“Wherever it is done, picnicking can be one of the supreme pleasures of outdoor life. At its most elegant, it calls for the accompaniment of the best linens and crystal and china; at its simplest, it needs only a bottle of wine and items purchased from the local delicatessen as one passes through town. The color and charm of the countryside can make the most modest meal taste superb. Have a picnic at the slightest excuse. It is even fun to have a box lunch and a hot drink in the car on a wintry day, while you look out at a dazzling stretch of landscape.”
                                              James Beard's Menus for Entertaining, James Beard, c. 1965

When I read about James Beard’s exuberant love of outdoor meals, I cannot help but think of my uncle Yves, a bon vivant and grand gourmet if ever there was one. All meals in my aunt and uncle’s home were approached with a dedication to planning and with such gusto that one could not help but be swept up in the preparation and ultimate consummation. Upholding a century’s long family tradition of grand dining is something every subsequent generation has taken very seriously, whether the meal be indoors or out. Even picnics, taken on eight hour long epic mountain hikes took judicious organization. The meal, bottles of wine included, was carefully packed into the backpacks of everyone present, and only consumed once a suitable spot had been chosen, preferably near a stream of alpine water or mountain lake in which the wine had been properly chilled. The children carried less precious, although still essential cargo: butter, radishes, baguettes. The older you got, the more important the victuals, the heavier the pack. This was, as with all things food related in my family, important business.

My French grandparents had long perfected the art of le piquenique by the time I was born. It was a finely orchestrated dance into the countryside. These outdoor excursions took on gargantuan proportions, akin to moving a small platoon complete with regulation tables, seating, linens, silverware, china, glasses etc. The meal would be commensurate with the occasion. An abundant selection of salads, herb omelets, chilled meats, roasted chickens, plateaus of cheese, baguettes, fougasse, saucisson, pates, melons and prosciutto, fresh fruit, tea cakes, madeleines and fresh coffee. All this washed down with bottles of rose, a little Chablis or a lightly chilled burgundy. The adults all needed a sieste after the feast. Yves Montand singing Ma Bicyclette serenaded us from a little transistor radio. My brother and I chased butterflies and picked wildflowers. I think Mr. Beard would have felt at ease.

Lest the French side of family felt that they had cornered the market on how to dine outdoors in style, the English side manifested a certain skill set when it came to entertaining in nature, although often in more inclement weather. More than once we had to hurriedly repack hampers as the heavens opened up. Whereas in France our picnics took on a more gastronomic flare, in England they were often more eccentric, including a regular outing to Highgate Cemetery where we played I spy behind Karl Marx’s tomb, before we regrouped to eat. Hot tea was often the beverage of choice. It was often cold and damp, but our enthusiasm for open-air adventures never waned.

In an effort to keep up both sides of the family tradition I continued the practice of Le Grand Piquenique when I moved to California. Among the precious items I lugged across the Atlantic was a copy of Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household management. This book has a treasure trove of information (some tips still valid today and recipes that have stood the test of time) including, under the entry numbered 3026 in the 1890 edition, the following suggestion, “One of the pleasantest forms of entertainment is a well-arraigned picnic” She proceeds to list all that is required, including a suggested luncheon menu for twenty persons. She, my grandmother, aunts, and uncles obviously all adhered to the same school of thought.

 

5 lbs of cold salmon
Mayonnaise sauce
1 quarter of lamb
Mint Sauce
1 large galantine of veal
2 boiled chickens
1 ham
2 pigeon pies
Salad. Dressing.
2 cucumbers
2 Fruit tarts
Pastry sandwiches
2 jellies
2 Creams
custard
1 gallon strawberries
3 lbs grapes
1 lb cheese
½ lb butter
4 loaves bread, or rolls
Wines
Bottled bear
Soda water
Lemonade
Plates
knives
Forks
spoons
Glasses
Tumblers
Tablecloth
Serviettes
Glass cloths
Pepper
Cayenne
Salt
Mustard
Oil
Vinegar
Castor Sugar
Corkscrews
Champagne opener

 

Ten years ago, I decided to throw a giant birthday picnic in a vineyard, complete with all the accoutrements. To say that I felt I had a tradition to uphold was an understatement. I followed Mrs. Beeton’s advice and drew on family lore. It was Downtonabbeyesque - minus the footmen.

