I have loved picnics since I was a child. Living in the city--escaping the heat and dusty streets--we would pack a basket of pimento cheese sandwiches and drive out into the "country" where the air smelled damp and green. There were few cars and fewer houses where we'd park along a grassy knoll and, following a cow path, traipse across a field to a cool stream where we'd spread a blanket beneath the sentry arms of an ancient oak. In later years, married to a partner who shared my enthusiasm for picnics, the places would change, the food become more sophisticated. We'd travel greater distances, shun the cities and head for the open countryside in England, the south of France, Germany and Austria--searching always for the perfect picnic spot. Even today, when our travels require a stop for lunch, the well-worn picnic basket finds its place among our luggage and we plot our course with a pleasant portable outdoor repast in mind.
Although the earliest references to picnicking come from German and Swedish writings, it was the English who raised the art of picnicking to a fashionable social entertainment. Several years ago, while touring the English countryside, we stayed at Chewton Glenn, a resort just Southwest of London. Our request for a "packed lunch" for a day trip produced two baskets of portable viands so heavy that it took both of us to carry each basket from the car. When we had spread the provided starched linen cloth on the grassy bank of a river near a stately 19th century English country house, we unloaded the baskets to find smoked salmon and cold roast chicken deftly arranged on fine bone china plates. There were pates and chutneys and assorted cheeses, a salad of mixed greens, little pots of chocolate mousse alongside a bottle of Chardonnay and one of sparkling water. To complete the repast, a silver thermos of rich dark coffee stood upright beside a nest of cups.
Such elegance in food and presentation, although appreciated to the fullest by bon vivants like us, is more panache than picnic. Although simplicity and portability are two of the most important concepts of picnicking, the weather sets the stage for a picnic. Some will say that you can have a picnic indoors. Not so, in our book. Our definition calls for an excursion or an outing in which the participants carry food with them and share a meal in the open air. Yes, alfresco! Otherwise, it is an aborted picnic--one that could only be carried out in the stale confines of an indoor shelter. Note that our definition does not specify the brightness of the weather. We have picnicked in a cold mist hovering over the ancient ruins of a Scottish castle on Loch Ness. But, if I could choose the weather, I'd ask the gods for a day in October, one of those dependably warm fair days of fall when the sky is bluer, the colors in the landscape more vibrant, and the insects have settled down for a long winters nap.Those are the days Nature intended for picnickers.
Simplicity and portability? Yes, we keep it simple--quickly assembled, and just as quickly disassembled--no cumbersome grills to be heated up and cooled down. Any concocting has gone on the evening before, or early in the day, whether in your own home or that of your hotel. Preferably, everything is designed to be eaten with the fingers, or no more than a fork. The container for carrying the food may be a simple wide deep market basket, or as elaborate as the suitcase style with strapped in plates and utensils that our English ancestors promote as essential picnic gear. In perfect weather, there is no need for an ice chest if we carry foods that will not spoil easily, and those that are best eaten at ambient temperatures. On our travels abroad, we found that an insulated bag with a shoulder strap and insulated sacks for wine and water, collapse easily and can be carried in our suitcases. A colorful cloth, a corkscrew and salt and pepper shakers complete the gear. Enjoy!