WHAT IS IT?
When I was a child, I always thought other people’s picnics, like other people’s teas, tasted better. It didn’t matter whether it was a ham sandwich slathered in mustard, a more sophisticated slice of raised veal and ham or pork pie or a cold sausage with a plumb-line of cold fat. There was nothing quite like a soggy, white-breaded tomato sandwich eaten in a west of Ireland gale ripping through spiky grassed dunes and followed by railway cake wrapped in greaseproof, bars of Cadbury’s Golden Crisp and, for my father, a nip of Jameson’s from his hipflask with a ginger-nut to assuage the post Atlantic breaker chill, for us children, just the ginger-nut, warming spice with crunch.
Why is it that everything tastes different in the great outdoors?
Different and somehow more exotic.
A cup of tea from a flask, crab mayonnaise in tupperware, a crisp, wheaty slice of Cheddar and potato pie still warm from its foil parcel, a tepid tortilla just set with the best eggs and seams of onion and potato; rillettes spread onto baguettes under flowering cherry trees in the Luberon in May; strawberries dunked into a pot of cream, both warmed by the sun.
Like nomads we are happy to assemble the perfect picnic and carry it in a wicker hamper by train, car, on foot, for miles, or simply out into the garden where we can loll on an old tartan car rug and spread our spread upon it. Parks and fields, riverbanks and lakes, beaches, mountains, lay-bys, cars, buses, trains, planes, the portable extravaganza we call a picnic has a curiously ebullient spirit of its own and infuses us with a wild enthusiasm and a sense of adventure.
The book I’m planning to write is full of that spirit. An outdoor companion to Smart Tart, it will be the same size and feel and feature once more the work of Vogue photographer Robert Fairer and the wonderful illustrations of John Broadley. Small enough to tuck into a hamper, beautiful enough to fill a Christmas stocking, Perfect Picnic will combine essays on essential ingredients (tomatoes, sausages, smoked salmon, strawberries, potted and pastried food) with stories of how eating outdoors has developed despite our cool, cloudy climate. There will be at least 50 recipes, from the best home made sausage rolls to Provencale tomato tarts, from an elegant egg sandwich to the king of sticky, molasses ribs for the barbecue, from how to transport and finish assembling the picnic at your destination, to deluxe and delightful crab salad and vitello tonnato for a special occasion like the opera.
Pledge to join me for a London picnic, or sign up for a master-class or go for the big one – immortality! - a pie, pud, pâté or pudding cake named after you or a friend.
You Need A Tomato
The tin was one of those old custard coloured metal ones with an apple green lid and a rusty handle. We were sent out from Old Head Hotel every day whatever the weather, with a packed lunch which never varied. We would have been shocked if it had. Inside the precisely folded greaseproof envelopes in the tin were packets of sandwiches, barmbrack -a dry, black, squashed fly of a cake which turned to crumb as you broke it- pale fruit: apples, bananas, oranges that had ended up soft by the time it reached the end of the line in Mayo and little bottles of Britvic orange juice for us children.
Beef from last night’s dinner, cut as finely as rosy pink cloth, lamb with too much congealed, set white fat, proper old-fashioned ham cut from its salty bone, chicken, which always felt dry and slightly choking on the throat with pieces of butter that stuck with it to the bread. Tomato.
What is it about the tomato sandwich eaten in a sullen gale on the beach where the wind has whipped the sand into a gritty frenzy? Or the rain is falling blearily, mistily on you from far out at sea, dousing the picnic with the wet flame of damp that you determine to ignore. Determined that there is blue sky ahead and that the sun, cached behind gunmetal cloud is going to peep through, you sit, damp-bottomed on the black rocks, defying the day to drown you out and send you packing. You are on a picnic for heaven’s sake, the weather can do what it likes and so can you.
What is it about the wetness without and the wetness within, reflected in those slices of tomato which have had all morning to leak their juices acidly, seedily into the waiting bread until the two have become a great soft pillow of soggy comfort. Think of the Greek, Italian, Mallorcan, Catalan summer staple of ‘Pa amb tomaquet’, country bread into which steep –seep- crushed ripe tomatoes, garlic, sea salt, green olive oil: proper sun-fleshed tomatoes, the whole point being to pinken and soften the bread. A sea away from their pale cousin, hot-housed in a non-Mediterranean sun, their tough-skinned personality loved because we have grown up with it, know it of old, and which even the worst and most old-school English of cooks insist on scalding, skinning and depriving of their central core.
In those far-off childhood picnic days before olive oil had been invented, and it came colourless, in miniatures, to help earache, from the chemist, tomato salad hadn’t been invented either. Vinaigrette?
These people are helping to fund Perfect Picnic.