blitz in a food processor until smooth – don’t worry about the seeds. Add elderflower cordial to sweeten to taste and a good dash of gin then warm through on a low heat until you have a thick mix the consistency of lightly whipped cream. Allow to cool. Whip your cream with the icing sugar to soft peaks then fold through the gooseberry puree. Decant into pots.

The East of England Co-op provided the ingredients for this feature. As part of its Sourced Locally initiative the Co-op stocks hundreds of East Anglian products. Charlotte used Marybelle cream, Hill Farm rapeseed oil, Aspall apple balsamic vinegar, Marriage’s flour, Pinney’s mackerel, Suffolk strawberries and asparagus, locally-grown carrots and cabbage, Adnams gin and Shipcord cheese – all available in-store.

Lunch bags and boxes are from Partridges in Hadleigh, where there is a very large collection of picnic boxes and more.

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