THERE'S something egalitarian about nestling on the grass together. No, no — behave! Honestly. You lot.
The picnic harkens back to that mid-day collapse in the fields during farm-work, devouring a pasty made up of flour, water and the end of Sunday dinner. It was a banal, pastoral happening idealised by painters of the period (most of whom had never experienced harvesting with bleeding hands). However, the term, picnic, has more oddly grand beginnings.
At the original French "pique-nique" as understood from the 17th century, all comers were expected to graze (pique or peck) and to bring an offering (nique or small thing) — not unusual in past centuries where extra grub really was a gift. Picnics were informal and often bawdy and soaked in booze, but they were held resolutely indoors in the homes of the well-off.
In the early 19th century, reflecting a cultural romanticism of the countryside and simple living – the gentry and rising English middle classes gradually moved the occasion outside. Jane Austen describes the mortifying events at a country excursion on Box Hill, in(1816). That setting, with wild fruit picking, word games, flirting, straw bonnets and a genteel view were just the thing for the top shelf, crust-less sandwich set.
In the late 1800s right through to the 20th century, holidaying, where it included biking, swimming, boating and walks, encouraged eating outside in some strange, surprising ravishing spot, ravenous and sun-kissed. Think Enid Blyton, lashings of ginger beer, tinkling laughter floating on the air with a counterpoint of bee hum and birdsong (and stage the garden accordingly).
The epitome of the vintage picnic shot through with indicated adult naughtiness is shown in the 1953 British comedy film following the London to Brighton Vintage Rally, starring Kenneth More and Dinah Sheridan. Petticoat blossomed skirts spread on the grass, wicker baskets and endless Ealing sunshine — sigh. A picnic has to retain that sense of escape, so at home or away, don’t cramp its free-spirited traditions.
My fellow writer for the, wine critic Leslie Williams, reminded me, "Sebastian and Charles had Sauternes and Strawberries as a picnic in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited" (1945). Scrumptious, even without Castle Howard hovering on the horizon (Granada TV 1981). Does Leslie have any other vintage-inspired favourites for an adult dejeuner sur l’herbe?
“Sparkling Rosé Champagne is my favourite picnic drink,” Leslie advises. “The Aldi one isn't bad if you don't want to stretch to the likes of Pol Roger. Italian or Spanish Cava would work too. If you want a simple punch you could bring a bowl and make Champagne soup.
1 ladle Cointreau (or Grand Marnier)
1 ladle of Simple Syrup,
Half ladle lemon-lime juice
1 bottle of Champagne (e.g. Veuve Monsigny Aldi - €19.99).
Simple Syrup: Heat 250g of sugar with 250ml of water until dissolved. This will keep for months in a sealed bottle.
To make the punch, add the cointreau and Simple Syrup to a large round-bottomed bowl, add the lime and lemon juice and mix well. Tilt the bowl and gently pour in the Champagne. Make a figure of eight with the ladle to mix gently. This is quite addictive, so consume with moderation!
“You could also just bring some elderflower syrup and add to a glass of fizz to make a kind of Kir (or go for more traditional Kir Royale - Crème de Cassis topped up with Champagne - also works with Crème de Mûr and Crème de Framboises).”
We held a Rosie the Riveter-themed gathering with hot-dogs, Mexican beer, gingham face masks, dungarees and head-scarves for myself and the girls – great fun for a bit of 40s nostalgia. Stir in deliberate kitsch. I deployed enamelled mugs and plates, faded melamine, and recycled vintage flasks for decanters, bought at local charity shops (be careful the glass liner is intact). You might be too creaky to sit on the grass, but skip away from suburban BBQ (room outdoors) style to cold finger food, mixed up vintage ware, coloured glass, and rubbed cotton tablecloths.
Equally relevant and fun (Downton Abbey-decadent) tennis whites, sparkling ware, and mint juleps in cut glass. We adore the Ballymaloe recipe for Elderflower Lemonade.
Immerse fruit and fresh herbs in punch and water jugs: Beautiful. Try a folded flat sheet if you don’t have white linen. I like real deck-chairs. The luff and fall of the heavy canvas, and the ungainly position they put you in, requiring human leverage after a couple of drinks to escape. They also give a really nice line to any woman’s crossed legs. By night, throw up some battery LED fairy lights in the trees and real candles in safe enclosed lanterns.
Food? Sandwiches should be front and centre. Bread is not just a vehicle, it should be superbly fresh. Ready sliced is ideal with nicely machined, even surfaces. Finger sandwiches — it’s in the name. Dainty, they can be just about breathed in one go, and the other hand is left free for a glass and gesticulations. Make up bowls of filling and the mob can make their own. Otherwise, tear rolls and lop off hanks of cheese and cake: What did essayist Kahil Gibran say? “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou, beside me singing in the wilderness.” Enough of Leslie’s Champagne Soup, and you’ll be crooning to the neighbours till dawn.
Tease off the crusts, and try putting a caper or something exotic in the egg-mayo mix. Don’t get the modern gourmet sausage if you want mid-century authenticity. Look for the most disturbingly human flesh coloured sausages you can find; cocktail bites speared with a sherd of wood. Perhaps a wrapping of bacon and a sliver of melon for a bit of Hyacinth Bucket? Show off your home-made pickles and jams (or cheat and buy them at the local farmers' market).
Vintage recipes and brand survivors will be a conversation starter: fish paste, cucumber, melon balls, cold meat pies and prawn cocktails. To go full Boomer, stick the DAB radio on classic '80s, and hand out the TK or Cidona — a "mineral" with a synthetic, retro back-note and enough sugar to rot your teeth by tea-time. Bowls of apple sours, Tayto, bulls-eyes and macaroon bars and life is a picnic after all.
With many thanks to fellow alfresco feaster, the dashing Leslie Williams.