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The History of Picnics & Creating a Perfect One

In Search of Picnic Perfection

Picnic Basket

The risk of heat stroke, sunburn or warm sandwiches has never been enough to deter us Brits from taking advantage of warm weather and going on a picnic. We British are like our tea: made of strong stuff, although the lyrics to Noel Cowards song, ‘’Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’’ do ring incredibly true. As soon as the midday sun is beating down picnickers come out of hiding and armed with all manner of food stuffs they head off for a nice grassy spot by the river, picnic bench, public park or if all else fails they’ll simply eat their sandwiches in the car.


I must admit that I have a tendency to go on impromptu picnics, inspired by Laurie Lee’s description in ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ of setting off from his Gloucestershire village of Slad, with nothing but a violin, treacle biscuits and some cheese. I think that cheese and treacle biscuits sound idyllic, it’s just a pity I can’t play the violin.

Picnic basket with food and cider bottle near the water

When I begin to think of picnics I initially think of wicker baskets and check blankets and then it’s not long before my mind wanders to thoughts of grand affairs complete with raised pies, a wind-up gramophone and elaborate gourmet delights, just like the ones detailed in Mrs. Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’. I would love to go on a picnic that befits a wind-up gramophone and straw boater, but to date the majority of picnics I have been on have been simple affairs involving a flask of tea and sandwiches that have been squashed into a lunchbox. The picnics of my childhood always involved ham sandwiches, bananas and the packing of two flasks, one containing orange squash and the other filled with tea. Undoubtedly whether enjoying a few sandwiches or a banquet in a box, in warm weather food always tastes better outdoors and it’s not surprising that outdoor dining has a rich culinary history.
Whether a hunter, gatherer, shepherd, fayre goer or weary traveller, people have been eating outside since the beginning of time. There is nothing new about the concept of fast food and our ancestors would have been accustomed to impromptu open-air dining, just as fleets of invading armies were expected to eat alfresco, but whilst informal outside dining may have roots in necessity, the idea of formal out-of-doors eating also has a long history and at these outdoor banquets there wasn’t a Brexton Picnic set in sight. Picnics evolved from the elaborate traditions of moveable outdoor feasts enjoyed by the wealthy and privileged. Medieval hunting feasts, Renaissance country banquets and refined Victorian garden parties all lay the foundations for modern day picnics.
It’s hard to imagine a picnic called by any other name, although the term is derived from the French ’piquenique’, meaning an informal meal eaten in the open air where everyone would bring a little something to add to the feast, adding a connotation of pot-luck to the proceedings. From the humble beginnings of just a simple meal outdoors through to the colossal hunting feasts of the medieval period the picnic has continued to evolve and seems to have captured the attention of our pens as well as our stomachs. From Chaucer’s garden picnic in the Franklin’s Tale to Jane Austen’s disastrous outing to Box Hill picnics have become so adored by the British that they frequently turn up in our literature. One of my all-time favourite references to the picnic is in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ where Ratty’s picnic is held in a “fat, wicker luncheon basket”, a description that I find as enchanting as an adult as I did when I was a child. Oh I would still love to relax on the riverbank with the contents of Ratty’s picnic basket. I’ve read many recent suggestions for picnics that include recipes for tapas, cold noodles, Thai style prawn salads and other gastronomic delights, but to me Ratty’s hamper was perfect including cold ham, beef, tongue, French rolls, cress sandwiches, potted meat and ginger beer. If I had been presented with such simple delights I may have been tempted to echo the words of Mole, ‘O, stop, stop,’ cried Mole in ecstasies: ‘This is too much!’
When preparing for a modern day picnic it’s easy to ponder over how much hard work goes into something that will last for a few hours and will no doubt result in a fight to keep the wasps away from the lemonade, a battle to keep the ants off the cake and will demand great skill to stop flies from spoiling the sandwiches. As you deliberate over how many sandwiches you should pack spare a thought for those preparing a picnic in the Victorian era, a time when picnics were very grand affairs. As we pack a cooler box or basket with sandwiches and cake; and tuck a blanket under our arm before heading off in pursuit of the ideal spot to picnic we tend to think of a picnic as a carefree activity, but in the Victorian period the picnic was anything but happy-go-lucky, instead it was an occasion requiring precise planning and a lot of hard work to get it ready. In 1861, the definitive list of the Victorian picnic fare for Britain’s refined appeared in Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. It lists the need for tables, linen, crystal, chairs, servants and gourmet fare that would put many of our modern weddings to shame. The picnic of Mrs. Beeton’s generation was not an informal event but a noteworthy occasion and a would require stamina in the preparation and in the eating. Her “Bill of Fare for a Picnic for Forty Persons” was:

