In Praise of Picnics


I love picnics and not just because I really like the name. For a Brit, the chance of eating outdoors without getting rained on is of course a risk but one always worth taking. The food tastes different, the atmosphere is more relaxed and one has the joy of going somewhere beautiful to spend time with friends; a solitary picnic isn’t much fun. Nowadays, a picnic can fill me with nostalgia: afternoons while at university when a group of us would take a punt up the Cam instead of studying for our exams. We chaps wore boaters and stripy college jackets and the girls were in their flimsiest Laura Ashley. The wine was kept cool by sticking the bottles in the river but I suspect that the food was not very original because none us had kitchens. But it was obviously good enough for us to be attacked by hungry swans once, who must have found our sandwiches more interesting than their usual damp fare. One of them actually snatched something right out of my hand only inches from my mouth. I have been wary of them ever since and am glad that once I helped to eat one.

In 1986 I went to very fancy picnic to celebrate a book launch, Henry Mayer’s magisterial biography of John Patrick Henry, which was held in a park in San Francisco. I was asked to provide something suitable from the 18th century and so provided a Charter Pie, which is best eaten cold. I had read about it in the diaries of Parson Woodford, a Norfolk cleric who wrote down in detail what he ate at every meal for practically every day of his long life.

James Woodforde by his nephew Samuel

James Woodforde by his nephew Samuel

From the diary we know that he ate a Charter on several occasions, though on one it seems that a dog went down to the cellar, stole the pie and then devoured the whole thing.

There are various recipes but the essential ingredients are chicken, leeks, lots of parsley and cream. This version is based on one by Tamasin Day-Lewis, the sister of the actor, and is to be found in the delectably titled book Tarts with Tops on.

Two 3lb chickens cut into pieces
1 onion chopped finely
½ cup butter
1 cup of flat leaf parsley chopped finely
1 large leek sliced
2/3 cup whole milk
2/3 cup light cream
1 1/4 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Shortcrust pastry
Beaten egg to glaze

The incomparable Jane Grigson has a similar recipe based on one from 1883 by Lady Sarah Lindsay. The main difference is using 6 spring onions (scallions) as an alternative to the leek.

Here is her method for cooking this delightful dish:

Roll the chicken pieces in seasoned flour. Cook the onion gently in half the butter in a frying pan, then remove it to a large shallow pie dish. Add the rest of the butter to the pan and when it is really hot, put in the chicken and brown it slightly – a golden colour is right, not a very crusty brown. Fit the chicken into the pie dish on top of the onions, in a close, single layer. Chop the parsley leaves, and the leek or spring onions, and simmer them for 2 or 3 minutes in the milk and single cream. Pour the whole thing over the chicken, and add about a third of the double cream. Season everything well.

Roll out the pastry and cover the pie in the usual way. Make a central hole large enough to accommodate a small kitchen funnel, and put a pastry rose with a 12-mm (1/2-inch) stem down through the middle. Surround it with some leaves. Brush over with beaten egg. Bake at gas 7-8, 220-230 C (425-450 F), for about 20 minutes until the pastry is golden. Lower the heat to gas 4, 180 C (350 F) and leave until the chicken is cooked – about 1 hour. Just before serving ease out the rose from the centre, and pour in the remaining cream, which should be at boiling point. Replace the rose, and serve hot, very hot, or cold (the juices set to a delicious jelly).


Afterwards there is nothing better than fresh peaches. At Chez Panisse here in Berkeley, President Clinton was there for lunch and for dessert he was served a perfect peach, something not easy to come by and nearly impossible to bring on a picnic. So instead I like to cut them up and maybe just add a drop or two of rosewater. But be careful not to add too much.

And to drink? Rosé for me: not the sweet, soda-pop tasting stuff but the kind the Southern French serve in a pichet. Provençal Bandol is ideal or, from California, Schug from Carneros or Navarro from the Anderson Valley.

Bon Appetit and don’t forget to use sunscreen!

Nicholas McGegan