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When I was a child my family home was next to a railway line. We could stand on the fence at the bottom of the garden and wave at the passing trains. Sometimes, we would try train-spotting, but this would only be an excuse for a picnic. We’d pack a few sandwiches into a paper bag, grab a drink and, with a notebook in hand and set off on an adventure.
For a few minutes, we would eagerly sit by the side of the railway line and note the numbers of the trains that passed. The boredom quickly set in and then it was time for the food. For me it was magical, and I felt like one of Enid Blyton’s famous five, eating sandwiches and drinking ginger beer.
I think this is what gave me a love of picnics. Picnics are one of my favourite things to do because they combine food and the outside. I also have to say my picnic basket is a thing of beauty. With pandemic life still with us, perhaps a picnic is one of the safest ways to enjoy eating out this year? So here, from my many years of experience, is my guide to a fabulous picnic.
Who can picnic?
The great things about picnics are they come in many forms.
You can picnic alone. Not because you are alone, but because you want to take some quality ‘me’ time. Pack-up some food, find a quiet spot to read a book and turn off the phone. Then, you have a blissful couple of hours all to yourself.
You can picnic as a couple. What a perfect and romantic date this could be? The setting sun, the lightly chilled wine and the fairy lights hung in a tree. I hope you get the picture.
You can picnic as a family. In these pandemic days picnics are probably a safe and fun way of having a family gathering. Everyone can be responsible for their food, so reducing the concerns about cross-contamination, while rugs and blankets can be used on the ground to mark group territory.
You can picnic as a child. As I have already mentioned at the start, I would head off with my brother and sister for a picnic without a parent. Generally, we were not far from home. Sometimes those picnics would take place on land at my grandparent’s house. A whole field away from the house to a nine-year-old felt like a real adventure. The key element in these experiences was that we were given our independence. Allowing children a sense of autonomy is a key skill in their development. It is how children learn to manage risk. They learn how to cope with life. For example, what to do if the juice spills all over the picnic blanket. Hopefully, no magic mummy is going to swoop in a sort it out. They have to solve the problem themselves while learning a few valuable lessons as we all do when things go wrong – tighten the lid on the drinks bottle before you leave, or take wipes. However, a magic parent or grandparent, who swoops in, prevents that and a 23-year-old waiting for a magic parent to fix and sort things is not a pretty sight. As a parent or responsible adult, though, it is your job to set the age-appropriate risk. For small children, picnics in the garden with friends might be the first step, while for older children, a nature park might be a mature step. You can go with them or take them there, perhaps to meet your friends, but in a different location within sight or not.
What to bring?
A dedicated picnic basket or carrying bag will make the picnicking process simple. Everything you need apart from food would be in the basket. Now for me, it has to be a wicker basket. That is what makes a picnic, a picnic. Mine was a Christmas present from my other half and it’s perfect for two, it is a Red Hamper Wicker Willow Ramblers Fitted Picnic Basket. It comes with plates, cutlery and wine glasses and there are two straps to hold bottle drinks. The overall basket is quite deep, which means there is plenty of space for packing food, though it is relatively narrow and so I need to choose my storage boxes to fit. It also has a shoulder strap, which frees up hands. It does not have a chiller, so I bought a small separate bag, but for ease and convenience, I try to include things that don’t need to be chilled.
A rug or mat. Next, you need something to sit on. Nothing says traditional picnic than unfurling a beautifully patterned wool rug. We got ours from Bronte by the Moon. We use it both as a throw and picnic blanket, so it has a dual purpose.
Hand wash- good hygiene is appropriate all the time, so make sure you have something to wash hands. We live in post-pandemic days and hand sanitizer has become the norm. While it is convenient, I do wonder at the amount of plastic we are now generating with all these little bottles? A bar of soap and a bottle of water will work just as well and produce far less plastic waste.
What to eat?
I try to keep picnic food simple, quick and healthy. Sugar snap peas and smoked mackerel pate are a great combination. While baby tomatoes, chunks of mozzarella and chorizo can be eaten with fingers. My partner is a celiac, so I keep clear of bread type products, even the gluten-free ones. Robust salads made with tomatoes and cucumber as a base are very filling and travel well. Here are two quick recipes I have used this summer. I quite like batch assembling these and keeping a couple of portions in the fridge for another day. It just saves time and I can serve the salad with another accompaniment – blue cheese, salmon, tuna, nuts, usually whatever is in the fridge or store cupboard. I quite like being creative!
Tomato Salad with Sardines
4 large ripe tomatoes chopped
1 cucumber chopped
1 red onion finely sliced
4tbsp good quality olive oil
Tin ( or freshly cooked) sardines
salt and pepper to taste
Take all the ingredients and mix together except the sardines. Oh I just have a lovely thought, if it was possible to get hold of fresh sardines and cook them on a barbecue. Then this outdoor picnic would be sent to another level of gloriousness. However, the tinned sardines I used worked fine.
Here is my version of Tabouli – A gluten free version!
A bunch of spring onions finely chopped
400g tin of green lentils
4 ripe tomatoes chopped
A handful of fresh mint and parsley finely chopped
4 tbsp of quality olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper to taste
I mix all the ingredients and place them in the fridge for a couple of hours. I love this quick tasty salad. It can be made in large quantities, then stored in the fridge for a couple of days. I’ve also swapped green lentils for whole grain rice as another alternative gluten free alternative.
For drinks, I’ll make up a ginger beer from fizzy water and ginger cordial. Putting it in a thermos flask keeps it cool. If we are not driving to our picnic site, then wine makes it special.
To barbecue or not to barbecue, that is the question.
Cooking food outdoors is really fun and always tastes better in my opinion. However, after prolonged periods of very hot dry weather, barbecues become a fire risk. Therefore, I do not recommend the use of disposable barbecues. As an alternative, we have invested in a COBB barbecue. It has a stable, anti-slip base which remains cool to the touch, so it won’t singe grass or wood. The barbecue coals are contained in a secure fire basket and the whole cooking plate is covered by a lid. This is our first summer cooking with a COBB and we’re loving it.
I do hope you enjoy your summer of eating alfresco, but then why only in summer? A couple of warm blankets and a cosy outdoor fire, would make picnicking possible later in the season? Maybe a story for an Autumn day. Why not keep update and follow this blog?
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