A Tale of Two Picnics

The view from Snowdon
The view from Snowdon

A picnic is ‘an occasion when a packed meal is eaten in an outside setting’ according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The British enthusiasm for picnics is truly the triumph of hope over experience, be it parked up in a lay-by, surrounded by wind breaks on a stony beach, or on rare occasions, lying in long grass contemplating the Magritte clouds passing by overhead in a pool of blue sky.

But whereas the British may have wholeheartedly adopted the idea of meals outside, it is the French who invented the word ‘pique-nique’ in the 18th century to describe a meal where everyone brought their share. They also invented the word hamper from ‘hanaper’, an old medieval word for a basket to carry wine glasses.

 In our minds, there are two sorts of picnics, the event picnic where you’re invited to a ‘gathering’ (sporting or otherwise), and everybody has to contribute something. Hampers can be carried along with wine coolers, elbows find a space to prop in the hummocky grass, kids and dogs mill around excitedly, and a creaky elderly one demands a chair in the shade. Or there is the informal kind where you pack up your bag for the day and go off on a journey, only stopping for lunch when you find a convivial location. Eating outdoors is one of life’s simple pleasures and should be enjoyed as such.

 The Event Picnic – Judi

‘Mother’s picnics were planned on a tribal scale, with huge preparations beforehand. There were sliced cucumbers and pots of paste, radishes, pepper and salt, cakes and buns and macaroons, soup plates of bread and butter, jam, treacle, jugs of milk and several fresh-made jellies.’  – Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee

Family Picnics

I am the proud matriarch of a tribe. Four children, with their four partners and currently four grandchildren and three dogs make thirteen, before even expanding to include partners’ siblings and of course, their families and other animals. The list could go on and on. These tribal meetings are structured after a fashion. A coordinator self-appoints, mainly because they want to pick the location; a WhatsApp group is set up; dishes are offered and accepted. It’s wise to get your offer in early or you’ll be relegated to the ‘rice or potato salad’. We all watch the weather forecasts like hawks, lifts are arranged and directions given.

If I’m the main coordinator, my choice of ambience would be on a grassy slope, which would incorporate a water feature – preferably a brook, and trees. The food would be of the non-sloppy kind – no coronation chicken or things in mayonnaise.  I often make a poached or baked salmon/seabass from FishforThought as it is the easiest thing to cook for large parties, and even the children love salmon.  It can be transported easily if laid on thick card, cut to size and covered in foil. Then double wrap the fish in foil and carry it in the bottom of a cool bag.

Salmon in Waiting
Cold Baked Salmon

I use Delia Smith’s slow cooking method and her cooking times for all sizes of fish. For a 2 lb (900 g) 1½ hours; for 3 lb (1.3 kg) 2 hours; for 5 lb (2.25 kg) 3 hours. 250°F (130°C).

1.8kg Wild Salmon – will feed 6 hungry people *
50g butter – plus extra to butter foil
2 large spring onions, peeled and sliced only up to the pale green stalk
3 Bay leaves
Bunch of Dill, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
* As I write it is better not to buy farmed salmon in the UK as our fisheries are experiencing an outbreak of sea lice.

To Decorate

I  cucumber  – the thinnest you can find, sliced paper thin.
2 lemons cut into quarters

Method

Preheat the oven to 250°F (130°C)

Dry the fish with kitchen towel, inside and out. Leave on the head and tail for presentation. Place the fish in the centre of a large double sheet of foil, generously buttered. Butter the inside of the cavity of the fish and then season with freshly ground salt and pepper.

Place the onion slices, bay leaves and dill into the cavity. Smear the rest of the butter on top of the fish from tail to head. Now wrap the foil over the salmon to make a loose but tightly sealed parcel. Then place the foil parcel on a large baking sheet, diagonally so that it fits in the oven. If it is a bit long bend the tail end upwards and then bake in the centre of the oven for 2½ hours.

After the 2½ hours, remove the salmon from the oven and allow it to cool completely. (It’s best not to open the foil.) The tail should drop but you can persuade it gently down by spreading a folded towel on it.

When cold the skin should come off easily if you make a horizontal slit all along the middle of the salmon and then just ease the skin away either side. Wrap it back in the foil and put in the fridge (diagonally) until chilled.

