Now that we are approaching spring and concomitant clement weather it is time to think about eating al fresco and spend a day in the sun with family and friends. I have searched high and low for the origin of this peculiar word on the internet and no one can agree on how it made its way into our language. The first usage of the word is traced to the 1692 edition of Tony Willis, Origines de la Langue Française, which mentions pique-nique as being of recent origin; it marks the first appearance of the word in print. The term was used to describe a group of people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. For long a picnic retained the connotation of a meal to which everyone contributed something. Whether picnic is actually based on the verb piquer which means ‘pick’ or ‘peck’ with the rhyming nique meaning thing is rather doubtful. According to food historians picnics evolved from the elaborate traditions of outdoor feasts enjoyed by the powerful and the wealthy. Medieval hunting feasts, Renaissance-era country banquets, and Victorian garden parties seemed to have laid the foundation for today’s humble picnic.
Gaston de Foiz, in his seminal work entitled Le Livre de chasse (1387), gives a detailed description of such an event in France. Foods consumed might have been cooked hams, baked meats, a selection of cheese and fruits, jam preserves, cakes and so on. During the Victorian era it entered into the literature as Eliot, Trollope, Austen & Dickens introduced this newly minted social event into their fiction. Painters have also been drawn to the al fresco outings such as Manet, Monet and then filmmakers: my own personal picnic moment is the one with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant sharing a chicken drumstick with the Monaco principality in the background. I’m certain you know the film.
Nowadays picnics mean several outdoor activities: barbecues, pool parties, camping, beach parties etc…but nothing beats a leisurely eaten lunch by a river or a brook, or at the seaside, with a basket filled with cold snacks. Why bother to grill stuff when a picnic is meant to be a hassle free day for all present!
My secret of a successful picnic is keeping it as simple as possible, with some careful planning the day before. Don’t be too ambitious and it’s also wise to pick a good spot. I remember a disastrous picnic in Australia where we sat near an anthill, and recently another one in County Mayo which ended up in our car as the local midges were too fierce for us to sit in the open.
My idea of a picnic is a basket filled with goodies, a couple of nice bottles of sparkling wine, a huge blanket on which the whole family can lie on, an umbrella and the birds and the bees, no cooking, no fuss, no radio or laptop in sight, just us and mother nature.
Roast chicken. I don’t know why but it seems that in every picnic basket I’ve come across there’s a roast chicken inside. Cold chicken on a hot summer day is delicious and easy to prepare: obtain a free range bird, salt it, pepper it, sprinkle it with olive oil and bung it into a pre-heated oven for one hour and let it cool. It’s a good idea to cut it into a few pieces so you don’t have use a sharp knife when drinking in the sun. Make sure you bring a plastic bag to collect every bit of detritus before you leave your chosen spot.
Picnic food to me means a plate of charcuterie, crusty bread, a small selection of my favorite cheeses, a simple salad, a couple of pastries and a few bottled or jarred condiments such as mustard, relishes, oil & vinegar. Another item I like is boiled eggs, fun to decorticate leisurely, add a tiny pinch of rock salt and consume. Boiled eggs have a long history in France, and to this day, if you go into any bar, you’ll spot on the counter a dish filled with boiled eggs sitting idly by a salt shaker. But I digress. There are among us vegetarians and they’re unlikely to be seen munching on drumsticks so this is a neat recipe for a smoked Tofu salad using a variety of pulses, all of which can be purchased in cans or at a good deli bar.
For 4 to 6 persons you’ll need the following items: 2 x 250 gram packets of smoked tofu, 100 gram of cooked green lentils, 100 gram of cooked black beans, 100 gram of cooked garbanzo or chick peas, 2 small red onions, a large handful of baby spinach leaves, a tbsp of dijon mustard, a dash of balsamic vinegar, half a glass of walnut oil (or olive oil if you’re allergic) salt & pepper to taste.
Mince the onions finely and throw in to a mixing bowl, add the well drained lentils, garbanzo & black beans, cube the smoked tofu and add to the mix with the baby spinach leaves. In a small bowl add the mustard, salt & pepper, then whisk in the vinegar then the oil slowly, until binded, then add to the salad, toss it well and store into an airtight container.
It is a good idea to trot out an uncle or an aunt who don’t drink alcohol so you can indulge a few glasses without having to embrace a tree on the way back. I occasionally make a bracing Sangria if we’re going up country, easily made the day before, and this is the recipe:
For say a couple of liters purchase 2 bottles of dry red wine, a glass of Cointeau, a glass of brandy, a glass of vodka (told ya this is a stiffy!) 2 oranges, 2 lemons, 2 bananas, 2 apples, 2 firm pears, 1 pineapple (optional), 200 gram of brown sugar, and a packet of sangria spices which can be bought at good delis and specialty shops.
First wash all the fruits well, scrubbing the rinds of the oranges and lemons, then cut into bite size and put into a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar, the spices and mix well. Then add the wine and the brandy, Cointreau (or Grand Marnier) and vodka. Let it macerate overnight in the refrigerator, then transfer it into a suitable container, making sure that it stays tight during the road trip.