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30 July 2015updated 02 Sep 2021 4:57pm

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.

By Felicity Cloake

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.)

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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

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