Unpick(nick)ing a definition
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a picnic as follows: “An occasion when a packed meal is eaten outdoors, especially during an outing to the countryside.” One vital element they’ve overlooked is the sharing component that is so much a part of a picnic - that everyone contributes something and shares everything, in what may be a planned or a pot-luck kind of way, as a feast of plenty or an assembling of many simple elements.
The OED’s definition does however sound very inclusive, and changes over the centuries mean there are fewer, if any, social barriers to all of us heading into the fresh air whenever we want, claiming a spot in a park or communal garden and enjoying an outdoor spread. Yet for a long time, in centuries past, picnicking was very much a pursuit of the wealthy, who could afford the somewhat lavish food and drink that was expected following a shooting party or the opera. Victorian writer Mrs Beeton, in her Book of Household Management, set out the following exhaustive list of provisions for a picnic of 40 people:
“A joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal-and-ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium-sized lobsters, 1 piece of collared calf‘s head, 18 lettuces, 6 baskets of salad, 6 cucumbers.”…
Her list continues through a range of sweetments, puddings, cakes, biscuits, fruit, and then drinks of all sorts, non-alcoholic and thoroughly alcoholic. Luckily there were probably many kitchen hands to prepare it all and many strapping gentlemen’s gentlemen to carry it all.
We’ve gone all out here and made even more effort than we’d make at home. Why not!?
Arranging a picnic of this magnitude is of course an option if you have the wherewithal. For inspiration you can naturally turn to Mrs Beeton, or a more contemporary authority with recipes and tips if you want to do something other than default to dips and crudités. Luckily picnics are so versatile that if you can’t quite stretch to tickets to both the opera at Glyndebourne as well as the customary hamper (with optional furniture, champagne and waiter for an additional smallish fee) you can put together a less elaborate but equally elegant menu. Prepare just one, substantial dish for sharing – a lasagne or a quiche. Dishes like these are equally tasty at ambient temperature and even more flavourful when made the night before. Bring it along ready to serve directly from its dish. I’m also fond of a chancy cheese platter, started off with a generous hunk of mature cheddar and joined by who knows what other interesting pieces of cheese brought by your fellow picnickers, to be eaten with fresh, still-warm-when-you-bought-it bread, slices of crunchy apple and a jar of pickle.
At Nicholas Mosse Pottery we’re all about creating tableware (or should I say ‘picnic blanketware’) for sharing food and time together. It’s true that you don’t want it to feel as though you’re lugging your entire plate collection and the kitchen sink to your spot of outstanding natural beauty, but I think it’s worth taking the odd piece of real crockery – just enough to be useful for serving, lifting the occasion, and also so you’re not using disposable (and usually plastic) plates. Yes, it might all seem cumulatively heavy (where are all those gentlemen’s gentlemen when you need them?!), but once you’re done eating it will all be so much lighter, like your mood! One or two pieces of real crockery are also useful weights to keep the picnic blanket from blowing away if it’s windy while you’ve moved off to play boules or frisbee.
Despite the jeopardy of possible breakage, I always prefer the weight of a proper plate and a mug on a picnic. I keep well-chipped plates and collect extra crockery from second hand shops especially for this, as well as a spare pepper and salt mill.
Over the years I’ve gathered a mental checklist of oft forgotten but incredibly useful things that make all the difference. Let us know of anything else you find that always comes in handy:
- One or two good sharp knives, a serving spoon and a bundle of real cutlery if you’re bringing food that isn’t just finger food, wrapped in a material napkin or tea towel.
- A chopping board is a great asset to any picnic not only for cutting things but providing a flat surface, a mini table top.
- Salt and pepper – either in mills, in small jam jars of both or pre-mixed together.
- Real glass tumblers or paper cups, but definitely avoiding plastic. Glasses can also be wrapped for protection in a tea towel.
- Salad dressing in an old jam jar.
- Chutney, mustard and gherkins.
- A thermos of coffee and milk in a jam jar (you can’t save enough old jam jars!)
- A couple of sturdy rubbish bags, one for recycling and one for food and other waste.
- I used to have a corkscrew on the list but need this less and less…
- Optional: a stick of horseradish – one of Mrs Beeton’s recommendations that I’m keen on.
(Well) Being out of doors
Many of us spend much of our daytime indoors working, so there can be great novelty in dining outside – especially in northern Europe, where we don’t have a guaranteed climate and therefore must intrepidly ignore the prevailing weather and head out regardless…mostly. There’s a lot to be said for spending time out of doors each day, whatever the weather, and because of the weather, for our emotional, physical and mental health. Just being in nature is known to nurture our well-being in all sorts of ways. Enjoying food has a similar effect, not only on a sensory level but a social one. So, doing both at the same time is highly recommended!
Start the day with a breakfast picnic and keep that picnic feeling with you for the rest of the day.
Depending on where you spend most of your week, it will be more or less easy for you to find a way outside to have a picnic-a-day. No matter where you are (feel free to ignore the OED’s mention of ‘countryside’), or indeed what time of year or whatever the weather (…“there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes”…) I give you a daily challenge to have a moment outside, a moment when you stop, a moment that you share with others, and eat. Never mind whether your picnic spot would pass the picturesque test or not. Even if you’re in the densest of urban areas surrounded by concrete and brick, you’re never more than a short stroll away from a park, a river’s edge or canal path, a courtyard or haven of some kind. Many office buildings have accessible rooftops, let the open space of the sky be your park.
Watch out for local picnic-invaders! We often have to fend off this friendly flock.
In the midst of such gastronomic and liquid delights we certainly mustn’t forget our canine friends if we have them. They’ll need watering too. Though admittedly, taking an earthenware dog bowl with you in addition to all the human picnic paraphernalia is challenging; and I’m sure they’re less into the look and feel of their picnic gear than we are and will settle for camping-style vessels just this once.
Of course, here in Ireland the weather isn’t always so clement, or predicable. But that doesn’t stop us often picnicking forth. And I suppose you could always take shelter underneath your waterproof picnic blanket. Bon Appetit!