The writer Somerset Maugham once famously remarked: ‘there are few things so pleasant as a picnic lunch’. It’s hard to disagree with the sentiment but settling on a hard-and-fast definition of this quintessential summer pastime is a trickier business: ask four dozen people to describe the formula for the perfect picnic and you’ll get (at least) 48 different answers.
The few common elements – outdoor location* + refreshments + informal seating arrangement – are far outweighed by the many variations on style and content, ranging from a scotch egg and a can of coke on a park bench at one end of the spectrum, to an extravagant banquet on a manicured lawn, complete with Persian rugs and parasols, at the other.
People have been picnicking for centuries – most especially in France, where the phrase likely originates, a combination of piquer (to peck or pick) and nique (a small quantity). It crossed the Channel in the late 1700s along with aristocratic families fleeing the French Revolution and quickly became a British tradition. It was perhaps most elegantly and memorably depicted by Jane Austen when her characters attend the ultimate (if socially awkward) posh picnic on Box Hill in Emma.
Fast forward a hundred years or so and the outdoor picnic – complete with Wind-in-the-Willows wicker hamper – became firmly established as an enjoyable mass-market activity. Mainly because the invention of the motor car/ bus meant that you could enjoy a day out in the countryside without commandeering a horse-drawn carriage and half-a-dozen Sherpas to carry your crystal wine glasses and canteen of cutlery.
Today’s picnickers are also more likely to favour stuffed focaccia and hummus than cold tongue sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs (thanks heavens) with the emphasis firmly on enjoying maximum fun with minimum fuss. Here are our tips for alfresco perfection:
Simple is best
If you’re picnicking in the garden, you can cheerfully go for the full Hollywood production – gazebo, tablecloth, twinkly lights and gourmet spread. But if you’re heading for a location further afield (we favour the banks of the Stour at National Trust property Flatford in the heart of Constable country), you’ll want to carry as little as possible – perhaps no more than a cool bag and a blanket.
Keep it contained
The easiest approach – both for drama-free lunching and clearing up after – is to package food and drink in separate containers. Good, old-fashioned, reusable Tupperware is the best option and keeps salads, dips and wraps self-contained. Water plus a variety of soft drinks – like these organic juices from Suffolk producer James White – together with a summery selection of pre-chilled Edmunds cocktails (we recommend our fruity Acai Berry Bramble and fragrant cucumber-infused Elderflower Collins) – means everyone can have just the right amount of exactly what they want to drink.
Share the fun
Picnics are best when they’re shared with friends and family. Not only will the fun factor be multiplied, but there’ll be lots of different dishes to try and enough people to make up a casual cricket or rounders team. Friends, food, fun and games in the fresh air on a sunny summer’s day – now, isn’t that something to look forward to?
*Don’t @ us with your indoor so-called ‘carpet picnics’. Eighteenth-century French aristos may well have held their pique-niques in lavish assembly rooms but in 2022 with all the advantages of waterproof-backed rugs, cool bags, and a spacious car boot, if you’re not planning on venturing outside, it’s a big nope from us.