Perfecting The Picnic – To celebrate National Picnic Week Imogen Lepere takes us on a potted tour through the history hamper of picnicking and shares some of her tastiest tips.
There is something intrinsically hopeful about planning to dine al fresco. The touching optimism that it’s sure to be sunny because it’s summer, despite years of rainy August’s implying the opposite. The expectation that this time the spread might be as magnificent as the one inside Ratty’s bulging hamper in The Wind in the Willows (‘cold chicken, cold tongue, cold ham, cold beef, pickled gherkins, salad, French rolls, cress sandwiches, potted meat, ginger beer, lemonade, soda water’), regardless of the sandy baps and limp salad we’ve all suffered countless times.
The Great British picnic
The Great British picnic can trace its roots back to the Middle Ages, when noblemen used to chow down vast quantities of baked ham at hunting meets. However, they didn’t achieve their picturesque connotations until the 1800’s, when the Romantic poets rebelled against the industrial revolution by ‘wandering lonely as a cloud’ through bucolic landscapes which were fast disappearing, often taking their lunch with them. William and Dorothy Wordsworth were among the first to embrace a trend which soon saw the upper classes shrugging off the formality of the dining room to enjoy the likes of ‘pigeon pies and collared calf head’ (thank you, Mrs. Beeton) in nature.
Picnics are made up of many of the UK’s most quintessential snacks, many of which tell stories from our past. Pasties are the legacy of Cornwall’s tin miners, who needed self-contained lunches they could eat with dirty hands. Hence the knotted crust, which could be used as a handle and then discarded. Fortnum and Mason claims to have invented Scotch eggs in 1738 for wealthy customers to tuck into on carriage rides. Creamy, curry-spiked coronation chicken was created for Queen Elizabeth II’s crowning ceremony. Every hamper is an edible history lesson. And who doesn’t prefer their history with a side helping of sausage roll?
Of course, these days we are far more international in our tastes. Halloumi and vegetable skewers make an excellent vegetarian main, while a quarter fig topped with a mint leaf and swaddled in Parma ham is a pleasing bomb of flavour that can be passed around while setting up.
The most contentious dish at any picnic has to be the salad. Should it be hyper-traditional new potatoes slathered in mayonnaise and topped with crunchy bacon bits? Or an Ottolenghi-inspired grain concoction, such as faro with fresh herbs and plenty of honey, paprika and lemon dressing?
Plates and cutlery?
The main thing to decide is whether you will be providing plates and cutlery. If you’re picnicking far from the car, lighten the load by sticking to vegetables that can be eaten with the fingers, such as blanched green beans in a classic vinaigrette scattered with toasted walnuts. If you are providing crockery, a rocket, courgette and feta salad with plenty of basil and lemon zest is a deliciously fresh way of ensuring everyone gets their greens. But remember to bring the dressing in a jam jar to avoid limp leaves.
Of course, a great picnic is about far more than just food. A clean tablecloth makes everything feel more appetising and I tend to avoid clingfilm. Instead, try wrapping sandwiches in greaseproof paper tied with string, a more environmentally-friendly option that also means your sarnies won’t sweat in the sun. I also always bring ice in a thermos. What good is a peach and rosemary cooler if it’s the temperature of tea?
With a little careful planning, you may find yourself making a similar observation to George from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books: “The meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors.” Lashings and lashings of ginger beer optional.
the loveliest local picnic spots
This triangular park luxuriates over 220 acres, and features a band stand which hosts regular live music, and several fish ponds, where you can try your hand at angling. Contact Lambeth Council for permits.
One of London’s eight royal parks and just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, this is a peaceful oasis in central London. Rumour has it that King Charles II’s wife demanded all the flowers be removed from the park after she caught him picking blooms for another woman, and there are no formal flower beds to this day.
Italian Gardens, Kensington Gardens:
You can’t picnic in Kensington Gardens’ formal garden itself, but if you spread a blanket in the Italian Gardens you’ll have them as a backdrop and be able to explore once you’ve eaten.
Fill your basket:
Pimlico’s best picnic pit stops
Delizie D’Italia Deli – A Lupus Street stalwart since 1990, this deli is a treasure trove of the finest Italian produce. Stop by for excellent charcuterie and home-made cannoli pastries.
Gail’s Bakery – For delicious sourdough loaves baked by hand using decades-old starter culture, and mini chocolate and tahini cakes, look no further than this buzzing bakery on Churton Street.
Tachbrook Street Market
– Whether you’re looking for Indian street food, olives or quality ham for your sandwiches, this local gem is a must visit. It’s open every weekday, from 8am – 6pm.