There is a secret garden in Regent’s Park. You may already know where it is, but if you don’t…well, sorry, but you’ve had a big enough clue already. A very good friend of ours decided to share this secret with us recently and we are enormously grateful that he did. We won’t tell anyone, we promise.
Gardens make me very happy. They are havens from the rest of life and picnics in them are bliss. The discovery of this one was nothing short of magical, its brightly-coloured plants illuminated by the evening rays, as I entered, a good 45 minutes earlier than my dining companions. I’d like to say that my timekeeping was bad but really I think it was sheer excitement that sped me along at such a pace. Beautifully kept lawns, neat borders and gently trickling fountains greeted me, as well as the occasional hidden amorous couple behind the hedges.
As if to remind me that we were not in the grounds of a country pile but in the middle of grubby, 21st-century London, the idyll was momentarily shattered by the appearance of an almighty rat – but he disappeared as quickly as he’d emerged so I didn’t hold it against him. Nor did I tell anyone about him. Had I done so, the evening might have ended there. Who knows – perhaps he was off for a picnic with his friend the mole*.
Guiding twelve people in to such an unadvertised spot was rather like a mental challenge from the Crystal Maze, so much so that when all twelve were present and correct I briefly considered a career in the army (I’m pretty sure they like navigators there). If only we’d given them all a map to decipher, this enchanted bower would have felt harder-earned. As it was, a mobile phone sufficed. A furious BSG arrived, laden with smoked mackerel pate, sardines and toast, claiming that ‘go diagonal’ hadn’t been the right instruction – it had been more of a 60 degree angle than a 45. Oh well, I never was very good at trigonometry.
Luckily he was appeased by a large slab of terrine on crusty bread made from an authentic French family recipe by an authentic French person, Virginie. However, I fear that her secret recipe will remain so, just like the garden. But sacre bleu it was good: livery richness laced to precision with booze. It vanished just as quickly as it appeared. Other than this, the patchwork of mismatched coloured cloths was spread with countless delights; salads, cheeses, onion tarts, cold meats, bread and dips; a feast that would have made Mr Mole swoon. The BSG and I brought our current favourite munch of the moment, which we have recreated time and time again after being introduced to it at Terroirs. It is a wonderful dish as no cooking whatsoever is required, though it’s probably a good idea to have a mint handy for after.
Anchovies, shallots and unsalted butter on sourdough
Serves 8 for a starter
Anchovy fillets – 2 tins
3 or 4 shallots, very finely sliced
Pale unsalted butter (French is best, though I’m not sure why – it just feels right)
Sourdough bread (failing that, an airy, crusty loaf)
Slice and toast the bread, and cut it into bite-sized morsels. Put all the other ingredients out onto a board or dish, and let everyone help themselves.
Spread the toast with a convincing slab of butter, don’t be shy.
Sprinkle a few translucent shallot pieces onto the butter.
Smear half an anchovy fillet on top with your knife.
Gobble it up.
Assess the flavours, adjust your quantities and make a second attempt. It won’t be long before you have exactly the balance you want.
I promise that you will love this. Like a cold glass of milk with your Marmite on toast, it just works.
*These two had perhaps the greatest picnic of all:
The Mole waggled his toes from sheer happiness, spread his chest with a sigh of full contentment, and leaned back blissfully into the soft cushions. ‘What a day I’m having!’ he said. ‘Let us start at once!’
‘Hold hard a minute, then!’ said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.
Shove that under your feet,’ he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.
‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly;
‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstacies: ‘This is too much!’
‘Do you really think so?’ enquired the Rat seriously. ‘It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut it very fine!’
From The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame