View Full Version : Picnics Past

27th Jul 2006, 21:39
In true British tradition, it would always take our family ages to find the perfect picnic spot. We'd search for what seemed like hours in White Webb's or in Hilly Fields, at Trent Park or on the beach at Broadstairs, the dry grass grazing our bare legs, the sun beating down on our lemonade. Everyone would get a bit cross. Finally, there it was. Our Xanadu. A horse chestnut for shade. A view of the lake. Space for the Swingball. A well-judged proximity to the nearest loo and distance from the next picnic along. And then the great unpacking would begin. From a distance, you might have thought we were moving in for the summer.

It's odd now to remember quite how basic our tastes and options were in those days. There were no tubs of three-bean Tuscan salad in the shops. No salsas. No fresh-pesto pasta in its own pot with a plastic fork tucked into the lid in a triumphant marriage of design and function. There was no such thing as a poppy seed bagel or foccacia sprigged with rosemary and a crusting of sea salt. No such thing, even, as a ready-made sandwich.

In those days, you did it yourself. No one ventured far without a packet of home-made sandwiches. To the cinema, to the park - there was always a mobile meal of some sort housed in your mother's handbag, wrapped in tinfoil and leaking savoury smells all over her chequebook. My childhood days, like yours, were simple days, summed up in an egg. In the early Seventies, the hard-boiled egg was the king of travel food, bettered only by the banana for ease of conveyance. We Brits don't go in for hard-boiling eggs as frequently as we once did; we simply don't need the convenience they offer, since we get it elsewhere - from a plastic tray of Dairylea Lunchables, perhaps, or a packet of Cheestrings.

But, in my knapsack of childhood memories, there's always a hard-boiled egg. With luck, you'd release yours whole and eerily white from its shell. I can remember that first bite into the unknown, the gamble on whether you would hit yolk or stay in the disappointing realm of solid white. You'd need a pinch of salt (not Maldon; this memory is pre-Maldon; our salt, in those straightforward plain old days, was table salt, dispensed from an orange plastic container and escorted to the picnic in a twist of silver foil). Back then, when the Bay City Rollers were hot and I wore a tartan scarf to prove it, our salad was called lettuce, not leaves. Olive oil was something you bought from Boots to loosen ear wax; you certainly didn't put it on your lunch. It would be years, too, before balsamic would infiltrate our plates and drown out less complex tastes. And who ate mayonnaise back then? Like everyone else, we had salad cream.

We had not yet encountered, as far as I can recall, freshly ground pepper. Pepper, on a picnic or anywhere else, wasn't coarse or in any way black; it had the look, texture and taste of the dust from a Hoover bag. As my mother now recalls, 'Twiglets were considered very avant-garde'. Branston pickle was as jiggy as it got, bringing a little exoticism to a plain cheese sandwich.

Since the freezer box was even more avant-garde than the Twiglet, everything eaten outdoors was served in the mid-temperature range. We did, however, boast a brown PVC wheelie trolley which, as a child, I believed existed for the sole purpose of giving forth an abundant and fascinating supply of picnic food. I well remember being just tall enough to peer over its edge into the glory hole of unknown delights below, my chin resting on the black plastic trim, by now warmed in the sun. Incredible things would soon emerge. A whole apple pie, its shortcrust lid dusted with granulated sugar. Chicken drumsticks in a jumbled pile. Countless parcels of potential, all cunningly disguised in tinfoil; innumerable receptacles containing fat radishes, ellipses of cucumber, whole tomatoes to hold in the hand and eat like an apple (cherry tomatoes having not yet been invented).

If the grandparents were in attendance, there might be a tart with a scarlet puddle of strawberry jam at its centre and a lattice-work of twisted pastry spindles for decoration. Then flapjacks, Garibaldi biscuits, Wagon Wheels, a pot of home-made raspberry jam topped with a bees'-wax disc, a fistful of plums or a punnet of strawbs. A Penguin biscuit (the towering treat of the Seventies). Or perhaps an Orange Club.

