Surrey Life's resident celebrity chef Tony Tobin on the secret of a successful picnic

Our chef Tony Tobin on the secret of a successful picnic. PLUS: his recipe for the perfect Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil Picnic Sandwich

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2010

Our celeb chef Tony Tobin on the secret of a successful picnic

I read a scathing article recently about the death of family conversation. The killer in this modern crime was identified, tried and sentenced all within a few paragraphs. It was not education, it was not ‘yoof’ hormones, it was that chef’s nemesis, the dreaded TV dinner.

A well-known gravy maker even made an advertising campaign based on this observation a few years back, and set about persuading fathers to sign a pledge that at least once a week they would sit down with their families and chat and have a meal (with gravy, funnily enough).

The scene of this crime is the living room but the real villain of the piece is the Idiot’s Lantern in the corner that creates a conversation vacuum that sucks speech and interaction out of people and directs our eyes away from each other and towards the goggle box.

As a chef, there’s an interesting factor here and that is the importance of the table as the facilitator of conversation.

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Furthermore, I believe that to eat socially, we must eat ‘in the round’. Dining in lines simply doesn’t work and many a glamorous ‘do’ has been spoiled for its attendees in this way.

The worst thing is, when you get bracketed on either side with a bore who wants to tell you about the number of followers on his Twitter feed or his own unique way of avoiding the roadworks on the A264. You can’t escape but you know that just three people to your left, others are laughing and smiling as Catherine Zeta Jones or George Clooney recount glamorous and witty anecdotes.

This is why so many food brands go for images of quasi-Italian or Spanish family meals where dishes are passed hand-to-hand across and around the table while everyone talks to anyone – and usually across them, too.

So, what does all this have to do with August? You might well ask because during August I’m normally rabbiting on about barbecue sauces and marinades. Well, my point is this – the most people-friendly of all repasts doesn’t even need a table. It needs a blanket, a basket, sunshine and preferably a cool bag for the white wine.

The English picnicEven more than Italian dinners and Spanish lunches, English picnics are the ultimate sociable meal. On a picnic, between courses you can lay down and have a snooze or chase children or throw frisbees or climb trees. You can chat, dangle infants on your knee or dig about in the basket for another corkscrew because the kids are off whittling with the first one. And, best of all, there’s not a television in sight.

The downside of picnics – and it is not very down at all – is the amount of preparation required. Yes, pink champagne can be chucked into the cool bag with blocks of cheese, fruit, olives and cold meats but if you’ll permit a Tobin tip, the best picnic fodder in the universe is a tomato, mozzarella and basil picnic sandwich.

We’re not talking about two slices of bread here; we are talking about a loaf and the method is a little like that you would use when packing a suitcase for your holiday. In short, you keep adding stuff in at the top and pressing down until you have to sit on the case to close it. 

The resulting gastronomic delight is one that I’ve taken with me to the Reigate music festival for years with consistent success. When you pull this beauty out of the basket and cut a slice for everyone, it’s like serving a savoury fruit cake – moist, dense, delicious and filling. You may never eat a triangle of cucumber sandwich again!

Tony Tobin is head chef at The Dining Room in Reigate (01737 226650).