Some picnics are more memorable than others. I would probably put our alfresco lunch on a Sunday in June 2016 in the top ten. Our Californian friends Kurt and Bev had driven us on a road trip all the way from their home in Santa Rosa up the Pacific west coast to Seattle – taking in a day on Canada’s Vancouver Island on the way and now on our return we called in at Oregon’s Crater Lake – brought into being over 7000 years ago when a huge volcanic eruption caused a tall mountain to collapse.
The ranger at the gate of the National Park (who originally hailed from Rye in Sussex) was delighted to meet some fellow Brits. She told us that the previous day it had been snowing heavily. We headed upwards along a road still line with deep snow drifts. At over 1883m (more than 6,00 feet in old money) we reached the summit and looked down into the deep, shimmering blue of the lake fed only by snow melt and rain. It’s six miles wide and the deepest lake in the USA.
That’s quite enough romantic scene setting. It was not of course an isolated spot – hundreds of other other tourists milled around up here drawn by the lake and the novelty of midsummer snow. But it was lunch time and time to find somewhere to open out the folding chairs and get our picnic together. It must be one of the most scenic spots in America to eat hardboiled eggs and tomatoes and peanut butter sandwiches. And more than one (probably envious) passer-by took a sneaky picture of this happily munching quartet of picnickers.
The word picnic is almost certainly French – dating from the late seventeenth century when pique-nique described a meal in a restaurant where everyone brought their own wine. That idea evolved into aristocratic gatherings – still indoors – where everyone contributed food to the meal and there was music and dancing. When the French revolution sent the French nobility scuttling across the Channel in fear of losing their heads, the picnic came with them.
The English toffs weren’t too worried about the guillotine, but they’d became overcome with Romantic ideas, and escaping formal dining, took themselves outside where nature could provide the back drop to their imagined rustic meal. Of course their servants would toil up the hill behind them to the sublime beauty spot, struggling under the weight of hampers stuffed with the kind of lavish grub which Mrs Beeton suggested as suitable picnic fare for a picnic:
a joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal and ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium sized lobsters, 1 piece of collared calves head.
And a lot more besides, though she doesn’t mention Scotch eggs, Penguin biscuits or sharing bags of Walkers crisps…
Jane Austen doesn’t specify the menu, but there was probably something similar on offer at the picnic on Box Hill in Emma. This ended in disaster not because of an invasion by wasps or a sudden thunderstorm but because our heroine said something cruel and a bit vindictive to an older, poor member of the party. ‘That was badly done, Emma,’ chided Mr Knightley but we’ve all been there, hot and tetchy and argumentative.
Picnic often end in a bit of shambles with someone crying. In Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee describes his mother’s picnics – a monument to the triumph of hope over experience: ‘The milk turned sour, the butter fried on the bread, cake crumbs got stuck to the cucumber, wasps seized the treacle, the kettle wouldn’t boil and we ended by drinking the jellies.’
But the indomitable Brits soldiered on through the 50s and 60s, taking the family car out for a ‘run’ in hope of finding the ideal spot. Funny how often they ended up in a layby, or the verge of a dual carriageway. And by they of course, I mean we. Or if it was raining too heavily Mum would sit in the front seat assembling ham rolls and handing them back to us while the windows steamed up hiding what view there was. Which was probably preferable to to sitting on a beach where sand and sandwiches never make a good combination.
I was never really a big fan of picnics – though back in the seventies with small children we didn’t have much choice. Since then the problem of where to sit has been solved by the growing availability of picnic tables and you don’t have to stick with cheese and pickle sandwiches wrapped in foil. There are plenty of places to buy ready made sandwiches and salads. And supplying picnic ‘hampers’ to those with a bit more cash to splash out is a growth industry:
For lunch time, try the Bloomsbury Hamper with tuna and watercress, chicken roll, Rueben, cheddar and tomato sandwich, as well as healthier options of caesar and tomato and mozzarella salad. Finish it all off with a mixed berry salad chocolate tiffin, cupcake, fruit tart and macaroon.
Eat your heart out Mrs Beeton. Me, I think I’d rather have a pub lunch. Or sit eating peanut butter sandwiches on the edge of a shimmering blue lake.