As an adult, these bars and biscuits disappear from the menu. They leave with your teenage crushes and blushes, to be replaced with more up-market fare - ethical cherry chocolate, Belgian truffles, 70 per cent cocoa solids flavoured with chilli, cardamom or geranium - or obscured by the rampant dominance of the KitKat, the chocolate bar equivalent of the grey squirrel.

But, in the days before chilli chocolate, the brown PVC trolley was the magic porridge pot, Mary Poppins' carpet bag, a repository of unfathomable delights. Someone always said, 'Did you pack the Colman's?', and an exultant mother would pull a small pot from somewhere - pocket? cleavage? - into which she had decanted a scrape of mustard. Your dad's day was complete. The idea that one can venture into the great British open, out there on the grass, on an itchy rug, and still enjoy the civilised coupling of sausage and English mustard ... well, in 1975, that was bliss.

There were other flavours, other tastes since steamrollered by adulthood and fashion. Scotch eggs. Pork pies. Proper ham, cut off the bone, with its dry grain that is so difficult to source today. There were plastic plates, or course, in a swirling design of beige and orange and brown (the entire world was orangey brown in the mid-Seventies). Then plastic knives and forks with broken tines, plus one sharp knife tipped with a cork for safety. We never took a corkscrew, since no one we knew would dream of drinking wine during the day.

We had, sometimes, ginger cake, in a fat, sticky slab. Once, I remember, we took butterfly cakes which didn't survive the journey. After all, it was a rough ride back there in the boot of the Triumph Dolomite, where the trolley jostled for position with bat and ball, rug and brolly. Squashing was part of the process on these outings, despite the fact that our picnics ought to have been bombproof. Housed in Tupperware, crammed into plastic bags, or in bags within bags, clipped shut with a knot of a green plastic twist, the food was all battened down, anchored, as immovable as your grandmother's hair at a wedding reception. My mother still has a habit of wrapping anything that doesn't move in clingfilm, as if trying to capture it for posterity. And yet, our picnics would habitually emerge distorted, compressed, which - by some weird alchemy - made everything doubly tasty.

If in those hazed days - in the summer of '76, in the Silver Jubilee year when we had trestle tables on the street and bunting on the telegraph poles - if, then, it was all happenstance and haphazard, it was so much the better for it. Open air, even now, adds much to food, not least the spice of adventure, the thought that anything might happen. A seagull might pick you out for target practice. A bee might dive-bomb your Ribena. You'll inevitably drop your lolly in your lap. Discomfort was always part of the deal. There was always the prospect of a bottom damp from the grass, of midge bites and nettle stings. Sand in your ham bap. That first fat plunk of rain on the gingham cloth. A picnic is emblematic enough of the English condition; that we're always prepared to be disappointed.

Beyond the food and the family, the Dolomite also had to cope with a pair of ancient fold-out canvas chairs with dodgy joints and rusty legs. These chairs, retrieved from the garage for their annual moment in the sun to save the grandparents from the prospect of sitting on a rug from which they would never regain the vertical, always seemed acutely dangerous to me. Look at them in the wrong way and they would collapse in a heap, taking the top of your finger with them.

My grandfather, from his foldaway chair, would pour out plastic cups of his favourite R Whites Cream Soda, a drink so sweet that it would attract wasps to your lips after you'd taken a swig. For him, it was nectar of the gods. He was called Poppa by us youngsters, a name I always associated with the joyous pop as another bottle of cream soda went into circulation. Otherwise, we had orange squash to drink, diluted and returned to its bottle; this was, remember, a time before bottled water, cranberry juice or posh cordials. Instead, we had a tartan Thermos flask containing almost-warm tea or instant coffee, prepared to suit a generic taste (masses of milk, one sugar), and poured into the white plastic cup which moonlighted as the Thermos lid. I can still feel the keen edge of that plastic cup on my lip, still smell the synthetic comfort of the drink, and recall the camaraderie of shared vessels, sip taken and passed on to the next picnicker along, because there were never quite enough cups.