Ten years on I toyed with the idea of doing this again, but, as the reality of the logistical task sunk in, I pondered the question, do all picnics have to resemble Le Diner en Blanc where linen covered tables are de rigueur? Those picnics all had one thing in common, they were a lot of work. Did I need to drive a few hours to find the idyllic spot? Or load up 10 picnic baskets? Was there a simple way to do this? I could feel my grandmother raising an ancestral eyebrow in concern.

I was mulling this over whilst sitting on a bench in the local park watching the ducks frolic in the pond. I had a flakey croissant in one hand, a piping hot espresso in the other. It occurred to me at that moment that I was in fact enjoying an impromptu breakfast picnic with nary a tablecloth in sight. The thought made me smile. I walked home.

Later that day I went for another walk. It’s how I solve problems. I’ll mull them over as I wander about. Without any fixed destination in mind, I found myself at the rose garden in front of the Santa Barbara Mission. The bells had just peeled six o’clock and the sun painted the hills the sort of pink hue that sends artists racing for their paintbrushes. A patchwork of colorful throws decorated the expanse of the gently sloping lawn like dots on a ladybug. As I walked past the rose beds I spied little vignettes, outdoor ‘rooms’ created by their occupants. Hidden amongst the bushes, blankets askew, electric bikes piled up, parked side by side creating a mobile barricade, a group of giggling gangly girls feasted on sweet treats; at the base of the lawn an elegantly dressed couple sat facing each other in beach chairs; cheese, crackers and wine on a gingham covered low table next to them. They smiled as small children rolled down the hillside, as others did handstands around their supine parents. Two pairs of feet suddenly shot up behind an eruption of Julia Childs, the yellow roses swaying in time with the tottering limbs. The legs disappeared as I rounded the corner where I saw a group of friends, jackets used as blankets, laughing at each other’s antics, pizza boxes tossed higgledy-piggledy, grabbing a bite together after a long workday.

I circumnavigated the lawn witnessing the lexicon of picnics. The impromptu, the planned, the celebration, the romantic (complete with matching easels and canvases on which to capture the setting sun), the very grand (three tables festooned with giant bouquets and groaning with food), and the very modest (a bag of chips and a dip). As I watched, a young couple, two-up on a blue bicycle, circling between the groups, music trialing behind them like streamers, floating out from the tiny speakers lodged in the bike’s basket, until they found the right spot and marked their territory with a neon towel. The parked bike niftily acting as a de facto bar and table, they unpacked a smorgasbord of delicious looking salads.  A picnic, obviously, could take on many guises. I re-thought the giant feast.

Over the past few months, walking up and down the Riviera, I’ve discovered some hidden gems. Small pocket gardens, little perches -some with great views-, little used parks, charming alcoves, and the odd fountain that all make charming picnic venues. Sometimes I’ll pack up some leftovers, take a good book, and park myself under a beautiful tree to read and eat. I’ve discovered I also rather like impromptu gatherings. Are you free for dinner I may ask? Shall we meet at…..?

As Margaret Visser wrote in "The Rituals of Dinner. "Fresh air and natural beauty, adventure, no cooking and no tables and chairs -- a good picnic is a thrilling reversal of normal rules, …. and the freedom we grant ourselves to lounge about on a blanket eating cold food with our hands." With apologies to my ancestors, this sounds like the perfect recipe.

Radish, Goat Cheese and Herb Pate

6 oz goat cheese
4-6 radishes — finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
5-6 grinds black pepper

Place all of the ingredients into a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Using repeated 2-3 second pulses, mix the ingredients to form the pate. The texture should look like a thick slightly chunky hummus. Spoon into a mason jar and refrigerate until ready to serve. Eat with baguette, crackers or as part of a raw vegetable platter.

