Welsh Witterings. The Perfect Picnic
There is no lovelier way to spend an afternoon in the summer than with a picnic. 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, elaborate gastronomic delights and home-made lemonade, just like the ones detailed in Mrs. Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’. Generally the picnics I have been on have been simple affairs involving a flask of tea and sandwiches that have been squashed into a lunchbox. 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 in many cultures. The Chinese are known to feast by the graveside of a loved one, just as the ancient Romans had done, whilst the Japanese picnic is often a feast for the eyes and the stomach that is organised to mark events such as the blooming of the cherry blossom.
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 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
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 Brexton picnic case 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 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 containing strong mint mouthwash with me to deter flies. With food about you don’t want to be spraying chemicals about, but a few squirts of mint mouthwash 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 whatever is included has to taste better cold than warm. 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 are a 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 travellers’ 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 rumours 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 1809 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.
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. Indeed a spot of damp grass won’t s 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.