That's what picnics have always been about, and will always be. Shared experience, shared morsels, shared treats. A bag of ready-salted (there were no Roquefort-and-Rioja-flavoured Kettle Chips in my childhood) handed round until small fingers wriggled about in the base of the empty bag, desperately probing for more. One of my most gleeful memories is a full complement of Hula Hoops, one on each digit like a golden crown; I saw my four-year-old daughter coronate each of her little fingers with Hula Hoops the other day, and loved that not so very much has changed in 30 summers.

Now I'm making picnics for my own kids and I'm putting a cork on the tip of the sharp knife. But something key seems to have been lost. We have bresaola and tzatziki. Olives. Hummus with celery sticks and carrot batons. I had a Carluccio's picnic the other day, delivered in a jazzy box and containing untold delights - pannacotta with raspberry coulis, blanched spears of asparagus with a lemon mayonnaise, brochettes of chicken and grilled vegetables, a confit of sticky aubergines. It was blinding. But part of me missed those hard-boiled eggs, the dusty white pepper in a plastic pot, the Penguin biscuits sweltering in the sun. I missed it all in the same way as, sometimes, I miss the taste of Spangles and how it feels to have interesting scabs on your knees.

Even now, though, a chicken drumstick eaten outdoors with a sparkle of salt is the very essence of summer pleasure. Today - decades on from those golden days - a picnic remains one of the few meals still revered in our culture. Rushed as we are to eat breakfast on the go, to do lunch in three minutes flat, to get dinner out of the microwave and on to the table in the time it takes for the ads to run between one half of a soap opera and the next, much as we have pushed food to the outer extremes of our lives, the picnic still demands reverie. Relaxation. It's a time to linger over food, to graze and come back for more - a final cold sausage, perhaps and a plastic cup of warm cream soda which makes you think, fondly, of Poppa.

Mimi Spencer - The Observer

27th Jul 2006, 21:43
That's a nice bit of writing.

27th Jul 2006, 21:50
I enjoy a good picnic, fresh made salads, salmon, cold beef and horseradish, bubbly, china, wicker basket, by the river. Spending the afternoon in the arms of your love to share him with the red ants nest, that we always find, or the only hornets nest (substitute that for wasps/bees or anything that flies and bites including mosquitoes).

To then find that you sit down in the dog poo or near it, because some [email protected] has not poop scooped or what ever they do with those things, when they should!

Oh I love picnics :}

Just remember the 1976 Silver Jubilee, with the street party thrown and balloons and jelly, ice cream and fete in the village!

27th Jul 2006, 22:26
I heard on the radio that there's a chef in Cumbria who is offering a hamper picnic for two persons; caviar, smoked salmon, champagne, paté de fois gras and other "posh" food.





27th Jul 2006, 23:08
Where's Piers?

There was a group of guys in Germany for the World Cup (a specific group) who ordered an Indian Meal from a restaurant in London - cost £1500.

27th Jul 2006, 23:17
Where's Piers?

Still banned sadly - just when you need advice on posh picnics and not fish and chips on Hamble Marina!



Ace Rimmer
28th Jul 2006, 07:05
Silver Jubilee was in '77 - I remember it well was a big summer in my spotty youth....oh yes:E :E :E

Windy Militant
28th Jul 2006, 07:38
Funnily enough I was reminiscing with the Bro the other day about how in the good old days we’d sally forth to various events on the bikes. No phones or other junk just a bag of tomato sandwiches in one pocket of me Belstaff jacket and a bag of sausages in the other. If the weather was hot you’d end up with one big tomato sandwich as the Mother’s pride would turn to mush and all the slices would merge into a single ball.
Good times with good mates. :ok:

28th Jul 2006, 08:58
What were those other choclate biscuity bars called, not breakaways, the other ones. They had wafer in them and I loved them.

I remember when I wasa young and if my Dad had been on business to Scotland he would always bring back Irn Bru because you couldn't get it south of the border. Happy days.

