‘The Rat brought the boat alongside the bank, tied it up, helped awkward Mole safely ashore, and swung out the picnic basket. The Mole begged to be allowed to unpack it all by himself. He took out all the mysterious packets one by one and arranged their contents, gasping ‘Oh my! Oh my!’ at each fresh surprise’
Spring has sprung, and everything’s gone a bit Wind in the Willows. ‘Messing about in boats’ on riverbanks, dusting off the convertible and drinking wine outdoors are becoming increasingly appealing activities. Foraging in a blackberry bush or meandering along a coastline are ventures that posses a quaint allure when viewed from the urban skyscraper window of our computer-based existences. It is in spring that we emerge from our artificial, central-heated cocoons and realize, once again and as the Oxford band Stornoway reiterate: ‘we were born to be free range (free range wohohohoh)’. Clearly Ratty and Mole aren’t the only creatures that revel in the delights and possibilities of the Great Outdoors. Us humans do too. We also love to eat. Time to put down the soggy eaten-at-desk sandwich and pack up the picnic basket. Mother Nature says so, and let’s face it; everything is a lot more fun when conducted outside.
Human instinct seems to coerce us towards the Tupperware and portable furniture, as the picnic has been a staple culinary activity since the establishment of official, al fresco Medieval hunting feasts in the Fourteenth century. Renaissance gatherings and Victorian garden parties have additionally contributed to the modern-day-popularity of the picnic, however some may be cheered to know that the original French term ‘pique-nique’ in fact referred to the bringing of alcoholic beverages to public restaurants and eateries. Essentially, a more genteel, sophisticated synonym for BYOB.
However, whilst picnics of old involved the precise choreography of tables, thrones, silver cutlery and servants, the 21st century picnic serves as a welcome break from the stuffy confines of the dining room. There is an inherent sense of childlike irresponsibility in casting down your picnic blanket and laying out an assortment of scrumptious snacks to pick at all afternoon long. Yet the picnic isn’t just for teddy bears; add a dash of Pimms or a beer from the cool box and the entire experience is suddenly more mature. It is even possible to feign elegance whilst picnicking; perched delicately on a pashmina sipping Sauvignon Blanc and pretending that one is Jane Austen.
Nevertheless, in reality the British picnic is a much more spontaneous, down to earth affair, due mainly to the unpredictable nature of our weather conditions and the ready availability of picnic fayre in the fridge of your local petrol station. The United Kingdom can be credited for the invention of many portable picnic staples, namely the Scotch egg, the Cornish pasty and the pork pie. Add sandwiches, chicken drumsticks and ginger beer and you’re good to go.
But go where exactly? The RAC have recognized the poor quality and fundamental non-existence of designated roadside picnic areas in the UK, and consequently launched a petition in 2010 aimed at rivalling British picnic stops with those on the continent. Anyone who has ever stopped for a pretzel on a German Autobahn will see where they are coming from. The UK, having fully absorbed picnic culture both in practice and within the canon of our national literature, needs to step up to the plate and reinstate the picnic to it’s state of former glory.
The RAC is not the only enterprise championing the picnic revival, however, as high-end high street culinary establishments such as Carluccio’s and Villandry have perceived a gap in the food market, and thus have created ready-made picnic hampers to sell at summer sports events such as the Henley Regatta, Lord’s Cricket and Wimbledon. Retailing at around £45 each, these picnic boxes do not exactly come cheap, however the extensive goodies contained within, as well as the obligatory wine and fresh spring water that accompany each hamper, transform the picnic experience into a memorable, no fuss gourmet experience that promises to sustain you for the rest of the day. The hampers are also available from branches themselves, and celebrity chefs such as Theo Randall are popularizing the picnic hamper amongst the wealthy London demographic.
Yet for a truly decadent picnic experience you’ll have to head for the Lake District, and more specifically Storrs Hall, where a picnic for two will set you back a mere £1,566.60. To contextualize, that’s over half of your current student maintenance loan for the year if you hail from the UK. Gulp. If you find yourself tempted by the prospect of Beluga caviar, British rare white beef and exotic fruit trifle with real gold shavings, all washed down with a bottle or two of Cristal champagne on the shores of Lake Windermere, start saving now. It’s probably best to stop eating from hereon until late August and further your ambitions to become a dot-com millionaire. But that would of course scupper your efforts to break free from the office and embrace the joys of spring. Forget the bespoke picnic experience, instead call some friends, grab a rug and a guitar and organise a potluck picnic. You’ll end up with the most bizarre array of foods that you have ever been presented with in one sitting, and no one will actually be able to play the guitar. It will probably rain. That’s what gazebos were made for. Just enjoy it whilst it lasts, which is all season and definitely all afternoon.