With restrictions easing up and the weather on our side, outdoor socialising is set to soar. If you’re not sure what to pack for an al fresco feast with friends, Sophie Morris has it covered
Max Halley’s High Tea picnic (c) Louise Hagger
Hands up if you have had a nice sit-down on a bench with a cup of coffee this week. For several months, this simple activity has been contrary to Covid regulations. Why? Because the acts of parking your bottom on a piece of public property and supping hot liquid add up, we were told, to a picnic. Heaven forfend anyone who attempted this with a friend in tow. But for now - and not a moment too soon - that era is over. And with a staycationing summer ahead, we have a few seasons of picnicking pleasure to look forward to. Let’s do it right.
I like to think my first postlockdown picnic last summer would meet with the approval of Max Halley, maestro of this eating genre. There was a rug. There was real cutlery. Someone had packed proper glasses. One friend served the sort of sandwiches you queue for at an Italian deli, layered with slices of chicken breast, tomatoes and avocado, with lots of mayo and a good crack of black pepper. Another had mixed Negronis for our Rule-of-Six gathering and poured them icecold out of a Thermos (more on this later). My contribution was sausage rolls, home-made with a rough puff pastry, my butcher’s best sausages, and a pot of Colman’s for dipping.
But strictly speaking, Halley, the author of Max’s Picnic Book (Hardie Grant, £16.99) along with his chef friend Ben Benton, isn’t in favour of archetypal British picnic items, the sorts of foods we expect to emerge from a wicker basket such as scotch eggs, fizzy pop, the aforementioned sausage rolls and - Halley’s personal nadir of picnic abominations - “allegedly innovative approaches to hummus”.
Halley is unreservedly pro-picnic, having written a book on it, but thinks we’ve lost our way somehow. This isn’t about snobbishness. Hand him a bag of crisps and a boiled egg and you’ll have a happy camper. His bugbear is that we’ve forgotten the true joy of eating real food with other people, possibly while sitting on a damp patch of grass, although a picnic doesn’t have to take place outdoors.
“It is my genuine belief that one of the secrets to a happy life is remembering simple pleasures,” he says. “A picnic is one of these, not a reason to buy a crappy packet sandwich from Tesco.” (Halley also has big ideas on sandwiches, as he owns a cult sandwich shop in London and made them the subject of his first book.)
“The problem with the poor old picnic is that we all imagine it as Mary Berry’s birthday party, and something needs to be done about that,” he continues, wandering through Wiltshire during our phone call. “Doing things properly doesn’t mean putting them in a wicker basket. It means making them as pleasurable as possible, whether it’s lunch on a train or in the back of your mum’s car in a motorway service station. These are all opportunities for deliciousness and we let so many of them slide by. Even Krug tastes crap in a plastic cup.”
The picnic is as much of a sacred cow in this country as Mary Berry herself. We even have a “National Picnic Week” in June, dreamt up a decade ago by some marketing folk who presumably want us to eat more salty snacks and processed meats. Do we need any encouragement to picnic? How did they even choose the dates? It offers advice such as “choosing a location that’s right for you” and “checking the car is full of petrol”.
Halley’s approach is, you’ll be relieved to hear, more creative. The book announces itself with the words: “This is not a cookbook. This is a book about picnics.”
What follows is a riff on returning the picnic to its rightful, venerated position, recognising its special place in our lives whether we’re opening crisps and cans of Coke, gnawing at hotdogs and slurping Guinness tops, or popping champagne and nibbling cakes on pretty plates.
Halley has created 16 conceptual picnics, each with settings and menus, a few recipes here and there, along with dream celebrity picnickers.
Far from dismissing Mary Berry, he teams her up with American journalist Hunter S Thompson. The pair reject Hundred Acre Wood for a picnic that starts in the pub and finishes on a park bench, taking in pickled eggs, scampi fries, whisky and all-day breakfast quiche en route. “Mary is a formidable woman,” says Halley. “I doubt very much she’d be intimidated by Hunter S Thompson.”
” The chef Julia Child hosts a picnic for Michelle Obama - in Michelle’s abundant White House garden - with guests Catherine the Great, Dolly Parton and Madame Clicquot of the champagne house. Child serves tortellini in brodo - meatfilled pasta in broth - straight from a Thermos flask. Halley points out that you can do this in a few minutes any weekday morning, by deploying a packet of ready-made pasta and a tin of beef consommé. But Child does it properly, finishing the dish off with a grating of nutmeg and Parmesan.
Halley is a great cheerleader for the Thermos, calling it “an overlooked piece of engineering”. He suggests using one to pack yourself a picnic of leftover curry, for example. His book is full of other hacks. There’s a list of glovebox essentials so you always have a road-trip picnic kit bag at the ready, including Tabasco, sachets of salt and Duralex glasses. There are ideas for making a traditional picnic that bit better, such as a fly swat, some way of playing music, proper crockery and a bin bag. He loves a supermarket rotisserie chicken because it’s such a versatile picnic ingredient, and doesn’t feel fully dressed without his Victorinox penknife.
Before we’re again permitted to dine inside with friends, the al fresco picnic is our chance to commune with others over the second-hottest topic (after Covid-19) of the past year: lunch. As an event, the picnic has always meant a gathering to which guests bring along a variety of food and drink, usually to share.
In the UK, the activity boomed in popularity almost 100 years ago, in the 1930s, as we felt our way out of the global depression, unaware what lay ahead. We were becoming more playful and inventive with the way we ate. Though not everyone had access to cafés or restaurants, the picnic was an expression of our greater understanding of leisure time, and how to spend it. For this reason, picnics went hand in hand with weekend drives, and in 1936, cookery writer Mrs C F Leyel published Picnics for Motorists to great acclaim. I am sure Halley would approve of its 60 menus, which include chicken pie, cold grouse and caramel soufflé, even if her hearty endorsement of hampers makes him gag.
How should we carry our picnics around? He says a simple tote bag is the answer, and that all “doing things properly” really means is making them as pleasurable as possible.
“Great picnicking is like any successful meal,” Halley writes, “no matter how simple it might seem. It is about picking things that get along. Whenever you have something fatty, something acidic is always an excellent bedfellow. That’s why lemon juice squeezed on bread and butter is so good; why sherry and jamón ibérico like each other so much; and why fried chicken and hot sauce are the bestest of friends.”
” So go forth, enjoy your picnics, be they coffees on benches or roast dinners atop white tablecloths. If you don’t have a chance to pick up Max’s Picnic Bookfirst, hopefully the memory of months of incarceration will be encouragement enough.It’s like any other successful meal, no matter how simple it might seem