Salmon Rillettes

Serves 4 people

Olive oil
1/2 lb skinless salmon fillet (preferably wild)
2 teaspoons Herbes de Poisson (or equal parts fennel, coriander and mustard seeds mixed with ½ teaspoon salt)
¼ cup (or more) Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon capers
2 tablespoons diced fennel
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives 
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Good pinch of salt
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the salmon in a small baking dish. Drizzle with little olive oil, just enough to very lightly coat the salmon. Sprinkle the herbes de poisson over the salmon. Bake for 18-20 minutes. The salmon should be just cooked through.

Place the cooked salmon in a mixing bowl. Add all the remaining ingredients to the bowl. Gently mix just to combine the ingredients. You want the salmon to break apart a little.

Serve with crackers or a baguette.

Caramelized Onion, Zucchini, Basil and Arugula Galette

Serves 8 people
For the pastry:
9 oz (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
5 oz butter — chilled, cut into small pieces.
1 teaspoons thyme leaves – finely chopped
1 large egg
Zest of 1 lemon
Pinch of salt

For the onions:
Olive oil
3 large yellow onions — peeled, halved and finely sliced
Salt and pepper

For the vegetables:
Olive oil
1 lb zucchini — thinly sliced on a bias
½ cup basil leaves
1 cup baby arugula leaves

For the goat cheese:
4 oz slightly soft goat cheese — at room temperature
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives

Place all the dough ingredients into the bowl of a food processor, fitted with a metal blade. Pulse until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs, then use longer pulses until the dough forms a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

While the dough is resting, pour a little olive oil into a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, a large pinch of salt and 5-6 grinds of black pepper, stir frequently and cook until the onions are completely soft and slightly golden. This will take at least 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil into a medium sized mixing bowl. Add the zucchini and Herbes de Provence, ½ teaspoon of salt and 10 grinds pepper. Toss to mix and coat well. Place the zucchini slices onto a sheet pan or shallow baking dish. Roast for 15-20 minutes or until the zucchini are golden in color. Remove from the oven.

Place the unwrapped dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll out the dough to a 14-inch round, ¼-inch thick. The dough edge will be ragged. That’s okay. Place the dough onto a parchment lined sheet pan.

Using a spoon, cream together the goat cheese and chives. Spread the mixture over the dough leaving a 1-inch boarder. Spoon the cooked onions onto the goat cheese and spread them to the edge. Cover the onions with the roasted zucchini. Carefully fold the unadorned pastry edge over the vegetables, pressing gently to enclose the border.

Bake in the oven for 30-35 minutes or until the pastry is a deep golden-brown color. Once the galette has cooled, scatter the basil and arugula leaves over the top. Leave the galette in the pan for ease of transportation.

Berry Verrines

Serves 8 people

2 pints strawberries — rinsed clean if necessary, hulled and halved
2/3 cup sugar
8-10 grinds black pepper
Zest and juice of 2 lemons (keep the rinds)
8 oz mascarpone
1 tablespoon wildflower honey
4 cups assorted berries — sliced
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or vanilla paste
¼ cup toasted pecans
¼ cup sliced almonds
1 tablespoon powdered sugar

Place the strawberries, sugar, pepper, lemon juice, and the squeezed-out lemon rinds in a large saucepan placed over medium heat. As the strawberries begin to render some juice, mash the strawberries using a large fork or a potato masher. It’s okay if there are some larger pieces – the jam is not supposed to be completely smooth.

Cook for 10-13 minutes, skimming off any foam that forms on the surface of the jam. The jam is ready when it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Leave in the saucepan until ready to use.

In a small bowl combine the mascarpone, lemon zest and honey. Divide the mixture into eight mason jars.

Spoon a half cup of sliced berries into each glass on top of the mascarpone mixture.

Whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla extract (or paste) until it holds just firm peaks. You do not want to over whip the cream. Spoon the whipped cream over the chopped fruit.

Top the whipped cream with a spoonful of the strawberry jam.

In a small bowl combine the toasted pecans, almonds and powdered sugar. Sprinkle the nut mixture over the jam and serve.

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