Serve up a symphony
Simplicity is best for a Glyndebourne picnic
This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Das land ohne musik has become the terrain of countryhouse opera. There seems hardly a county without an ersatz Glyndebourne or two. As the season’s height hits its middle C, foreign visitors wonder how a race as unmusical as the English have developed so marked a taste for entertainment Dr Johnson defined as “exotic and irrational”.
The answer, of course, is that it’s not the music that matters: it’s the food. Or maybe it’s the dressing-up. With no carnival in their calendar, the English over-value other opportunities for extravagant disguise. Countryhouse opera teases them into dinner jackets and frocks, despite trends that make slackness fashionable. Except in clubland or the Ritz, you can’t look beyond your restaurant table without seeing gym shoes, jeans, unironed zip-fronts and collars loosed over squirmingly curly chest-hairs. The effects on appetite are fatal. Meals matter and one should dress to eat them with appropriate solemnity.
If it’s not the music or the mummery that attracts the English, it must be the food
Even at Glyndebourne, however, wayward effects of sartorial drift besmirch the gardens’ loveliness. A puritanical streak in English psyches makes wearers of traditional clothes seem ashamed of adherence to hallowed standards. How else can one explain the dowdy dresses, the unkempt coiffures, the ill-applied maquillage and the clodhopping footwear that make one yearn for the end of the interval and the decent darkness of the auditorium?
Men seem to have forgotten how to wear dinner jackets. Flabby — and sometimes frilly — shirt-fronts sag over unconcealed waistbands. Ready-made bows glare in offensive colours. It’s hard to find a male opera-goer trousered with the correct degree of braid, clad in starched linen, and properly shod in patent leather.
So, if it’s not the music or the mummery that attracts the English, it must be the food. And here is the paradox: while Glyndebourne diners get ever shabbier, their dinners are increasingly and, in some cases, uncontrollably majestic. Inattentive dressers — too slack to pull up their socks or press their pleats — lavish care and thought on picnics. During dinner intervals, conspicuous consumption and excessive display are unconfined. All effort to be aesthetic — the trouble-taking and big-spending — seems lavished on food and drink. It’s doubly irrational behaviour. The essence of a good picnic is simplicity; and carefree enjoyment of an evening of opera, enhanced by garden walks, is impossible for plodders and stumblers, encumbered with furniture, candelabra, floral displays, and ponderous cutlery. You can eat well cheaply, but to dress well requires investment; and to assign a higher priority to the meal than to the music is merely vulgar.
Avoid tableware made of paper or plastic: that’s merely instant litter, as unsightly as it is inedible
If you go to Glyndebourne or any countryhouse opera this month, here are rules for an appropriate picnic:
(1) “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground.” The old and infirm can be excused a deck chair or shooting stick, but picnics are properly taken sur l´herbe, in the reclining, elbow-propped posture of the Romans of old or of Christ at supper, recumbens cum fratribus; do not get involved in an undignified scramble for one of the terrace tables: that’s the Glyndebourne equivalent of grabbing the favoured beach-spot with a big towel.
(2) Spread starched, damask napery: that is all anyone needs of luxury. Avoid tableware made of paper or plastic: that’s merely instant litter, as unsightly as it is inedible.
(3) Bring no crockery or cutlery, except for cocktail sticks: ample champagne in a coolbox should be the only heavy gear you have to carry. Fingers are fine implements for the most fastidious eaters, if you have cologne sachets to wipe them on.
(4) Choose sparing amounts of irresistible food, such as fits in a light wicker hamper, without danger of damage, and which generates little or no litter. Asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto or smoked salmon are admirable hors d’œuvres, as are stuffed vine-leaves or cottage loaves hollowedout for fruits de mer and crudités. Scallops allure, like Venus Anadyomene, perching on recyclable shells.
Grapes and hip-flasks full of aromatic digestif are recommendable
For main courses, sliced beef or salmon en croûte are good, or bitesized arancini and croquettes, vegetable tarts, and slices of truffled salami fixed on beds of short pastry with a film of cream cheese. For pudding, small choux buns filled with cheese or with berry-studded cream are deliciously practical. Grapes and hip-flasks full of aromatic digestif are recommendable.
Diners who follow this counsel will also heed opera’s last word on food — the Commendatore’s admonition to Don Giovanni: Non si pasce di cibo mortale chi si pasce di cibo celeste!
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