Picnic Joys: Victorian jellies and pies

Better in than out

How to have a really regal picnic

Eating In

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

York ham with Sussex royals.” My suggested menu for the coronation picnic on the village green evoked no enthusiasm. I was against the whole idea — and I don’t just mean the picnic. 

I still find it odd that a king should wish to condemn himself to an oily and uncomfortable procedure, calculated to make the most sacré of heroes look silly, pompous, deluded and anachronistic, in front of merciless cameras, ignorant commentators and baffled spectators. 

Spanish kings don’t have coronations: divine grace should already have been conferred at the moment of succession, without any need to make monarchs look pretentious or insecure. 

The British, I suppose, change dynasties so often that no head of state has ever been able to feel safely legitimate without a lot of reassuring flummery; and the Queen Consort, or Queen, or whatever it is that one ought to call her, might wisely have left King Charles to face the cruelty of public humiliation alone. 

But since we had to have a coronation, I thought it kindest to ignore it, without multiplying its miseries in a comfortless meal under colourless skies. In the end, the village’s decision was against a common menu: the BYO ethos prevailed, stripping the occasion of the communal character a loyal gesture properly demands. The effect was a kind of inverted competitiveness: in an attempt to eschew ostentation everyone sat awkwardly, ate badly and drank as if for oblivion.

The best dishes are those that delight the eye and exploit the opportunities for contrasting exoticism and rusticity

My ideal picnic happens indoors. The traditional, outdoor venue imposes anxiety. The hazards are horrible: the damp and dreariness — or sudden scorch — of British weather, the creepy-crawly infestations in the hamper, the concealed excretions of the usual occupants of the fields, the visitations of scavenging birds and beasts, the buzzing wasps and gadflies, the knobbly tussocks and tricky distributions of mud, dust and bog, the burden of bottles and baskets, the tiresome practicalities of disposing of waste, the limited range of suitable refreshments, the napery soiled by earth or dispersed by wind, the curses uttered over forgotten can openers and corkscrews, the sore elbows and trapped joints that you can only elude by encumbering yourself with furniture that won’t unfold without cracking your shins. The problems stimulate intellect but undermine appetite. 

For me, the only compensating source of pleasure is seeing all the viands spread before me, as in a pre-Dickensian dinner-party, before service à la russe intervened to reveal only one dish at a time. 

My definition of an indoor picnic is therefore: a meal at which all the food and drink appear at the outset, offset by a tablecloth, dazzlingy laundered and stiffly starched, with full dishes and lots of gleaming spoons, forks, cake-slices and salad-servers, so that eaters can help each other with ease, and the hostess needn’t keep bobbing up and down, deserting her guests in order to double as a butler. 

Service à la russe belongs to a bygone era, when servants abounded and hosts, like bad dramatists, relied on constant revelations to entertain their guests. It’s time to abandon it or at least to intersperse it with the ease and luxury of indoor picnics.

The best dishes are those that delight the eye and exploit the opportunities for contrasting exoticism and rusticity. Vivid, translucent jellies — savoury and sweet — and mousses from elaborate moulds should complement the humble pies and pasties that shine with honesty and simplicity, like the apple cheeks of peasants’ complexions. 

Joints, pineapples and cheeses should be whole. For breads, I favour cottage loaves, plaited brioches and crusty scones. Salads can be more elaborately dressed than on an outdoor picnic, and laced with strips of charcuterie or salt anchovies or smoked salmon. 

Blinis and tartlets can support mounds of caviar or foie gras, without the sense of precarious balance that disturbs you when you eat canapés out of doors. Bunches of crudités can spill from jars of china too precious to risk on a conventional picnic. Choux buns, piled and coated with rivulets of crisp caramel, in pyramids of Paris-Brest, can uplift the spirits.

The only indoor picnic I can recall from English literature emerged from a bedroom closet on The Eve of St Agnes. Madeline slept, “azure-lidded” and unaware 

Of candied apple, quince and 

plum and gourd;

With jellies soother than the creamy curd,

And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon;

Manna and dates in Argosy transferr’d

From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one

From silken Samarkand to cedar’d Lebanon.

The poem ends sadly: the lovers make their getaway, leaving the feast untasted. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover