Déjeuner sur l’herbe: the finest pleasures lie in the sensations that come with simple eating outdoors. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
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Ditch the posh stuff and enter picnic paradise

Keep things streamlined on the food front, so as to leave more room on the rug for important stuff, such as people.

I could never trust anyone whose heart didn’t perform a pirouette at the mention of the magic word “picnic”. “There is no more perfect way of spending a hot day,” the herbalist Hilda Leyel wrote in 1936. Even seaside drizzle doesn’t seem so bad with a squashed cheese sandwich and a damp bar of Fruit & Nut in your pocket. Jane Grigson wasn’t the first to notice how absurd it is that “a nation whose weather is so unpredictable should be such ardent and accomplished picnickers”, but there’s method in our madness. As usual, the Famous Five have already solved the mystery: “Food tastes so much nicer eaten out of doors.”

For reasons not yet understood by modern science (but rigorously tested by me), this is as true of a bag of Frazzles as it is of a fricassee of foie gras. As Grigson observes, the “food doesn’t matter a damn, so long as it is of top quality”. But though fresh air is a rare old seasoning, no mere “meal deal” could bring the same pleasure as Ratty’s “fat, wicker luncheon basket” in The Wind in the Willows, with its “cold chicken” and “coldtonguecoldhamcold- beefpickledgherkinssalad­frenchrollscresssandwiches­pottedmeatgingerbeer­- lemonadesodawater . . .”

Lucky old Rat had a rowing boat to transport all of this treasure. If you’re carrying yours on your back, I’d recommend the infinitely simpler spread that he puts together for his exotic, seafaring cousin: “a yard of long French bread, a sausage out of which the garlic sang, some cheese which lay down and cried, and a long-necked straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far southern slopes”.

With the addition of some weepingly ripe summer fruit, it’s difficult to improve on his menu. As the sagacious rodent clearly realised, the most important quality in picnic food is patience, which definitely rules out the chicken mousse and chocolate soufflé recommended by Mrs Leyel in her gloriously impractical book The Perfect Picnic. It should be able to stand being jiggled up a mountain or across a city park with happy equanimity. It shouldn’t sweat or melt in the heat, unless that’s desirable (a sturdily boxed Brie is ideal, so long as you can cope with the whiff en route) and it should be at its best at air temperature, rather than cold or hot. Finally, it should be easy to eat with fingers – far more in the spirit of the whole affair than plastic knives and forks.

Keep things streamlined on the food front, so as to leave more room on the rug for important stuff, such as people. There’s no need to spend hours baking a quiche that will only get crushed during transportation when little gladdens the heart more than plump packets of home-made sandwiches, generously buttered to stave off sogginess, served with tomatoes or fat, pink radishes and a jar of yellow mayonnaise to dip, plus a paper bag of sweet cherries to finish. (Oh, and crisps. No picnic, however posh, is complete without at least one packet of crisps.)

To drink, well-insulated bottles of crisp beer or light white wine will never fail to satisfy thirsty picnickers (mellow cider has the advantage of requiring no advance chilling) but, in the absence of a Blyton-style babbling brook, take plenty of water, too. You never know, someone might actually get round to drinking it.

A good picnic shouldn’t be fancy. You don’t need to faff about with serving spoons or salad dressings or cocktail shakers when you’ve got good food and conversation. Pack those and you’ll have paradise on earth – after all, 50,000 wasps can’t be wrong.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.