The quaint, essential art of le pique-nique

by Lydia Brownlow

As a nation this is going to be our defining year for eating in the great outdoors, especially if we want to meet up with friends under semi-lockdown rules, since we can only do so outside. Who isn’t desperate to have a change of scenery? But with another staycation summer looming and Visit Britain suggesting domestic tourism spending will hit £61.7bn in 2021, up by 79% from last year, we had better perfect our picnic food for this summer’s road trip.

When I was a child (one of four siblings) we rarely ate out. This was partly due to the expense but also because my parents worried we’d show them up with our terrible table manners – at least that was their excuse. For a day out we always packed a picnic, consisting of a loaf of bread, butter, ham, cucumber, some tomatoes and a thermos of warm tea. This was enjoyed sitting among the cowpats on the banks of a river, having negotiated the barbed wire, keep out signs and a battalion of wasps.

It was a far cry from the delectable offerings of my Famous Five books by Enid Blyton. Every time Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy headed off to the bracken hills, Aunt Fanny would rustle up tomato sandwiches, home-made lemonade, tinned sardines, melt-in-the-mouth shortbread, lettuces, radishes, Nestlé milk, ginger beer, tins of pineapple chunks and squares of chocolate. It set a standard in picnics that has never been equalled for me in real life.

Why do we love a picnic? According to History Today the pique-nique was first mentioned in a 1794 French dictionary as a gathering to which each person brought a different dish, popular at aristocratic salons and dinner dances. It was probably introduced to British shores by refugees of the 1789 French Revolution and first appears in an English dictionary in 1800.

Picnics were originally indoors (Manet’s famous Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, with its tumbled picnic basket, was painted in 1863) and London’s own Pic Nic Society, founded in 1801, involved extravagant parties in hired rooms in Tottenham Street. The wealthy young Francophiles brought six bottles of wine apiece and drew lots to decide what dish they were bringing. Each of the 200 founding members strove to outdo each other in luxury and expense.

It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that such hedonistic festivities gave way to the outdoor picnics we know today. New modes of transport such as trains, bicycles and motorcars encouraged day trips by all social classes and made the countryside accessible to a far greater proportion of the population than before.

This ideal of rustic simplicity was influenced by lingering Victorian values of family life – but to my childish mind picnics were always the height of opulence and a delight on which I feasted in favourite stories such as The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908). My favourite scene was when Ratty passed Mole a “fat, wicker luncheon basket” on his boat.

“‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly; “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrolls cresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater—.”

“O stop, stop,” cried the Mole in ecstasies: “This is too much!”

Even now, as an adult in charge of provisions, I never match up to the simple standard Ted Hughes sets in The Iron Man (1968) when the family spreads a picnic tablecloth on the grass on top of a lovely hill. “They set down the plate of sandwiches, a big pie, a roasted chicken, a bottle of milk, a bowl of tomatoes, a bagful of boiled eggs, a dish of butter and a loaf of bread, with cheese and salt and cups. The father got his stove going to boil some water for tea, and they all lay back on rugs munching food and waiting for the kettle to boil, under the blue sky.”

As a mother it’s equally impossible to achieve the apogee of picnics set by Julie Andrews’ character, Maria, in The Sound of Music (1965) when she whips out a guitar for a quick round of Do-Re-Mi while the family eat their sandwiches in the lush fields surrounding Hohenwerfen Castle.

If only my parents had read these books or watched telly with us before we set off on long car journeys. They did eventually see sense and realise the best picnics were fish and chips in the car with the windows down and a good view of the sea!

There’s no doubt to my mind that food tastes better outdoors, possibly because dry circulated air can cause nasal congestion and a big part of tasting is the ability to smell. As a seasoned camper my advice is never stint on the layers, scarves of hats and gloves you need when eating outside at night. And don’t forget to leave your picnic spot as pristine as you found it.

Some picnic essentials

Sausage rolls: made with best-quality sausage meat to which you’ve added finely chopped spring onion and coriander and a splash of Thai sweet chilli sauce. Roll up in butter puff pastry. Cook and serve warm with extra Thai sweet chilli sauce.

Egg sandwiches: chop the hard-boiled egg and then stir in equal amounts of mayonnaise and Greek yoghurt; add a small amount of mango chutney and season really well. Sandwich between slices of thinly-sliced granary bread with handfuls of watercress.

Dark and sticky ginger cake served with a crumbly Cheddar or Lancashire cheese.

And of course Eton Mess.


Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com

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