Forget about fancy gazebos, tablecloths and wicker picnic hampers with proper cutlery and plates. This is the summer of the wild picnic, says chef and food writer, Gill Meller.
“There’s something primordial about being on the move with sustenance,” he says. “It triggers all sorts of ancient emotions. Even in the modern day we take comfort in the knowledge that we’re not going to starve out in the wild. So leave conventions at the door and pare your picnic back completely.”
Quite how far into the wild you want to go is up to you. Meller believes in making the journey manageable, yet going far enough to feel a sense of achievement when you arrive at your chosen spot – be it on a heath, by a canal or riverbank, or somewhere with a fantastic view of the sea.
“The journey is as important as the picnic spot itself; there’s the expectation and excitement of knowing there’s something delicious at the end. For instance, I always feel a sense of magic when I go to the top of Eggardon Hill, near Bridport in Dorset, where I spent many happy times as a child,” he says.
If you’re making a day of it, you might want to incorporate swimming and a shady glade for afternoon tea on the way home. Or if it’s evening, you’ll want somewhere for a sundowner while the sun sinks into the horizon. A recent survey suggests that 51 per cent of British picnickers prioritise a breathtaking view, while 44 per cent want to be on the beach and 36 per cent prefer to be near running water or a stream.
Julius Roberts, the urbanite-turned-farmer-and-gardener, whose show, A Taste of the Country, can be seen on Channel 5, recommends the secluded sand dunes of Holkham Beach in Norfolk, and Arger Fen Nature Reserve in Suffolk. “There are woods filled with wild garlic, a reservoir to swim in and orchards with juicy apples for when you’re thirsty on the way home,” he says. After a day’s work on his farm in Dorset, which he runs with his girlfriend, Anaïs Gallagher (Noel’s daughter), he’ll often take a wild picnic down to the relatively inaccessible shingle beach of Ringstead Bay.
“Being out there in nature, feeling the wind on your face, listening to the birds, turns a simple meal into a special occasion,” he says. “We have long winters in this country and the weather is unpredictable – you’ve got to make the most of the nice days.”
If you’re a serious wild picnicker like Meller or Roberts, at least some element of your meal will be cooked over fire, either using a portable stove or by building an open fire. The key is to wait until the fire is no longer white-hot to start cooking, says Roberts, who builds open fires on the beach from dried driftwood. He recommends roasting root vegetables in foil in the bottom of the fire, although his current pièce de résistance is to fry hand-dived scallops in their shells in the embers.
“When they’re cooked, you scoop out the scallops and soak up the butter with brown sourdough. For pudding, I’ll roast plums in foil and serve with a dollop of yoghurt.” A fire is definitely not essential, though; you can enjoy an earthy picnic – so long as you do the prep before you leave, says Meller.
Meller likes everything in his picnics to be finger food – the wild picnic chapter in his new book, Outside: Recipes for a Wilder Way of Eating, includes recipes for courgette, chard and goat’s cheese pasties, wild mushroom and thyme sausage rolls and smoked mackerel Scotch eggs. Roberts, meanwhile, will take a home-made quiche or a courgette and goat’s cheese frittata wrapped in foil, plus a box of cherries and damsons.
If this all sounds daunting, make life easy by simply packing sourdough, cheese and chutney sandwiches, and a dish of crudités with a pot of hummus. Avoid anything oily or runny, warns Charlie Hibbert, head chef of Ox Barn at Thyme hotel in the Cotswolds, as it will invariably drip.
Don’t fret if your picnic seems lacklustre, as Meller promises that everything tastes better outdoors, regardless of what it is.
“A standout picnic for me was a flask of hot soup with my wife in the wind and cold on the cliffs at Charmouth. That’s the wonder of picnics – it’s not really about the food, it’s about the magnificence of the moment.”
Weight is a key consideration. Pack as light as possible but do your best to keep everything cold. Meller swears by a cool bag for drinks and a backpack filled with your picnic provisions and some freezer blocks.
The appetite for technical picnicware is insatiable this summer: figures from John Lewis show a 70 per cent increase in sales of Weber foldable barbecues and a 133 per cent increase in cool bags. Picnic equipment in general has seen a 98 per cent increase in sales. But Meller says most of us have everything we need at home.
“I’ve got a basket in the boiler room filled with enamel crockery that comes out every year and an old chequered blanket,” he says. “I take my Opinel knife and a chopping board, and I wrap a stack of Duralex glasses in a tea towel.”
Try to avoid single-use plastic, Roberts adds – glass jars are a great alternative – and if you have a dog, don’t forget a water bowl.
It goes without saying that you should leave the picnic spot pristine with any fire extinguished. “Stick around until it has gone out and then muddle the ash into the earth – it’ll feed the soil,” says Roberts. And rather than faffing around with a washing-up bowl, Meller suggests taking an extra bin liner to store all the dirty boxes in your bag. “That way you can deal with all the washing-up when you get back.”
It’s also another brilliant reason not to take the kitchen sink.
Going properly off piste – with family in tow
With four children, a dog and dodgy weather, it would be safest to throw a few sandwiches and a picnic rug in a rucksack and head out into the fields next to the house. But I’m determined to recreate the full wild picnic experience, Julius Roberts-style, and cook up a simple dinner on the beach at Charmouth in Dorset.
