From runny kofta scotch eggs to THAT black bun, find out what's worthy of your picnic basket this Summer
The Summer of 2016 was a pretty bleak one for the England; the country was divided by referendum, our football team did predictably bad at the Euros - crashing out in the first round to a country with a population of 200 - and things were only made worse when Muse headlined Glastonbury (if you thought Kanye's Queen impression was bad the year before, at least it didn't last 15 years like Matt Bellamy's)
It wasn't all doom and gloom though. From nowhere, Marks & Spencer's Spirit of Summer brightened up the nation's picnics and barbecues with a range of snacks inspired by more exotic appetites. Who would have thought that what began as a penny bazaar in Kirkgate Market in the 1800s would one day end up flogging white chocolate pineapple pieces with chilli, coconut, and popping candy and spicy malagueta dip?
The range was a blockbuster hit, and this year it's back with a completely new family of products inspired by the Mediterranean and beyond. We went to M&S Pudsey (probably the best one in the UK), grabbed everything we could find, and tested them all out in their natural Summer habitat - an overcast garden with a 65% chance of drizzle - to rank them from worst to best...
35. Truffle Pesto
Yeah that’s right, truffle in last place. Just the smell of this was so disgusting I couldn’t bring myself to try it. If nobody else is going to stand up and talk about how gross truffles are, then I guess it’s on me. The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, people - and his bum smells like truffles.
34. Gazpacho Juice Drink
Oh ok yeah, while we’re turning things into “juice drinks” just because it’s served cold, how about a sushi smoothie? The bottle says this goes perfectly in a bloody mary, I found it goes perfectly down the sink.
33. Stuffed Cherry Peppers with Goats Cheese
Way to go M&S, you’ve somehow managed to mess up the best item from any antipasti selection. Why are they swimming in so much oil? Why do they taste like fish?...
32. Sardines with Lemon, Garlic & Roquito Peppers
...more importantly, why don’t these taste of fish? These are so dry and acrid it’s like eating a cigar-butt dipped in vinegar.
31. Coffee Spritzer
Watered down Rola Cola with none of the caffeine or bowel-evacuating benefits of actual coffee.
30. Watermelon & Lime Agua Fresca
Fun fact: ‘Agua Fresca’ is Mexican for ‘weak squash’.
This looks cool when it separates into layers in the bottle, but then again so does vinaigrette and Dentyl mouthwash. I wouldn’t advise chugging either of those on a hot day, either.
29. Stuffed Calamari with Pomegranate Dressing
The rice filling for this is actually pretty decent. Nobody will ever find that out though, because with their painted-on grill marks, the calamari looks like an Adidas-sponsored bush-tucker bollock.
28. Chorizo & Manchego Cheese Croquettes
They taste almost identical to McDonalds nacho cheese bites, which is great, but the bonus with buying them from McDonalds is the cheese won’t leak all over your oven during cooking.
27. Chorizo & Chickpea Tortilla
Tastes fine, but don’t serve me a pastry-less quiche and try to pass it off as a tortilla, I’m not a gullible tourist.
26. Prosecco Jellies
Because dipping your kid’s dummy in whiskey to shut them up and help them off to sleep is so 80s.
25. Watermelon & Lime Jelly
This is like the watermelon & lime agua fresca, only it actually tastes of watermelon & lime. Fresh watermelon suspended in the jelly is a nice touch, but the blueberries are unwelcome.
24. Paprika Potato Salad
Come on, who are you trying to impress by paying a 300% premium just so your potato salad comes in ‘Blushing Trump’ Pantone?
23. Marinated Anchovy Fillets
On the plus side, these are absolute stunners and competition at the picnic table isn't going to be particularly fierce for anchovies. The downside is you'll become forever known as that person who ate a tub of thirty vinegary fish in an afternoon.
22. Lamb Kofta Wrapped Runny Eggs
A swing and a miss. Few things in life are as joyous as a runny-yolked scotch egg, but the syrupy consistency of these is a bit spooky. It doesn’t taste bad, but I've had morning-after kebab burps with more depth and spice than this kofta.
21. Grapefruit Frizzante
This cheeky, effervescent mix of sparkling rosé and grapefruit juice is perfect for brunch. It takes a standard first-thing-in-the-morning drink, and then adds grapefruit juice!!
20. Mediterranean Vegetable Tortilla
Much better than the chorizo quiche effort all the way down the list, but a few slices of roast pepper hasn’t got what it takes to propel a potato omelette much higher than twentieth place.
19. Iberico Ham Crisps
Most ham crisps either taste like rolling tobacco or have so much mustard powder on it leaves you feeling like you've just jumped off the top diving board without holding your nose. Compared to them, these are a blessing.
18. Spiced Aubergine with Chickpeas Houmous Meal
Great houmous, as good as any I’ve had in this country. Only the International Space Station catering department would describe something served in two vacuum-sealed trays as a “meal”, though, and chickpeas would be an absolute nightmare in zero-gravity conditions.