I would suggest decorating the day of the picnic. Slice the cucumbers into paper thin slices. You can use a mandolin or a food processor – but I choose to do it by hand. A skill gained from making cucumber sandwiches to please my grandmother. Quite frankly I still prefer doing it this way.

 Use the cucumber slices to make ‘scales’, beginning at the tail end and working upwards. Lay them in an alternating, overlapping pattern, just like fish scales.

Serve the fish surrounded by quarters of lemons and with a tub of green mayonnaise made by mixing a jar of full fat Hellman’s with a handful or two of greens –- chopped spinach, watercress, tarragon, parsley and chives etc. Use as much as you like and then season to taste. If you make this the day before and chill it overnight in the fridge, the flavours will have time to blend.

Picnics on the Move – Fiona

My kind of picnics have to be rucksack proof so I’m afraid no hampers, and definitely no wine glasses. Twenty years of living in Wales and walking the mountains and hills with Slater (my late husband) meant that I got the art of making rucksack picnics finely honed. They were much closer to what the French call a ‘casse-croute’, a word I only discovered when I came to live here in France in 2005, which translates as ‘breaking a crust’.

For me, the whole point of a rucksack picnic was not the actual picnic, but getting somewhere high up in the hills or mountains where we could sit and look down at a tapestry of rolling bracken-covered hills and craggy cliffs while we munched whatever mobile sustenance we’d packed in our rucksacks.

That meant sandwiches, plain and simple. Good bread, cut thick for him and thin for me, with lots of butter for him and not so much for me, and filled with whatever we could find in the fridge –  usually ham or cheddar cheese, accompanied with either mustard or Branston Pickle. If there was space in the rucksack we preferred to put them in a plastic box – nothing worse than squashed sandwiches – but if it was a winter walk and the rucksacks were filled with cagoules, hats, gloves, gaiters etc. then the sandwiches had to take their chance wrapped in several layers of foil. We’d put in a couple of apples to follow, and last, but most important, the legendary Kendal Mint Cake.

It was Slater who introduced me to mint cake when we first went hill-walking in the Lake District in 1980 soon after we’d met, and from then on, no expedition picnic was complete without a pack in one or other of our rucksacks. It’s perfect in that it doesn’t melt (unlike chocolate) nor end up in crumbs (unlike cake and biscuits), and when you’re tired, cold, and still have many miles to go, it’s a real energy and morale booster.

For those who’ve never come across it, Kendal Mint Cake is a thick sugary minty slab which has been made in the Lake District since 1869. It became world famous in 1953 when Sir Edmund Hillary and Sirdar Tenzing, from the British Mount Everest Expedition, succeeded in reaching the summit of the mountain for the first time. To help them get there, the expedition team had ordered 38 pounds of Kendal Mint Cake, and they wrote afterwards: “It was easily the most popular item in our high altitude ration packs – our only criticism is that we did not have enough of it.” In fact, Hillary and Tenzing actually ate some of it right on top of Everest, and Tenzing apparently left a piece behind ‘for the gods’.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I’ve ever made it, but apparently you can, and the recipe is quite simple. Right now, however, the temperatures here in France are in the 30s and the last thing I’m going to do is stand over a pan of bubbling sugar in this heat. I have made peppermint creams however, so using a bit of sweet-making knowledge, I thought it would be worth posting a recipe for those who can’t track the shop-bought versions down.

Kendal Mint Cake

150 ml water
25 ml glucose Syrup – most UK supermarkets sell this version
1 tsp peppermint oil
500g granulated white Sugar

Butter or oil a small rectangular tin.

Method

Make sure you use a good, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Put the water, syrup, and sugar into the pan and stir whilst you bring the syrup mixture to the boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat slightly to keep it at a steady slow boil, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon for about 15-20 minutes. The mixture will thicken up but, to test if it’s ready, you need to have a bowl of cold water standing by.

Drop a small amount of the syrup into the water, and if it forms a small ball that you can roll between your fingers, then it’s ready.

Once it’s ready, remove from the heat, add the peppermint oil and beat the mixture thoroughly to make sure the oil is properly mixed in. Pour the mixture into the tin and leave in a cool place to set.

Once set, slice the ‘cake’ into small bars, individually wrap in greaseproof paper, and store in a tin – ready for those mountain walks.

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