Picnic food

For mother’s picnics were planned on a tribal scale, with huge preparations beforehand… There were sliced cucumbers and pots of paste, radishes, pepper and salt, cakes and buns and macaroons, soup-plates of bread and butter, jam, treacle, jugs of milk, and several fresh-made jellies.
(Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie)

I do love a picnic. Whilst the vagaries of the English weather can make picnics a hit and miss affair, I still enjoy them.  

It’s partly the food: picnic food has to be easily transported and is usually hand-held; as a result there is a lot of bread and pastry encasing delicious fillings, which pleases my inner carbohydrate monster.

Picnics are also great because they’re associated with holidays: even if the weather is awful, you’re not at work or school and that’s got to be something.

And, adding a literary angle, I would definitely concur with Enid Blyton’s George who, in Five go off in a caravan (published 1946) says, ‘I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors.’

In Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, which was also the subject of my last post, picnics make an appearance. Recalling the days when his three older half-sisters started courting, Lee describes how the male suitors rapidly became a part of the family, adding to the already impressive numbers: ‘instead of eight in the kitchen there were now a round dozen‘.

On Sundays and Bank Holidays the lovers spent the whole day with the family. If it was raining it would be a nightmare with all twelve people squeezed inside the house, but fine days were a completely different matter. Lee remembers one particularly ‘sweltering August Sunday‘ when Mother suggested that ‘it would be nice to go out. We would walk a short mile to a nice green spot and boil a kettle under the trees‘. As Lee notes, ‘It sounded simple enough but we knew better.’ And so the ‘tribal scale‘ picnic described above is prepared.

Slad Valley – the picnic would probably have taken place in similar surroundings.

Once the picnic is ready, Mother organises its transportation to the picnic spot: ‘So we set off at last like a frieze of Greeks bearing gifts to some woodland god‘. The picnic itself is not exactly a culinary triumph: ‘the milk turned sour, the butter fried on the bread, cake crumbs got stuck to the cucumber, wasps siezed the treacle, the kettle wouldn’t boil, and we ended by drinking the jellies‘. Whilst Lee and his brothers ‘would eat anything, anywhere‘ the male suitors are more picky: sitting ‘on their spread silk-handkerchiefs‘ they ‘gazed at the meal in horror‘ and decline to eat. But as the observant Lee notes, whilst they might not ‘care much for open-air picnics‘, it is not really the food that is the issue. Instead they were ‘wishing to be away with their girls, away in some field or gully, where summer and love would be food enough‘.

Well, I’m not entirely convinced that summer, let alone love, can in any way serve as a substitute for food. And I’m sure I would have enjoyed Mrs Lee’s picnic. Having never made macaroons before, I chose them for this post. These are not the delicate French macarons which come in a rainbow of colours with an array of fillings and have become a popular patisserie item in recent years, but the decidedly English version made with desiccated coconut. There’s something delightfully retro about them – and I think they would go down a treat at any English picnic.

Ingredients (makes 8-10)
2 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
100g caster sugar
30g ground almonds
pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
250g desiccated coconut
75g dark chocolate

Preheat the oven to 170C / 150C fan / Gas mark 3 and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
Beat the egg whites until they are just frothy. Add the cream of tartar and carry on beating until soft peaks form. Keep beating whilst adding the sugar one spoonful at a time until the peaks are shiny and hold their shape: you can test this by holding the bowl over your head (all being well the bowl contents will not land on it!). Finally fold in the almonds, salt, vanilla essence and coconut.
Take a tablespoonful of mixture, form into a dome shape and place on the baking sheet. Repeat until you have used up all the mixture.
Bake for about 20 minutes until the domes are just beginning to turn golden.
Leave to cool. Melt the dark chocolate in a small bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and drizzle over the cold macaroons. Leave to set before eating.

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