In the United States and perhaps elsewhere, most picnics are simply enjoyable outdoor meals and social occasions, where thoroughly normal groups of people decide to have a fun time and eat and drink some well-prepared goodies out of doors. In the United Kingdom, things are rather more complicated. By tradition, British picnics are of three sorts: the romantic, the grand and the disastrous.
The romantic picnic encapsulates simplicity in beautiful surroundings with a wonderful view, a stream, a wood or flower-filled meadow. The tradition started a couple of hundred years ago, when people began to see nature and the countryside as picturesque rather than dangerous. The food, drink and company are all planned to add to the picnickers’ awareness of nature and its beauties and seem particularly associated with happy and impressionable youth. Such a picnic involves little display or showing off, and not even a great deal of organisation. Sandwiches, fruit and some chilled wine or lemonade would be enough to make the right company happy in this setting — if it can be found. Somehow, this is the sort of picnic people dream of, but don’t very often end up having.
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Over the top
The grand picnic is often and sometimes deservedly mocked. At its worst, it is based on the assumption that conspicuous expenditure will win the envy and admiration of spectators and guests. Victorian writers such as Anthony Trollope describe picnics with attendant servants, Champagne and dancing. Nowadays, grand English social occasions such as horse racing’s Royal Ascot, rowing’s Henley, opera’s Glyndebourne and the end-of-term speech days of the most expensive private schools all provide opportunities for showing off. Too much expensive food and drink such as lobsters, oysters and the very best Burgundy and Bordeaux, overdone table decorations, gilt wood chairs, striped awnings and tents, and even uniformed staff to wait on the picnickers are all to be seen. The hosts are often reduced to a state of nervous anxiety by the knowledge that highly competitive picnics are taking place all around them, and so only the richest, most confident and best prepared can expect to win.
When all goes wrong
The disastrous picnic is generally a product of nature winning the war with man. Although it can start out as one of the previous types, is somehow felt to be very traditional in itself. A romantic picnic in a field can be quickly spoilt by a herd of inquisitive farm animals, or worse, a loose bull. The British climate is far from reliable and can ruin the best-laid plans. Insects such as bees, wasps and biting flies can rout a group of potential picnickers. Rain, gusting wind, cold and driven sand at the seaside are some of the other hazards that British picnickers may have to face. In addition, picnics taken by a river provide the opportunity for at least one guest to fall in, and for others to feel duty-bound to follow as rescuers.
Then there’s the grand combination
When the grand merge, as they sometimes do for some reason with the disastrous, the situation is regarded as particularly amusing by spectators. Not only bad weather but the influence of gravity on expensively prepared cold collations can cause havoc. One of the smartest horse racing meetings in England takes place annually at Goodwood in West Sussex towards the end of July. Most people, of course, just come to enjoy themselves, but every year some overdo it. The most elaborate picnics are held on a steep slope and each year at least one of these is bowled downhill, with elegantly clad members of the (presumed) aristocracy in hot pursuit. Shellfish, the finest vintages of the best wine, cold beef and salmon, along with the occasional windblown table, glass, cutlery and awnings, have all been known to end up crushed against a boundary fence at the bottom of the hill. It is not, of course, considered polite to laugh too openly.
Since International Picnic Day is on June 18, this seems the right moment to celebrate with a delicious cold dessert. The recipe that follows is taken from our book “For the Love of an Orchard,” and would enhance any picnic. Pretty enough to pass for grand, delicious enough to increase a sense of romance and consoling enough to mitigate a disaster, it is based on a dessert dish that a visiting French friend prepared for Chris and his family a few years ago. Alice Soubranne, who is an excellent cook, was kind enough to give us this family recipe.
- Sweet pastry (use pâte sucré or a half-pound block of good-quality chilled supermarket pastry)
- 3 to 4 apples, peeled, cored and sliced, approximately 2 cups
- 4 to 5 tablespoons caster or superfine sugar
- 6 egg yolks
- 20 U.S. fluid ounces tub of crème fraîche
- 2 ounces butter
- Blind bake the pastry in a buttered 10-inch tart pan or flan case with removable base at 350 F. The shell should be firm and dry but not browned or biscuit-like.
- Arrange the sliced apples prettily in concentric circles and again bake at 350 F until softened but holding their shape (say, 10 minutes).
- In a big bowl, beat the egg yolks with enough sugar to make the mixture neither too sweet nor solid. Then fold in the gently melted butter and crème fraîche and pour this custard mixture over the apples in the baking case.
- Turn the heat up to 375 F and cook the tart for about 30 minutes so it is, in Alice’s words, “goldy and has a tan,” but does not burn. It must not even turn dark brown or the custard will curdle at the edges, making a break line where it meets the pastry.
- Eat cold, served with crème fraîche or cream. Other fruits can in principle be used for this tart, including plums and probably cherries, but the right liquid content and height in relation to the finished custard is important.
Presentation is important, with evenly cut apple rings and golden custard. Good apples for this recipe should have a slightly spicy taste with good acid, and hold their texture when cooked in the custard. Norfolk Pippin, Ashmead’s Kernel and most Russets are really good. Of the generally available supermarket apples Braeburn is reliable and tastes good, holding enough texture. Bramleys are too tart.
Main photo: Picnickers gather at St. James Park in London. Credit: iStock