The simple pleasures of dining alfresco are a well-worn topic at this time of year: it is hardly news that food tastes better in the open air, even if it is more likely to be our appreciation, rather than our perception of flavour, that is enhanced by the novel surroundings of a cliff top, a sailing dinghy or even a park bench.
Indeed, although the rustic romance of un déjeuner sur l’herbe has inspired writers and painters for centuries, the picturesque results tend to be heavily seasoned with artistic licence. No wasps hang around the fruit basket in Manet’s painting and nary a seagull dive-bombs the bread and cheese as Virginia Woolf’s fractious family finally make their voyage to the lighthouse.
If the Famous Five’s tinned sardines ever leaked fishy oil all over the rug, I don’t remember it, while Renoir’s boating party seem bizarrely untroubled by the distinct possibility that the small dog on the table will upset their wine glasses.
These are fantasies of alfresco life, but in truth Mother Nature is a cruel mistress who doesn’t give a fig for your carefully laid plans or meticulously sliced cucumber sandwiches – which is why it pays to come prepared for all eventualities. Here’s a guide to dealing with a few of the challenges likely to crop up as soon as the words “it’s a lovely day!” leave your mouth.
Surprise! I’m vegan
These days, most special diets are easy to cater for with a little notice – but when someone texts on the day to inform you they have gone plant-based, or gluten-free, it can be tempting to reply telling them to bring their own bloody lunch. Before you do, count to 10 and channel Yotam Ottolenghi: a Middle Eastern feast will keep everyone happy. Big bowls of hummus or baba ganoush, paired with a salad of roasted or barbecued veg and some falafel or vegetable fritters are sure to go down a treat with omnivores, too – add pitta or other flatbreads to bulk it out, then finish with fruit and meringues or damp, sticky polenta cake. Most of these are gluten free and can easily be made vegan too. Failing that, almost all supermarkets carry a wide range of free-from products – and everyone likes crisps, right?
Who invited them?
Even the most committed animal lover might be hard-pressed to welcome our flying friends to the feast – but if you are eating outside, a certain insect presence is inevitable; to be fair to them, it’s where they live. The best way of deterring wasps and bees is thought to be to trap the first inquisitive scout before it returns to the nest weighed down with ketchup and alerts 250 of its nearest and dearest to the free buffet going on in your back garden. Avoid setting up camp close to ponds or the standing water beloved of mozzies and midges; instead, embrace the fresh air of a breezy hilltop – most flying insects hate both wind and smoke, which is a great excuse for a barbecue or a campfire.
The crunch of sand between the teeth may seem as inevitable a part of eating on the beach as a stiff wind and a Mr Whippy for pudding, but there are ways to reduce your silica consumption. Go for food such as wraps, filled baguettes and oranges that can be eaten straight from their wrappers (see below for eco-friendly options) with minimal contact with the gritty environment. Make sure you rinse your hands, preferably with fresh water, before you even think of unpacking anything, although even a bucket of sea water is better than nothing.
Obviously, sun is welcome whether you are planning a barbie in the back garden or a celebratory drink at the top of a mountain, but it can be problematic keeping food fresh in the heat. A good rule of thumb is to choose dishes from warmer climes: cured salami and ham are more robust than poached salmon or coronation chicken, just as parmesan, manchego or feta will do better than cheddar or stilton in sunshine. (That said, if you are eating at home, or can keep them flat in transit, bries, camemberts and their ilk come into their own after a few hours outside the fridge.) Crunchy carrots and radishes and Mediterranean veg are preferable to leafy greens, and vinaigrettes tend to hold up better than mayonnaise in high temperatures. If you are making sandwiches ahead of time, consider replacing the butter with avocado mashed with lemon juice, or a soft cheese.