28th Jul 2006, 09:22
Where they not 'Caramels'? I think.

The poshest thing to have was a wind break, and we never had one, ever.
I got a picture of myself and my brother aged eightish sitting in swimming trunks in the north of Scotland somewhere after we've wrapped beach towels round ourselves cause it was flipping freezing.

Always had Sandwhich Spread sandwiches on picnics, and for school lunch, and for supper. Jar in my cupboard now.


28th Jul 2006, 10:17
Picnics are lovely you can have a formal one, which I love, or a romantic one, which are very personal or a kiddie’s one which end up in jelly fights and sandwiches, crisps and all those things you don't normally eat.

But going back to the romantic ones, they are the most fun to prepare. I love making sure that the picnic is in a whicker basket, that if you go for alcoholic drinks that you have an ice bucket, ice etc the joys of coolers help with that and then the glasses as glass, napkins, the works

An assortment of meats, salads and desserts that can be shared, I love choc dipped strawberries as you can have fun with those, grapes if you freeze them then they can go into the bottom of the champagne glasses and look ever so pretty if they are red and green.

A waterproof based blanket is a must and if you can just loose yourself with the person you are with. The best one I ever had was into a field with very tall grass, we made a track into it and no one knew we were there! I will say no more but it was very personal and private!

Children’s have to be sandwiches, paper plates, hard boiled eggs, mini sausages etc and loads of fun and games,

Formal ones are great fun too but seem to involve the little folding chairs and tables.

Just glad we had the weather at the moment to have them


28th Jul 2006, 11:06
I remembered, blue ribbons, haven't had one in years! Wonder if you can still get them?

28th Jul 2006, 11:23
Actually Blue Ribands, and no, you cant...sadly. Best bit of the picnic was a slab of homemade bread pudding, a slab of home made fruit cake, then run madly up and down trying to fly the home made kite till you nearly puked!

Echo Zulu Yankee
28th Jul 2006, 11:24
Lady Lexxington,

Of course you can still get them, Co-op is probably a better bet, or Sainsburys! Not likley to be stocked by your local corner shop these days.

Might have to look into getting some later, gotta love that wafer!


[edit: hersutesme - I know you can still get them...saw them not more than a year back, surely they haven't dissapeared in that time!]

28th Jul 2006, 11:28
Jaysus, Blue Ribbons, haven't seen those in years.

Oddball old duffers here, drive along the road next to the ocean, pull over and have their picnic with all the stuff balanced on the roof of the car, from a wicker basket affair. And they're 10 yards from the flipping beach. Blanket and all underneath the basket to stop scratches I suppose.

Go tactical, sit in the bushes overlooking the beach and eat your rations cold out of the foil bag. And chuck biscuits brown at sunbathers. :E

and save the sweeties for afters cause they're nice


28th Jul 2006, 11:41
No mention of the antique meths-driven camping stove that it always took my dad half an hour to get going. Worth it, though, for the envious looks you got from the other picnickers, whose tea was out of a thermos

28th Jul 2006, 12:27
I was wrong (a phrase you dont see often in JB):O Blue Riband was relaunched by Nestle (which means I wont be buying any) in December 2004

Thunderbird 3
28th Jul 2006, 14:24
Do remember as a nipper going to Littlehampton and chucking stones in the sea trying to see who got the most bounces.
Found a lovely white stone next to these to ladies, who
were eating their luinch..
Didn't bounce very well, it was there freshley peeled hard boiled egg.
Gave me gross ear ache, nasty little boy !!!!!

28th Jul 2006, 14:24
My dad had one of those stoves, flipping death traps.
He also brought those Hotcan things sometimes. Punture the rim of the can, burn your hand on the bottom, take a mouthful, gag, then put it in the bin. :yuk:

take a mouthful and gag is about the muck inside the tin, nothing else, ok


Buster Cherry
28th Jul 2006, 15:44
Beautifully written article. :D