I spend the afternoon threading chicken, peppers and red onion onto skewers to grill on our portable barbecue. We can stuff the meat into toasted pittas drizzled with yoghurt. I’m aware that we won’t want to carry too much, yet keep thinking of more things to bring: a chopping board, charcoal, drinks. We load three large bags into the back of the car and the older children take swimming things in their rucksacks.
As we arrive at Charmouth around 6.30pm, the warm sun bursts through the clouds. We lug our picnic paraphernalia 300 yards along the river to the beach, which turns out to be disappointingly populated.
We’re all feeling hot and flustered after I make everyone walk to the isolated end of the beach, but once we’ve sparked up the barbecue and poured the drinks, we get into the spirit.
The children paddle and hunt for fossils, while we adults monitor the chicken skewers on the LotusGrill. It’s a rigmarole stuffing the pittas with only a tiny chopping board – I wish I’d cut them in advance – but when the first child declares his the most delicious thing he’s ever eaten, it’s worth it – even if there’s sand on everything and the toddler has knocked over my wine.
Once we’ve finished eating, a calmness descends: the boys play happily in the water, the dogs lie on the rugs like seals, the toddler finishes the grapes and watches fascinated as a man rides across the horizon on an electric surfboard.
For our next wild picnic, I’d like to walk up onto the cliffs instead. But I’m still determined to cook in situ. My boys are never usually interested in the sandwiches I make them, but here on the beach they eat with vigour. And the fact that they wolfed down peppers and onions, and fresh fruit, too, proves Gill Meller right: everything tastes better outdoors. AT
Location, location, location – it’s not just about the sausage rolls and vino
In a triumph of hope over experience I have been a dedicated picnicker all my life. We went on them a lot when I was a child, but they were practical rather than fancy: ham sandwiches, fairy cakes and a bottle of orange squash. It was the location that mattered. A long, white beach on the roaring Atlantic, a big shady forest 20 miles from where we lived, or the little harbour at Ballintoy, a tiny gem on the Northern Irish coast.
But I had fancy notions of what a picnic could be. For my first “grown up” picnic I procured a basket (not a proper picnic basket, more a small rattan suitcase so everything rattled around inside it) and insisted on wine glasses for the grape juice (I was 15, but I wanted everything to look French).
I made a quiche (it was the 1970s), a salad, which I dressed at the picnic in a white china bowl, and proper plates.
The elements were all there, but it didn’t feel like the déjeuner sur l’herbe I’d envisaged. The midges were relentless; other picnickers, with sensible plastic cool boxes, sniggered, and my then boyfriend squirmed with embarrassment. We packed up the picnic before we’d even looked at dessert (poached peaches).
I’ve made food for a lot of lovely picnics over the years: Provençal ones with pissaladière, eggs and tapenade; Middle Eastern affairs with pomegranate-glazed kebabs, charred aubergines and syrup- drenched cake. I’ve done full-on London picnicking too – food for concerts at Kew Gardens, Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath – but I’m not so keen on them these days. Because when I think about the happiest picnics – and images of these often come to mind – it’s not the food, it’s the place and the light I remember.
Sometimes the picnics weren’t even planned. There was one – we just had bread and cheese and cider – years ago in a field in Oxfordshire as the sun was getting low. It was an almost clichéd picture of the English countryside, and yet it wasn’t, because everything about it was intense – the dimming light, the smell of the grass, the dark blue of the sky, the peace. We were completely alone. The food wasn’t the point.
When I read about the trend for “wild” picnicking, alarm bells sounded. I’ve only just stopped making so much effort for picnics and now I have to forage, catch my own fish and keep a frying pan in the car?
What is a wild picnic anyway? For me, it would take little effort and be eaten in as secluded a spot as possible.
Just take me to the countryside, the remoter the better, with a corkscrew and my Opinel knife. We’ll pick up food along the way. Diana Henry
Technical picnic kit
Folding pocket knife, from £8.95: Beloved by chefs since the 1930s, the folding stainless-steel Opinel knife has a smooth beechwood handle
Steel storage boxes, from £18: Robust Elephant Boxes come in every shape and size (including cups and flasks) and can be reused every picnic
Smokeless portable BBQ, from £165: LotusGrill charcoal barbecue is easy to carry and ready to grill in three to four minutes
Waterproof picnic blanket, £75: Made from recycled wool with waterproof backing and a leather carrier. It can even go in the washing machine
Reusable tumbler, £25: Enamelware tumblers from Bell Hutley x Bertioli collection. Lightweight, stackable and durable
Beeswax food wraps, from £9.50: A planet-friendly alternative to cling film, crafted from organic cotton, local beeswax and pine resin
Recycled paper chopping board, £27: Smidge Dice board for chopping fruit, veg and meat. Includes juice groove. Lightweight, heat-resistant and easy to clean
Julius Roberts is working with Aspall Cyder, which is available nationwide; his show is on Channel 5 now; ‘Outside: Recipes for a Wilder Way of Eating’ by Gill Meller is out now (Quadrille, £30)