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
A ham
A tongue
2 veal and ham pies
2 pigeon pies
6 medium sized lobsters
One piece of collared calf’s head
Bread and cheese
122 bottles of drink – plus champagne

The Victorian picnic could not have been fitted in a cooler box and you’d certainly not decide to go on one of these picnics on the spur of the moment. Indeed a hundred and twenty-two bottles of drink plus champagne makes the rather decadent description of a picnic made perfect by the addition of “a couple of bottles of Bollinger”, that appears in ‘Very Good Jeeves’ (1930) seem rather low key and even puts Ratty’s picnic to shame.
I must admit I tend to keep things simple when it comes to preparing picnics at home. I favour traditional sandwiches with fillings that are not too moist, simple salads, scones and a slab cake that can stand up to the task of travelling. One thing I don’t like to include in my picnics is uninvited guests in the form of creepy crawlies, so I always back a tin of baby talc with me. I make a boundary around my dining site with it and I find ants don’t dare to cross the line. I also take a spray bottle filled with strong mint tea with me to deter flies. With food about you don’t want to be spraying chemicals about, but a few squirts of super strength mint tea seems to keep the bugs at bay.
When it comes to creating the perfect picnic don’t forget to pack the mustard and a few pickles. I like to include scotch eggs and a cold cutting pie along with my other picnic staples, but the key is that whatever is included has to taste better cold than hot. I tend to make my own Scotch eggs because I like a soft yolk and the taste of the original British treat that was enjoyed by the likes of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five as they ran headlong into another adventure. I’m not partial to the perfectly round, orange bread crumbed Scotch eggs available in the supermarkets to me they taste of stale disappointment and are the bland result of mass manufacturing. The Scotch egg is true picnic food and it didn’t originate in Scotland. The most popular story about its origin belongs to the food emporium, Fortnum & Mason. They claim that they invented the Scotch egg at their Piccadilly headquarters in the eighteenth century as an affluent travelers’ snack. This was a time when Piccadilly was full of coaching inns and as wealthy landowners set off on long carriage journeys to reach their country estates they required portable snacks and so the Scotch egg was developed by enterprising staff as a tasty morsel that could easily fit in a handkerchief. Fortnum and Mason do not hold an exclusive claim on the invention of this well-loved snack and a few rumors about its origins exist including that it was an export from the British Raj. Whatever the truth of its origins, the first reference of a Scotch egg recipe appeared in 1808 in Mrs Rundells cook book entitled, ‘ A New system of Domestic Cookery’, and is very different to modern day recipes. Oh and in case you’re wondering the naming of the Scotch egg came about as “scotched” means processed, referring to wrapping a boiled egg in meat and then breadcrumbs.
With the food organised a bit of thought has to go into choosing the drinks, cider and white wine are always popular choices, but they must be kept cold. For me a glass of fiery home-made ginger beer is always a favourite, but I have encountered a few disasters involving exploding ginger beer bottles, sticky cars and ginger beer infused sandwiches, so this year I have taken to packing lemonade and tucking a bottle of cherry brandy in the hamper, just in case I fancy a tipple in the sunshine. Before heading off to find the ideal picnic spot it has to be said that you can hardly classify yourself as being equipped for a picnic unless you have packed a hot flask of tea. Not only is this necessary because tea is darned into our cultural identity as an iconic part of being British, but because once you’ve parked the car, unpacked the children, trudged across fields, clambered over stiles and navigated around cow pats whilst balancing a picnic hamper, bottles of sunblock and winter coats (just in case the weather turns) you will need something to restore your spirits and everyone know that tea can get us Brits through anything the world has to throw at us.
So whether you’re inclined to enjoy a cheese and pickle sandwich and a hot drink out a flask or a scotch egg and a few bottles of fizz, let’s hope the sun shines and tea stays hot whilst the food stays cool. Let’s be honest though the British don’t let a little thing like weather spoil a picnic and unappetizing sandwiches are still delicacy if eaten out-of-doors. Indeed a spot of damp grass won’t deter us from laying down a rug and eating out of Tupperware, after all defiance of the weather is one of our most endearing national characteristics.



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