17. Halloumi Burgers
'Burger' is a pretty grandiose term for a disc of 'halloumi'. These are pretty versatile though; cook one of these for a millisecond too long and it’ll make a great emergency puncture repair for your paddling pool.
16. Marinated Italian Mozzarella & Tomatoes
Ah the old Italian pic & mix. Bocconcini mozzarella is supposed to be a little bit soft like burrata, and while these aren’t, nobody actually cares.
You could just buy some yoghurt, mint, and a cucumber with the intention of making your own, but you aren't going to, are you? You’ll panic, turn up to your friends’ with a pot of “sour cream and chive style dip”, and everybody will hate you.
14. Prawn Charcoal Roll
A charcoal brioche bun with a pipette of chilli dressing sticking out of it, but essentially it’s just a prawn salad bun. If you want to do something completely normal in an attention-grabbing way this Summer though, this is a lot more practical than disco tits.
13. Harissa Ketchup
"Why does this ketchup have a fruity, piquant edge to it?? Ah, Harissa explains it all!" (Shut up, you try writing thirty-five of these...)
12. Tapas Selection
Crisp-breads, manchego cheese, serrano ham, and tomato chutney. Technically more of a crostini selection, but it's the most delightfully bougie Meal Deal 'main' I've ever seen, so I'll let it slide.
Haters will say that it’s just a Dairylea Lunchable for adults. To them, I say this: it’s a Dairylea Lunchable, for adults.
If only there was a grown up Capri Sun...
11. Blood Orange Negroni
Here we go, right on cue. A bit more watered down than a Negroni ought to be - especially once your ice cubes start to dissolve - but a bottle of this and a long straw should keep you going for an afternoon.
10. Turkish Sweet & Sour Fig Relish
Is all this talk of Summer and sun upsetting your inner goth? This fig, apple, cinnamon and fig jam might as well be mince pie filling - slather it all over your slightly-cremated halloumi burger and you'll be able to trick your senses into thinking it's 4 degrees celsius outside and pissing it down, without having to wait until August for the real thing.
9. Freekeh, Couscous & Cauliflower
It doesn’t really matter where this goes on the list, or what it tastes like. You’re still going to buy it so you can bring it out at the picnic and sing ‘Tonight bay-beeee, I wanna get Freekeh with yoooou’
8. Roasted Butternut Squash
Now this is a grain that’s had to earn its place on the list. “Couscous” doesn’t fit into any song. Unless, like, ‘Couscous tonight bay-bee, I wanna get…’, I suppose that works. I never realised Another Level was so obsessed with pulses. Dane Bowers? More like Grain Bowers.
7. Murcia Lemon Bucks Fizz
Ever wanted to get a bit pissed off a bag of San Pelegrino Limonata cans? This is basically the same thing.
6. Roast Red Pepper Couscous Chips
Get you a baked corn snack that can do both: hench enough to stand up to even the sturdiest of picnic dips, but tasty enough to eat without.
5. Chicken Adana Kebabs
M&S could’ve absolutely phoned this one in - it’s chicken on a stick, they’d sell faster than fidget spinners regardless - but these are outstanding. Fragrant, meaty skewers of chicken with a dill tzatziki that genuinely elicited cooing from members of the barbecue audience (that may have just been me)
Finally, some readily available, good quality romesco. All you need is a jar of this, any barbecue, and a cauliflower, and you can create your own miniature Ox Club in your own garden this summer.
Call this "Garlic mayo" and you'll have your Sparks Card revoked for life. I would claim that it tastes just like the stuff I've spent 45 minutes tirelessly emulsifying in a food processor in the past, but it's actually loads better. Dollop it on absolutely everything.
They actually go crispy on the outside and doughy on the inside when you bake them, and the cinnamon sugar clings to them like dandruff on velcro. They’re good enough that I’ll forgive the optical illusion on the packaging that tricks you into thinking they’re twice as long.
1. Lamb Kofta & Yoghurt Crisps
Runny yolks and charcoal buns will be stealing all of the Instagram limelight this summer; trendy agua frescas and truffle pestos will be paraded around garden parties to make sure everybody knows how much you've spent on them before putting them on the communal table.
When you're sat in a dusky garden watching the final fading embers of the barbecue die out though, this is what you'll reach for. When the cheapest festival food you can find is a £12 soft shell crab taco, this is what you'll retire to your tent to eat, instead of going to watch Father John Misty.
When you go on actual holiday, you don't sit around the AirBnB eating calamari and sardines do you? You go to the local supermarket, and you stock up on crisps in all manner of bizarre, regional-specific flavours - olive oil crisps?? paprika crisps?? peanut flavour crisps?!
Each time you open a bag of these, you're not just opening some lamb & yoghurt crisps; you're unleashing a waft of the concentrated spirit of summer.
And also a bit of lamb kofta flavour as well.