This is more likely to be a problem in the UK than sun, sadly – but all is not lost if the forecast begins to look grim; one of the best picnics I have ever eaten was consumed in the very damp shadow of a dry-stone wall on Scafell Pike in December. As on a beach, choose foods that can be eaten straight from the wrappers, and avoid soft bread or delicate pastry: you’d be surprised how water-repellent a pork pie or scotch egg is compared with your average loaf of sliced white. If you are taking advantage of a brief break in the clouds to picnic, pack a waterproof layer to protect the rug, and your bottoms, from soggy grass. If the forecast looks similarly grim for a long-planned barbecue and you cannot fit the grill under cover, or prop a well-weighted umbrella over it, then go for dishes such as jerk chicken or ribs, which can be cooked in advance and then finished off either on a grill or a hot pan, depending on how the sky is looking, or choose recipes that work in the oven as well as on the barbecue.
If you are planning to eat a few hundred yards from your own kitchen, I probably do not need to tell you that a tray will come in handy. For picnics at distant beauty spots and barbecues on the beach, however, it pays to consider the very unromantic question of logistics. Some foods travel better than others; exquisite Parisian pastries will not look quite so pretty once they have been carted up a hill, but a sturdy British pie with a hot water crust could probably be kicked up there without much damage. Hard cheeses, cooked meats, boiled eggs and crunchy pickles are all good choices, as are soft things such as hummus or potato salad, which won’t mind being shaken about a bit. If you must take ripe tomatoes or stone fruits, then wrap them in newspaper as carefully as fine china, and put them in storage boxes. Cold drinks can be happily decanted into Thermos flasks full of ice.
One of the chief pleasures of picnics in particular is their simplicity: unless physical necessity demands it, this is not the time for tables and chairs. Much lovelier to lounge about on the grass, sand or a sun-warmed rock and feel at one with nature as you shovel Pringles into your gob. In reality, all of those surfaces can be prickly, damp or downright spiky – so if you can manage to lug along a stout, preferably waterproof rug as well as the food, all the better (a sheet of plastic, or a few large Ikea bags, underneath an ordinary rug, does the job just as well). If you are planning to sit for a while, you might also like to suggest each guest brings a cushion as head support for an eminently sensible postprandial nap, and consider bringing a parasol as a sunshade: though a hat apiece is considerably easier to carry. Proper cloth napkins not only give a picnic an air of sophistication but are much more useful than paper ones, which tend to disintegrate at the mere sight of mayonnaise – and, of course, they are endlessly reusable, as well as handy for wrapping any crockery, glasses, boiled eggs and so on.
As above, if you are eating away from home, keep it simple. Go for finger food – crudités and dips, burgers, hot dogs or samosas – and all you need are napkins to wipe your hands afterwards, although a bottle opener is sure to come in useful at most British picnics, as will some beakers. (Unless you want to be lugging those around yourself, ask everyone to bring their own – it will save on the washing up too.) If you are planning to barbecue away from home, invest in a small portable grill rather than wasteful disposable ones: some models are hardly more expensive, and you will be able to enjoy them for many summers to come. Barbecues will never be the most eco-friendly option of course, but you can also help by fuelling them with sustainable British lumpwood charcoal.
Naturally, this should be kept to a minimum – principally for environmental reasons, although aesthetically there is little to spoil the simple elegance of a picnic like outrageous amounts of plastic wrap strewn across the rug. This should not be a problem if you are making the food yourself: there are plenty of good eco-friendly options out there, from sandwich wraps to Indian tiffin boxes, which are not only reusable, but far easier on the eye than tin foil, and a lot better at their job as well. Unless you are feeding the 5,000, you may prefer to decant condiments and seasonings into small jars (I collect tiny jam jars from hotel breakfasts for the purpose), though always leave dressing salads and sandwiches until the last minute, if possible, to minimise the risk of things going soggy and slimy in transit.
In theory, without all that rubbish to deal with, this should be relatively painless: box up any leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch, then sluice out dirty containers with water if it is available and going spare, and roughly dry with the aforementioned napkins before packing away. It’s always a good idea to take a couple of bags for any disposable packaging and recycling you do manage to accumulate, and if you are likely to be somewhere without water, a few damp flannels in a waterproof washbag will be invaluable for cleaning hands and faces before you release any trapped wasps, shake out the rug and head home, smug in the knowledge you have done your patriotic duty by the great British summer.
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