The day announced itself with one of those breath-taking sunrises awash with color and a touch of warmth carried on the breeze coming in off the ocean. It was a day to spend outside. It was the perfect day for a picnic. A few hours later I was driving the car down a pot-hole filled dirt path, which was—in theory—a road in the local national forest, but ‘weather’ had obviously taken its toll on the now non-existent tarmac. You might well ask why I was putting my fellow passengers and I through this very bumpy and dusty drive, but as we were going on a picnic, half the fun is finding an unusual place to eat al fresco. Although, perhaps I should have headed Mrs. M. W. Ellsworth’s words of wisdom, penned in 1900 in Queen of the Household, [Ellsworth & Brey:Detroit MI] (p. 566-570)
“If the party is to drive or ride, let not the distance be too great. There should be a stream or spring of pure water, materials for a fire, shade intermingled with sunshine, and a reasonable freedom from tormenting insect life. Charming as is the prospect of picnicking in some grand dell, some lofty peak, or in some famous cave or legendary ruin, there are also other considerations which would not be forgotten. One does not feel too comfortable when banqueting in localities where Dame Nature has had her queer moods, and has left imprinted certain too observable evidences of her freakiness. Such places may be included within the excursion itself, but let the feast and the frolic take place where weird effects are not the prevailing characteristic of the locality.”
I particularly like her comment about ‘tormenting insect life’ as many a good picnic can be ruined by a plethora of pesky ants of insistent bees but I digress. The road was horrendous and the dreaded words emerged from one of the children “are we there yet?” “Soon, soon” I answered cheerfully, inwardly praying that the idyllic spot would emerge around the next bend. The car lurched across a dried out stream crossing, dust flew. I caught furtive and slightly anxious looks in the rearview mirror. I slowed down to 10 miles an hour as we climbed over the rise in the next hill and there it was. A flower filled meadow overlooking the valley with an abandoned water trough adrift in a field of tall grass. Sunlight dappled through the trees as we all piled out of the car. The dog danced and chased butterflies. Smiles were in abundance.
After spending a few minutes surveying the landscape we found the perfect spot and proceeded to unload the car. I grew up in England and in France. I only mention this because these two countries have grand traditions when it comes to picnics and my family was no exception to the rule, on either side of the Channel. Hampers for rowing regattas and cricket matches in England, and elaborate picnic baskets with tables, chairs, linens, glasses and silverware in the French Alps. Close to 200 years of perfecting the art of eating outdoors had led to writers waxing lyrical about its merits (Dickens, Trollop, Chekov, Jane Austen’s exceedingly proper affair in ‘Emma’, and D. H. Lawrence’s rather more exotic and sultry versions in ‘Women in Love’ to name a few) and painters lauding its merits—Manet’s ‘Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe’ is probably the most famous. Suffice it to say that I felt I had a certain customs to uphold.
We carried the two picnic baskets to the chosen spot, unpacked a tablecloth, plates, glasses, and other necessary items. Blankets and jackets were laid out on the ground and everyone helped unpack the food. The picnic was centered on a vegetable quiche with various salads, bread and cheese laid out alongside. Someone brought chocolates, another, a fruit salad and a rather delicious chilled wine. I realized that we epitomized the original meaning of the word ‘picnic’ which, taken in its pre-1860 definition meant a meal at which each guest brought a dish or contributed something to the event. A pot luck in other words. America, with its multi-ethnic population, has perfected the art of pot lucks, each person bringing a peace of their culinary history with them to the meal, and picnics are the perfect vehicle for this.
Unlike the elaborate Victorian picnics which required significant planning and a prodigious number of number of dishes to be deemed a success—according to Mrs. Beeton in her book “Household Management” no less than 35 would do—picnics today can be as simple as a couple of sandwiches enjoyed on the beach whilst wiggling your toes in the sand or dipping your feet into a cool stream after a walk to your picnic spot.
This is exactly what we did on that warm afternoon. There was a stream nearby (perfect for keeping the water and wine chilled) and the children were soon playing in it. The water burbled appealingly as in meandered downstream and we ate strawberries sitting on rocks dotted up and down the banks. One or two of us dozed in the afternoon sunlight. As James Beard wrote in his book James Beard's Treasury of Outdoor Cooking, [Ridge Press:New York] 1960 (p. 214-226) “Do not rush. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Take your time.” The perfect recipe for a lovely picnic.
SUMMER PEA AND MINT SALAD
Serves 8 people
Zest of 1 lemon
4 shallots – peeled and sliced
2 lbs English peas – shelled
1 lb Snap peas – trimmed and sliced
Salt and pepper
1 Tablespoon wine vinegar – champagne or white wine
1 bunch chives – finely chopped
1 bunch mint – finely chopped
Note: If your picnic is more than an hour away, then reserve the vinaigrette and add it to the peas and other ingredients just before serving it.
PROSCIUTTO AND GOAT CHEESE QUICHE
Serves 8 people
For the short crust pastry:
9 oz unbleached all-purpose flour - sifted
5 oz slightly softened butter - cut up into small pieces.
1 large egg
1 tablespoon olive oil
Zest of one lemon
pinch of salt
For the vegetables and eggs:
6 shallots – peeled and sliced
8 oz spinach
1 tablespoon butter
4 oz mushrooms – thinly sliced
2 tablespoons crème fraiche
6 oz prosciutto
4 oz crumbled goat cheese
salt and pepper
SAFFRON ROASTED GOLDEN BEET SALAD
Serves 8 people
6 oz golden raisins
4-6 golden beets – peeled and cut into slices
2 red onions – peeled and thinly sliced
Fig Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
½ bunch cilantro – leaves removed from stems
Zest of 1 lemon
Quatre-quart means four parts in French. It is a term that applies to most pound cakes.
Serves 8-10 people
8 oz butter
8 oz sugar
8 oz flour
4 eggs – separated
Zest of 2 lemons
Juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 2 limes