There is only one pleasure that surpasses a picnic in these fleeting British summer days. Skinny-dipping. But paradise regained is surely both. The smell of crushed grass, the hum of darting insects and the splosh and drip of water, as you dry in the sun, are the boon companions of a tinkling glass of chilled wine and a plate of fine food. These are the dream days of life, when the cold silk of river waters and the gentle warmth of the sun on our skin renders back to us all, our childhood selves.
Those halcyon years are nowhere evoked more strongly than in the mouth-watering description of the picnic, provided by the endearing water rat in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows:
“There’s cold chicken…,’ replied the Rat briefly; ‘coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwiches pottedmeatginger beerlemonadesodawater—”
And with the unfolding of a small chequered tablecloth, good china and glasses, the perfect lunch for two new chums ensues.
I’m not a great enthusiast for the ‘pot-luck’ approach to modern picnics, where everybody brings something different. A picnic should be organised like any other meal, with timing, balance, poise and companionable guests. And given the potential style of a picnic, an eye for detail. Simply sitting down to a muddle of unrelated tupperware and pre-packed vinegary supermarket dishes bears no significant pleasure. The flavours, textures and colours of the summer picnic need to match the perfection of our natural surroundings.
Because of the weather, picnics can’t be planned too far ahead. But as the balmy evenings become likely, invite a couple of friends to join you for dinner and if a heatwave seems likely, surprise them with a change of venue to Primrose Hill or the Botanical Gardens, Central or Richmond Park, the Lammermuirs or the South Downs. One of your favourite spots, where a river runs. Dress up and pack the car with some decent tableware, cutlery, napkins, glasses and candlesticks. And bring a collection of rugs and cushions too. Imagine you are going on a foreign expedition. You want it to look like a front cover of Kinfolk magazine.
If your guests are people in whose company you might happily divest the cares of your daily routine on an evening skinny dip, take some towels along on the off chance. And naturally, if this is a romantic diner a deux, such childish pleasures might turn to more adult diversions.
Your dishes need to have fresh, rich flavours and stamina. Transportation can put a the crispest salad off its stride; basil leaves wilting into tomato juices and cucumber curling at the edges. The best thing is to keep anything uncooked separate and undressed until you arrive, mixing it in a bowl on arrival. You can keep these things in the cold box alongside the booze, butter and ice. Your other dishes will be fine at room temperature or covered in a wet dish cloth. Here is my summer picnic feast.
Langoustines & Brown Bread – cook the shellfish and allow to chill. Make homemade mayonnaise and decant into a nice glass jar that won’t tip over. Cut up some chunks of brown bread and lemons which you can serve on the plates and pass round the jar of mayo.
Chicken, Walnut & Watercress Salad – roast a chicken with lemon juice, honey and butter. When cool, shred the meat into a bowl. Season with capers, sea salt, fresh black pepper and cover. Toast walnuts under the grill on foil and wrap. Take a bag of fresh watercress with you. On arrival mix all the ingredients and toss in a dressing of mustard, lemon zest, honey, tarragon vinegar and olive oil.
Saffron Rice with Mint & Broad Beans – melt butter in a pan and when sizzling add Basmati rice (a generous handful per person and few extra for good measure). Stir fry for a few minutes adding a decent sprinkling of saffron. When the colour starts to merge into the rice, pour in about the equivalent water to rice and allow to simmer for five to 10 minutes. As the water is absorbed, spoon in some baby broad beans (frozen are often the best quality if you don’t grow your own), cover with a cloth and then a heavy lid. After another 10 minutes take off the lid, stir and cool. Just before you serve season and mix in a bunch of chopped mint.
Summer Pudding – you should make this with crust-less slices of stale white bread overnight but you can cheat by leaving slices of a cheap, white loaf out for a few hours. This dessert is the quintessence of summer fruits – gooseberries, red and blackcurrants and raspberries – inside a bread dome, oozing with sugary, tart juices and smoothed after serving with rich, yellow double cream. And it’s simply done. Put the berries in a pan and add sugar; 80:20 or to your liking. Let the juices run and if necessary add a little juice (or even water) to help them along. Let them bubble joyfully for a while but don’t let the fruits disintegrate. While this is going on, you want to cut the slices of bread to line a basin that will hold the pudding. Pour the juices in the pan over the bread first making sure it’s fully soaked and save some for the top. Then spoon in the fruit, finally adding more slices and juice to cover. Then squeeze a small plate over the whole and weigh it down with whatever you can find. Leave it overnight if possible. Transport it like this to your destination and when you arrive, turn it out of the basin on to your best china and light the candles.
Cheese – most cheese will sweat in the heat so you want to bring something small but with bags of flavour. A goat’s cheese crotine, a sheep’s Manchego or Lincolnshire Poacher.
Drinks – I’m happy to say that you can’t beat a good vintage English Champagne on an English picnic. They just work. Otherwise try a Borage & Gin Fizz (gin, lemon juice, sugar, fizzy water and a sprig of borage). And what better than a lightly chilled Pinot Noir or Saumur to have with dinner.