The great British picnic
PUBLISHED: 09:28 26 June 2017
Lynne Mortimer looks at the history and changing nature of the picnic over the last 50 years... with special reference to meat paste and prosecco
A picnic, once a simple joy for simple folk, has evolved into a top platform for would-be social climbers. Not that this makes it a bad thing but when it takes you longer to organise a picnic than a dinner party, you know things are on the skew-whiff. It’s so different to how it was 50 years ago...
A typical 1967 picnic:
• shiny bridge rolls from the local bakery, buttered with Anchor, spread with Shippams meat or fish paste OR buttered white rolls with ham and mustard
• a bottle of ready-made-up orange squash
• a flask of tea or coffee, milk already added
• a box of Dairy Lea cheese segments
• hard-boiled eggs
• tomatoes with special super-ejecting pips, guaranteed to go down the front of one’s summer dress/shirt
• the salt cellar from home with a piece of matchstick down its nozzle to prevent unlucky spillage
• a wet flannel to wipe sticky hands
• a packet of pink wafer biscuits
• a home-made jam sponge
• bananas and/or apples
• a blanket to sit on
• plastic cups and real cutlery
• all the above packed into two shopping bags.
A typical 2017 picnic:
• bottle of prosecco in an ice jacket with plastic champagne flutes... be careful, the cheaper ones have detachable bases which can fall off during drinking.
• plastic-backed picnic blankets, fold-up chairs in carriers, small fold-up picnic table
• table cloth
• pot of mixed olives, dips, packet of tortilla chips
• sliced artisan loaf
• salad of green leaves, baby plum tomatoes and avocado
• two varieties of quiche/cooked chicken drumsticks
• smoked salmon with lemon wedges
• large piece of brie or whole camembert
• bottles of water
• home-made date and walnut slices
• citrus-fragranced handwipes
• salad dressing, sea-salt grinder
• all the above (except furniture) packed into two cool boxes and a hamper fully kitted out with cutlery and matching plastic plates and bowls
The first use of the word picnic (albeit not in English) dates to a 1692 book on French etymology which mentions that “pique-nique” is a recent addition to the language and was used to describe a group of people who brought their own wine to a restaurant... there is no reference to the word “corkage” in respect of this.
For a long time the idea of a picnic retained the concept of a meal to which everyone contributed something. In English, the first reference is in a letter of 1748 which associates the word with card-playing, drinking and conversation. A century later the Oxford English Dictionary defined it as: “A pleasure party including an excursion to some spot in the country where all partake of a repast out of doors”.
In Jane Austen’s Emma, Mr Knightley comments that a picnic - where everything will be “as simple and natural as possible” - will more likely be a “table spread in the dining room”. The romantic novel has a picnic on Box Hill where guests each bring a contribution to the outdoor feast.
It became a popular literary device. Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows opens with the excited squeals of “Oh my!” from Mole as he unpacks each new delight the picnic hamper prepared by Rat.
In 1932 a piece of music called Teddy Bear’s picnic, had words added although when my younger sister was a toddler she translated: “See them, catch them unawares” into “See them catch their underwear.”
Irrespective of etymology, however, alfresco meals existed long before the onset of word. Those medieval and hunting parties always included refreshments.
Famously, annual charabanc company outings for employees would include a picnic. Big fetes would often have a tea tent where you could buy a picnic lunch in a greaseproof bag. The contents would get a bit jumbled but I always found a cheese sandwich with cake crumbs edible.
Outdoor theatre productions actively encourage picnickers to arrive before the show. And the seaside is a perfect picnic location... if you’re not averse to a bit of sand in your sandwich.
But I have noticed an element of one-upmanship creeping into picnic culture. One family will produce a wicker hamper and another will produce a bigger one bearing the legend Fortnum & Mason. Not that I am averse to a bit of competition. On a now-famous outing to Pleasurewood Hills theme park c.1989 my friend Jane supplied a table cloth and a candelabra to adorn the picnic table. Such was the success of this venture that the people travelling on the little train that circled the site gave us a spontaneous round of applause.
Picnic tell you a lot about people. You can even tell a person’s age by their pronunciation of “picnic”. Anyone who says: “Pick-a-nick” was brought up with the Yogi Bear cartoons.
Location is all for a picnic. Strictly speaking, if you eat it indoors it is more of a packed lunch. Also, a picnic is not usually a solo occasion, requiring the participation of two or more people to qualify, although exceptions can be made if the lone picnicker offers to share his or her bounty.
The best thing, however, is that East Anglia offers thousands of great picnic locations. Places where children can run around, places to play rounders or French cricket. There are public and country parks, the grounds of stately homes (I am reminded of a foggy Easter picnic at Ickworth when we could barely to pass the salt – still loved it though), castle sites, lake sides, river banks, forests and all the glorious beaches - including Brancaster beach which was this week proclaimed East Anglia runner-up in National Picnic Week’s best picnic spots. What’s more June is the perfect month for picnics featuring, as it does, few wasps.
I’m packing the candelabra now.