In hindsight, when it comes to kitchens and cooking, 2020 was the year of sourdough baking. It appears that 2021 is emerging as the year of the picnic. As we tentatively step out of lockdown, picnicking in the great outdoors has become an exciting option. The media, social or otherwise, has jumped on this bandwagon, with food sections dedicated to suitable recipes, and an article in the Guardian about famous picnic paintings. There will, no doubt, be a plethora of picnic cookbooks coming our way. A few packed sandwiches, some cheese, breadstick, purchased dips in plastic tubs and a thermos of tea, does not a picnic make, though it’s a speedy solution to lunch in the park on a road trip. A good picnic is a carefully orchestrated event, where the food excites the palate and the setting is well chosen to give pleasure per se, enticing one to loiter at the table, the fresh air enhancing the flavour of the food, or encouraging a postprandial nap on a rug under a shady tree or on comfy folding chairs. A tartan rug really does add that traditional picnic touch.
When thinking about the accoutrements for a picnic, I am reminded of a wonderful passage by Marlena de Blasi,
“always ready in the boot is a basket fitted with wine glasses, two of our most beautiful ones, plus two Bohemian cut-crystal glasses, napkins made from the unstained parts of a favourite table cloth, a box full of odd silver, a wine screw, a good bottle of red wine – always replaced immediately after consumption – a flask of grappa, a Spanish bone- handled folding knife, a pouch of sea salt, a small blue and white ceramic pepper grinder, plates of various sizes, a tiny plastic bottle of dishwashing liquid, two linen kitchen towels and paper towels”.1
Now that is organised. I would add a blanket and two comfy chairs.
On our most recent picnic, the day was still and the sun shone gently. A day for hats and sunglasses, but not forcing us under cover. The event was organised by a friend to celebrate a significant birthday. The setting was perfect as only the Australian bush can be on a clement day: the stringybark gums sparkled in that grey green Australian way, like a Piers Bateman painting. The bench seats were draped in tartan rugs, the table covered with a linen cloth, linen napkins, beautiful mismatched champagne flutes, and retro brown stoneware. And there was Moët Chandon on arrival. A warm cheese and artichoke dish was served on sourdough: I had forgotten how good this classic dish is. It was followed by a zucchini tart, and an exciting composed salad. I made the birthday cake, a rather over the top concoction. As bench chairs are fine for eating but not so comfortable for loitering, we retired to our folding chairs for duration.
I plan to go on many a midweek picnic over the next few months while the weather is still mild. The maps are out, there are plenty of unexplored spots close to home- national parks, waterfalls, formal parks next to weirs, village parks with lush shade and tables. I’m thinking more about those classic picnic dishes, such as French onion and gruyere tarts and quiches. I was reminded about the tarts of Elizabeth David in the excellent recent article in The Saturday Paper by Annie Smithers of Du Fermier fame. And I also plan to improve my pastry making techniques thanks to the opening chapters of All Day Baking: Savoury, not Sweet, by Michael James, a book I acquired recently.
A long anticipated purchase, the pasta attachment for my KitchenAid mixer, finally arrived last week. The item took exactly 32 days to arrive. Following its journey on the Australian Post app, the parcel travelled from Sydney to a sorting centre in Western Australia then back to Melbourne, an unnecessary journey of around 8000 kms. I know things are slow at Australia Post at present but this one wins the prize. Despite this, I love this gadget and will be using it often.
Further cooking episodes in my kitchen included the weekly Indian night, in this case a Palak Paneer. The paneer came via the supermarket and is definitely not in the same street as the homemade version. One hack I have since discovered is to soak prepackaged paneer in hot water for twenty minutes before using it. It becomes softer and less rubbery. The home made lime pickle was opened for the occasion. It is the perfect accompaniment.
I was keen to make some spanakopita rolls which required some good firm ricotta. My son graciously found me a tub, which contained 1.5 kilos!! Once opened, ricotta has a very small cooking window before it goes off. Consequently we had ricotta in everything last week. The cake below included 400 g of ricotta, almond meal, lemons, and 6 eggs as well as sugar. Nice, but incredibly filling.
Another 450g of ricotta went into these lovely warm savoury ricotta patties. They were a success and the recipe will be handy over summer when staring down the basket of leftover ricotta. Served with leftover marinated peppers and capers.
Blistering a bunch of red peppers, peeling then marinating them in olive oil, garlic, pink salt and herbs is something I often do for handy lunches.
And now, getting back to picnics, you are invited to Manet’s picnic in the park, Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, painted in 1862-3, an intriguing painting. That nude woman is looking right at you, she’s caught your eye, she knows what you’re thinking which is just as well, because the two over dressed dandies look like they’ve drunk the contents of that bottle: one chap has rather glazed eyes while the other gesticulates madly- he’s probably a real bore. Maybe the oversized woman in the creek will leap out and splash them with a bit of luck. And as for that picnic food, not much effort went into it.
Happy picnicking dear reader.
Thanks Sherry, at Sherry’s pickings, for managing to host this group, despite not feeling well of late. Brava Sherry.
- p 249. Tuscan Secrets, A bittersweet adventure. Marlena de Blasi, 2004
- I provided a link to The Saturday Paper but understand that access is based on subscription. This, along with its daily Post, and the Monthly, is worth every cent. In these strange times, you are what you read.