June is the start of it. That endless blue sky, long-light, lazy-lunch feel that carries us through the summer and the holidays and puts us in mind of al fresco picnics, garden lunches, rugs and showers and easy food where the temperature of the food is less important and critical than the temperature outside. That peculiarly British thing of braving the breeze and the cloud on the horizon and taking food outside no matter what.
We can always run indoors if the weather dictates, we can play hit-and-run with it, almost tempt it to rain; but, while there is a patch of blue as big as a sailor’s trousers, while the sun shines down, however briefly, we can pack the picnic basket or carry the tray outside and become transported into a different way of cooking and eating.
If it tips down just as you have lit the barbecue, the same food will taste almost as good and conjure up almost the same flavour, as it would had it been seared or cremated on the coals, if you introduce it to the oven, the Aga or the grill instead.
Time, trouble, fuss never seem so great at this time of year as they do when you invite people to lunch or dinner in the winter and feel duty-bound to lay fires, lay tables, lavish several courses upon your friends and family.
With a picnic, I always think that one piece de resistance makes it a party, be it a fabulous fresh crab tart or some home made Scotch eggs, – racing eggs if you use quail’s eggs as my cousin Deborah does when she packs a picnic for the races. Or a home made pasty wrapped tightly like a mummy in foil so that it still has the memory of warmth about it when you get to the beach.
I am not ashamed to offer the simplest of sandwiches as long as the ingredients are peerless. Home cooked ham cut in slabs with ribbons of proper fat and a slick of English mustard, and, if you are a fanatic, like me, home made bread or red onion and Parmesan rolls to press the flesh between. As long as the food is transportable, it doesn’t matter how simple it is.
If you’re bothering to make a tart, forget the pudding, just take a heap of summer strawberries; ‘gariguettes’ the tiny, sweet-flavoured French ones are my personal best, hulled, halved, strewn with a little Cassis and sugar to bring out their scent and thrown into a bowl to transport with a goodly tub of clotted cream to plop on top. If you are feeling flasher, a rich chocolate cake with raspberries thrown into the mix is a showstopper at a school picnic, for tea or at any lunch party, with some crème fraiche to sharpen up the dark, gooey, chocolaty depths.
Come to think of it, any picnic that is going to outstay its purpose and drift on seamlessly into tea-time, particularly when you become hungry all over again after a dip in the Atlantic breakers or a long walk, would not be a proper picnic without a proper home made cake.
Light meats, other than the obvious barbecued chicken and sausages, are what we feel like most at this time of year. If you are taking the barbie with you, you can carry the marinading chicken covered in the bowl and simply get the coals or the driftwood going when you get there. I use a charred, ancient grill in Ireland where I de-camp for August, so it doesn’t matter what happens to it, and we can carry it onto the beach. Once the flames have died to lethally-glowing embers, on goes the chicken or little skewers of spicy turkey kofta. Free range turkey mince is readily available at this time of year and all you need is a little dipping sauce of yoghurt and tahini and a salad you can dress from a jam jar at your destination. Not forgetting the sausages. No child or dog or grown-up, for that matter, will call a picnic a picnic without them.
Some foods speak to us of our childhood picnics and need no embellishment or excuses. The sausage is not the only one, the hard-boiled egg is another, though to my mind, softer than hard is the most desirable, so that when you shell it, it still runs a little with yolk. And best served dipped into some home made herby mayonnaise, which was never in the picnic basket when we were children, but it does dress an egg up delectably.
Memories of watery tomato salads from the oh so un-Mediterranean pallid tomatoes that used to travel from Dublin to Mayo in a haze of cotton-wooliness, and of the dry railway cake that Old Head Hotel used to pack in waxed greaseproof in those old-fashioned tin picnic boxes, now seem rather alluring. We have all become so ingredients spoiled and eclectic in our tastes that we never need encounter their like any more. Once the French mustard and olive oil, salt and pepper, not forgetting a pinch of sugar had been sprinkled onto the wan, pale tomatoes by our parents’ Parisian friend Anne Marie who stayed in the same hotel, they became to us children, rather glamorous and special, something we never would have been given at home. But that is the point of a picnic, and other people’s picnics are always better than our own.