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Life’s A Picnic: Rules For Al Fresco Dining

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A picnic. From the dappled light to a breeze catching the canopy of leaves giving you shade, to gently chinking glasses, can anything conjure up such a wonderful image of summer?

Al fresco hunting feasts were first enjoyed in the Middle Ages but the word picnic is thought to come from the French word pique-nique (piquer, to pick or peck, and nique, meaning thing of little import), first used in the 17th century to describe gourmands who brought their own wine. Afête champêtre, or elegant garden party, also became popular at the French court of Versailles in the 18th century and is truly the ultimate picnic.

When picnicking, food is rarely eaten hot and best eaten either with little effort or even fingers. Here we look at how you conduct yourself at a picnic, what to eat, what to wear and where to do it.

“There are few things so pleasant as a picnic eaten in perfect comfort.” - Novelist W Somerset Maugham

Picnic etiquette to adhere to 

  • - If you are invited to a picnic, mention any food preferences or allergies when you are invited - not once you arrive.
  • - If you are invited to a picnic, check first whether you should bring any contributions - it is poor form to turn up with excess food if the meal has been planned out already. Drinks are always welcome.
  • - Choose a spot with both sun and shade for your guests. Ensure you are at a polite distance from other picnickers.
  • - Remain courteous to other picnicking guests - keep music and voices down, pets on a leash and your children close to the group and well-observed.
  • - Share - and bring enough for everyone to have seconds. As a guest, take one serving, don’t pile your plate high.
  • - If food has been home-made, do make the effort to taste and appreciate it.
  • - Avoid smelly, messy foods. Think, instead, of finger foods.
  • - Don’t take sharp knives with you - cut food up in advance.
  • - Don’t put the dressing on green salads until you arrive.
  • - Avoid cans of fizzy drinks - if a wasp flies in, you will not notice.
  • - Keep your feet away from the food at all costs, and never put your shoes on a rug.

Take your leftovers and rubbish away with you at the end of the day.

What to wear to a picnic 

  • - Make sure your clothes are comfortable and modest.
  • - As a woman, don’t wear high heels or a floaty skirt - think about how to sit on a rug elegantly and with decorum. Long shorts or a long dress will allow you to sit in comfort and style, while flat shoes will not sink into a perfectly manicured lawn.
  • - Bring extra layers in case the weather (inevitably) turns chilly or it rains.
  • - If you can, bring umbrellas and a few sun hats for your guests.

Great picnic food 

  • - Smoked salmon
  • - Cucumber or egg sandwiches
  • - Scotch eggs
  • - Sausage rolls or pork pies
  • - Paté
  • - Quiche
  • - Potato salad and coleslaw
  • - Hummus, other dips and crudités
  • - Chicken drumsticks and other cold meats
  • - A fresh, crusty loaf of bread

 

The best picnic desserts 

  • - Steer clear of chocolate - think of the melt factor
  • - Strawberries and cream
  • - Cake
  • - Flapjacks

Delightful al fresco drinks 

  • - Cloudy or pink lemonade (perhaps homemade?)
  • - Champagne
  • - A jug of Pimm’s fruit cup - add sliced fruit and mint once you have arrived
  • - Squash
  • - Elderflower cordial
  • - Gin and tonic

“One should not make the mistake of thinking that because he or she is ‘roughing it’ for a day, he or she can therefore leave behind his or her ‘manners’.” - 1920s etiquette book Perfect Behaviour, A Guide for Ladies and Gentlemen in All Social Crises, by Donald Ogden Stewart

 

The little extras for a picture-perfect picnic 

  • - A beautiful wicker hamper and a tartan rug.
  • - A Thermos flask of ice cubes.
  • - Wet wipes and hand sanitiser.
  • - Sunscreen and a small first aid kit.
  • - Plenty of water.
  • - Bin bags and kitchen towels to clean up.
  • - Tooth picks.
  • - Cloth napkins and metal cutlery.
  • - Salt, pepper, sugar and vinaigrette - little glass jars are ideal.
  • - China crockery - or a beautifully patterned set of melamine picnicware, preferably with portioned plates to help segregate the food selection.
  • - Finally, cushions and folding chairs and tables will truly elevate your picnic to a fête champêtre.

British places and events where you can picnic 

  • Glyndebourne: It is traditional to picnic in the opera interval.
  • Royal Ascot. Race-goers are allowed to picnic in Car Park 1 and those heading to the Windsor and Heath Enclosures are permitted one bottle of sparkling wine or champagne. 
  • - Cliveden House, for a Wind in the Willows picnic - it is where author Kenneth Graham lived.
  • - Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens, Scotland.
  • - Aberystwyth castle ruins, Wales.
  • - Corfe Castle, Dorset.
  • - The Argory, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.
  • - Woolacome Beach, Devon.
  • - Fountains Abbey, near Ripon, North Yorkshire.
  • - The Botanic Gardens, Glasgow.
  • - The National Trust and National Parks have full breakdowns of places to picnic by region.

Where the picnics are made for you  

If you really don’t have the time to assemble a picnic basket yourself, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and Claridge’s will assemble picnic baskets and hampers for you, as will many venues, such as Glyndebourne.