The Small Pleasures of a Picnic
Few things equal the joy of finding the absolutely perfect site for a picnic. The blanket has been unfurled; I take off my shoes and step onto it; claim my own little corner. The feeling of bare feet on the soft blanket, and the scrunching sound of the grass beneath it is one of those sounds that suggest a cosy excitement.
I’d like to say this feeling is one from childhood that has endured, but unfortunately this is not the case. Aside from the obligatory Teddy Bears’ Picnic at primary school, with its memories of sticky jam sandwiches and pesky wasps, I don’t believe I ever went on a picnic in my childhood. Picnics were something that happened on the TV or in picture books; something I dreamt of, but never did.
Even as a young adult I never picnicked, and the picnics I read about in fiction often took a darker turn. Think the opening picnic and hot-air-ballooning scene in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, or the mysterious events in Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. Either novel is enough to make most people hesitant about picnicking!
Nevertheless, since meeting Sam, picnicking has become one of our simple pleasures, to be enjoyed on warm sunny days. We prefer a quiet, secluded spot, usually venturing far from the entrance and car park, where picnicking families find safety in numbers. Whilst it’s lovely to see the occasional walker saunter past, we as a rule like to be alone!
The Sloe Life Guide to Picnics:
Perfect picnic days with the ideal weather can be few and far between here in the UK, so here are a few quick tips to help you seize the moment when the right opportunity arises:
Weather: The day should be warm, but not too hot. Slight cloud cover is preferred (to remove the risk of burning), but beware any clouds that look too ominous, and it must be a still day; wind and rain are the enemies of a good picnic.
Season: Summer is – of course – the season for picnics, but autumn can be a wonderful time to picnic as well. Mild dry days, where you wrap up warm with a lap blanket and enjoy a flask of hot soup under a canopy of red and gold leaves is just as delightful as finding shade in a summer meadow.
Basket: We now have a lovely picnic basket with metal cutlery, ceramic plates and inner cool box, but before this, we just stowed our enamel plates in a wicker basket with the food. Both worked just was well.
Cool Box: Essential if you want to enjoy cold drinks, or if you are planning to eat meat or dairy. We also like to pack a little bottle of bubbly – only something small; a token to toast the day out – for which a cool box is essential!
Napkins: You can never have enough napkins! Trust me: we have learnt this lesson the hard way. As well as mopping-up spillages and cleaning fingers, remember that all of your plates and cutlery will need to be packed back in your basket again after they’ve been used, so a little extra kitchen towel can go a long way to avoid making a mess of the back of your car.
Blankets: I would recommend going for something practical over something that looks “Instagrammable”. You’ll want something that can fold-up small, ideally something with a tough enough weave to soften the impact of any sharp stones. The sort with a waterproof underside is especially useful for ‘off-season’ picnics.
Hats and sunglasses: At the end of a picnic, nothing beats a well-deserved rest, by taking a lie down in the sun and closing your eyes for a little while and a straw trilby is perfect for shielding your face from the sunlight.
Homemade: The best picnics are the ones for which you have made all the food yourself. Buying picnic food ready-made from the supermarket is not only cheating, but is usually a poor imitation of a true, tasty picnic. You will only get out of your picnic as much as you put in: making your food from scratch will make it so much better.
Simplicity: Picnic food also does not have to be hard, and simple sandwiches and homemade fruit salads are easy to make and delicious to eat. Homemade cake is always welcome, but I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that. We have a few staples that we always make, many recipes curtesy of Delia Smith: pesto rice salad, homemade pasta-salad, tarragon and chive buttery new-potatoes, roasted Mediterranean veg with the spicy sauce. Other delights are more simple: hummus, pitta bread, cucumber and carrot sticks – strawberries and clotted cream (of course). We like to always add one new item to the picnic, and one of my favourites was home baked bread spread thickly with a local honey.
Location, location, location
So, you have the food prepared, now where are you going to picnic?
National Trust: These beautiful properties are high on our list. Safe, beautiful, spacious, you’ll have lots of choice of picnic spots, as well as other useful amenities: shops and cafes if you’ve forgotten anything vital, and (importantly) toilets!
Public parks: These can also be a great choice as well, especially if you are not a National Trust member and you want to picnic on a budget. Just be aware that amenities may be less available, and you’re more likely to find your picnic spot transformed into a football pitch at a moment’s notice. You have been warned!
Wild picnicking: I urge some caution here: don’t trespass on anyone’s land, and make sure you’re unlikely to be trampled by cows: after wind and rain, roaming livestock and angry farmers are the next worst enemies of a good picnic. Note: this is not an imagined scenario – we have friends who have had their picnic up-ended by curious cattle!
The Golden Rule
It goes without saying that a good picnic ends with you taking everything home that you came with. There should be no trace of you left behind except indentations in the grass: no napkins, plastic cutlery, glass bottles, nothing. If this is not something you can manage, don’t picnic: the rest of us will be more thankful to you for it.
A picnic done well completes a day out. For us, they are an alternative to a couple’s meal out: a sort of date-night. But if you are a family, it’s a wonderful way of making new memories. It brings people together in a way that no other meal does, and I think much of this is because everyone mucks-in at a picnic.
A while back – when the UK was celebrating the Jubilee weekend – we were eating ice-creams after a walk around a local park. We saw a group that consisted of several families spanning several generations, all setting up their picnic. There were grandparents, babies, excited children, teenagers and parents, and all were helping to set up: putting out the cutlery, hanging bunting, unpacking the food:it was such a delight seeing such a communal experience that was being enjoyed by so many generations: just think of those wonderful lasting memories. That is the gift of a picnic.