There is something undeniably enjoyable about the experience of eating outdoors. Perhaps it’s because we here in the UK so rarely get the chance to do it that we relish the opportunity so much. We have only those precious few months from May to September when the climatic conditions occasionally lend themselves to a little al fresco dining. This rare correlation of time and temperature triggers a sort of “natural bloom” wherein men of all ages in colourful shirts with pasty white legs emerge from their chrysalis to perform a strange sort of ritual dance around a pit of hot coals, burning raw meat presumably as some sort of offering while the female of the species dashes back and forth from indoors with paper plates and bowls of salad and bottles of fizz, smiling broadly but looking generally a little flustered. This strange behaviour is known by anthropologists as the back garden barbeque and it is a common feature of the UK summertime.
This year, however things are likely to be a little different. The recent unpleasantness has seen the entire nation confined to their quarters for the last several weeks and even those of us lucky enough to have a back garden to play in are anxious to put a little distance between ourselves and the old homestead at the earliest opportunity.
This desire for movement, travel and the great outdoors is expected to put something of a dampener on the back garden BBQ and instead lead to a resurgence of a great British classic – the picnic.
The word picnic is actually of French origin, pique-nique, which was used to describe a meal to which everyone contributed something. The verb piquer, meaning to pick, peck, or nab, and the rhyming addition nique, which means a thing of little importance, a bagatelle, a trifle. In English the phase first became popular in the 18th century to describe the aristocratic fashion for an elegant meal eaten out-of-doors.
The picnic is a thing of infinite variety and prospect. The mere mention of the word picnic conjures images of excursion, of beautiful scenery, of chequered blankets and wicker baskets overflowing with delights, of long lazy afternoons staring upward at a cloudless sky. Such bucolic imagery begs the question of why we ever bothered with those bizarre colonial contraptions called barbeques in the first place.
The picnic also reminds us of those halcyon days of our youth when a few simple sandwiches and a flask of tea were a symbol of days out with all the prospect of fun and adventure that went with it.
As people all over the country begin to sally forth once more, the idea of “bringing your own” offers the day tripper some assurance of both a bite to eat and of protection from any unseen dangers.
How To Picnic In Style
As I have previously mentioned, the picnic is not a “set menu” of dishes, there are no rules to picnicking, no essential ingredients but rather an option to dine out on those delicacies most desired and most fitting to the circumstances of one’s sojourn.
A perfect picnic may be a simple affair of ham sandwiches and hot tea served on the banks of a lazy river, allowing the world to drift by while the diners rest their weary legs and listen to sounds of the birds serenading amid the occasional splash of a leaping salmon.
On the other hand the picnic may be altogether grander affair in the bourgeois style.
The bill of fare spread out upon a blanket neath the cooling bows of an ancient oak might include all manner of exotic cheese and charcuterie. A fresh baguette lounging effortlessly next to a bowl of olives while a selection of soft fruits like strawberries and grapes stand idly by invites the diner to pick and choose at will. There is no rush, the pace is set by the flow of the wine and the leisurely journey of a single cloud across the sky.
However you choose to do it the picnic is an expression of freedom, of adventure, of an escape from the cares and worries of the everyday life and a return to the modest things that bring us joy. It’s no wonder then that under the current circumstances this simple culinary practice should enjoy a timely renaissance.