Divine Picnics

Champagne and Food - Roger Kirby

I was in the loft the other day rooting around, as you do, getting side-tracked from the mission at hand, as you do, looking for the picnic hamper. After a few trips down memory lane, I finally located it wedged in a corner looking inviting - and full of last year’s debris.

Or was it from the year before? This recent spate of sunshine has rejuvenated my cautious faith in British summertime weather and picnics are on the menu once more.

I once went through a phase of open-air concert going, which I embraced with vigour. A group of us would gather together for a laid-back and happy al fresco dining time in the green and pleasant surrounds of England’s finest historic homes. Petworth Park was a particular favourite. Not so laid-back for me, though; it was more of a military operation as I was the organiser.

I would make lists ahead of the event, which would make me feel secure and prepared. There’d be a list of the people invited and a list for the food, and I’d allocate a course to each couple (and I was very considerate and matched a course to culinary abilities). Then I’d make another list of picnicking equipment needed, another one for timings, and finally a list to remind me I had lists to check running up to the event.

Parking at Petworth is ample - lots of fields to abandon the car in. But have you ever tried locating your car in a sea of cars in the dark? No lighting. No flashlight. I must have done three laps around West Sussex before I located my car. I eventually I had the sense to use the unlocking and locking device on my car key so the flash of headlights would act as a beacon bringing me in. I almost wept with relief at finding my car again and escaping being mugged. (It was worth it for Van Morrison, though.)

Finding the right picnic spot is crucial at these crowded events, so it’s best to send a spotter in early. Trust me, people get territorial, so don’t be shy about nailing your spot. When fellow picnickers arrive (mobile phones come into their own at these occasions), it’s all lovely. One time, the vicar and his wife came along. (I was going through my 'meaning of life' phase, plus, the vicar’s wife was a fantastic cook. She had the reputation of being able to conjure up a sumptuous meal for thousands in her miniscule kitchen and spare bedroom, probably on a budget of sixpence. Maybe it’s a biblical thing.) She and the Vic rocked up with a groaning wheelbarrow full of kit. I kid you not. Quite sensible, really, as everything we needed was transported in one trip - deck chairs, blankets, a collapsible table or two - just like the ones in the church centre, throws, cushions, lantern, hamper, ice box, chill cabinet, fine china, candlesticks (suspiciously like the church altar ones) wine (ahem), a dressed salmon, five loaves (told you), nibbles, wellies, brolly, more food and more wine, a torch, corkscrew, and black bin liners. It was all quite divine and I was humbled. I made a mental note there and then to invite them forever and rip up my lists.

The thing is, we Brits love to picnic. It’s our bloodline, just like our Antipodean brethren love to BBQ. We’ve been at for centuries come rain or shine. It’s usually better to do it when the mercury passes the midway spot and the barometer arrow swings right, but we’re equally as happy in the car sheltering from the elements on Beachy Head cliffs munching on a soft bap, with a flask of stewed tea. We have some great places in the UK to set up camp: Goodwood, Glyndebourne, Somerset House, Royal Ascot, in a park, in a field, on a boat (try eating salad on a RIB at 35 knots? A challenge, I’ll tell you), or simply in the back garden.

Outdoor eating is great fun and very liberating, but do remember to think outside the basket when you’re off to dine al fresco. Come to think of it, that rusty old wheelbarrow in the garage might not be such a bad idea after all.