In one of the most famous scenes in Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma, the heroine forms a party for a picnic on Box Hill. While nothing so vulgar as the actual food eaten is described –
Mrs Elton planned pigeon pies and cold lamb in an earlier chapter – one can readily imagine that, as a young woman worth £30,000, Emma would hardly have sat on a blanket for anything but the best.
In literary terms it’s a far cry from the lashings of ginger pop enjoyed by Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, and further still from the reality of so many picnics of my own experience; the supermarket grab bag of assorted olives and dips, followed by the quest to locate one’s friends on an overcrowded Hampstead Heath.
However, as we emerge from the pandemic there’s a feeling that only the very best will do. Like butterflies out of the chrysalis of lockdown, there’s a hunger for the flutter of fine company, delicious foods, enjoyed in dazzling locations. In the 19th century, picnics became increasingly popular for their romantic sensibility as a way to commune with nature. During these lockdowns we too discovered a new love for immersing ourselves in the outdoors, taking solace in beauty spots that we could access from our homes. Now that we can finally celebrate with loved ones, that discovery of nature’s power is something we can share with them.
“Everything tastes better outdoors,” writes Claudia Roden in Picnics: And Other Outdoor Feasts. “There is something about fresh air and the liberating effect of nature which sharpens the appetite and heightens the quality and intensity of sensations.”
It will also be something of a necessity. With restaurants forced to reduce their covers, al fresco DIY dining with friends will be the only response we have to long reservation lists.
As such it’s time to elevate the humble picnic. Interpret this as you like; trestle tables, crisp tablecloths and folding chairs à la Glyndebourne summer evenings; cross legged with an artisan cheese board and charcoal biscuits in a meadow; real cutlery, real glasses.
As a nation we excel at the art of eating outdoors. In 1738, Fortnum & Mason laid claim to the Scotch egg – that classic picnic centrepiece. While in 1922, the British Everest expedition loaded Sherpas with 60 tins of Fortnum & Mason quail in foie gras, and four-dozen bottles of champagne. Hardly surprising they never made it to the summit.
We have cultivated and refined our opportunities for us to practise our skills at picnicking. Today’s posh picnics are less about cuts of meat set in aspic, and instead focus on delicious grazing boards and sumptuous spreads.
For Telegraph recipe columnist Eleanor Steafel, a posh picnic is one that has homemade sausage rolls still warm from the oven: “Preferably with little pots of condiments. Or a cheese board with crusty bread and salty butter. And there is something so luxurious about bringing a whole cake to slice and dole out.”
The setting is just as important as presentation. The UK boasts lots of beautiful spots, from rugged cliff paths and stretches of expansive sands to biodiverse estuaries and thriving country gardens. Throw in a scenic backdrop and there is chance to transform a small gathering of friends and family into a dreamy affair with a timeless quality.
By Boudicca Fox-Leonard
‘Attention to detail is important when creating a luxury feel in a casual setting’
Briony Gilbert has organised picnics in some jaw-dropping locations. Working on super yachts for four years, she would take guests out for day trips, setting up picnics in magical locations. While anchored in Alaska, guests would go on a hike while she would set up a picnic overlooking a glacier.
Coming back home to north Cornwall in July last year, she decided to bring that same flair to the beaches and coastal cliffs, setting up Dine With Iris. Her MO is beautiful food, flowers and settings. Her picnics are, she says: “Something people can turn up to without the faff of bringing it themselves.”
Guests can expect extravagant piles of cushions, soft table linens and grazing boards piled with local Cornish produce. “It’s all about the mix of food and flowers with the surroundings,” says the 34-year-old. Colour is an important element. Cornish blue textiles are chosen to amplify the sea. Clients often choose their colour theme and Gilbert works around that making sure the produce lifts the picnicscape: Cornish Yarg in green nettle leaves to match a verdant tablescape; beetroot hummus for a pink theme.
“I hate to use the word ‘Instagrammable’ but that visual element is important for people to be able to take beautiful photos.”
Attention to detail is important when creating an impact. While you can use a florist, gathering your own wildflowers makes it more personal. For the tablescape, have fun sourcing your own vintage plates, glasses and cutlery. “I love finding items in charity shops or eBay. It has a lot more character if you find things yourself.
“And then I use a lot of gold cutlery to make it look trendy and modern.” Wind can be a limiting factor, but Gilbert still likes to place candles on her picnicscape. “You don’t have to light them. I use gold Nkuku candles that add a luxury touch.”
Many of her clients choose Dine With Iris for surprise birthdays or baby showers, with the guest of honour often thinking they are going for a simple beach or cliff top walk. “It’s wonderful to see that look of surprise,” she says. She also offers private yoga classes for guests followed by brunches.
As a business she tends to use council-owned beaches, rather than National Trust, and guests bring their own alcohol (she provides Dash water, made using wonky vegetables). The most important thing though is to leave no trace.
“I usually leave with more rubbish than I arrived with,” says Gilbert. “It’s just as important to preserve our beautiful countryside as it is to enjoy it.”
The rules of posh picnicking
By Natalie Miller-Partridge
Think quality over quantity
Aim for a few delicious, local cheeses and charcuterie nibbles, before adding your favourite garnishes. Always include a chutney or fig jam – cheese just isn’t the same without it!
Choose produce from your local farm shop or market if visiting. It’s much more beneficial to support small businesses and show some love to the area you are staying in.
Florals and pretty linens are an easy way to elevate your picnic without too much faff. Whether it’s wildflowers from the garden or a more “considered” bouquet – flowers will look great in a vase placed on
the picnic table or nestled in the sand.
Blankets and throws
Don’t forget a LARGE blanket to sit on, no one enjoys a sandy lunch, plus it offers a great excuse to have that post-picnic nap.
Prepare for changeable weather
It’s a good idea to check the weather before you head out with your picnic gear. We’re all aware the UK’s weather changes like the wind, and tucking into soggy crackers isn’t much fun!
Bespoke picnics around the country
By Natalie Millar-Partridge
Milkshed Catering, Devon
Enjoy the Great British summer with a luxurious hamper filled with freshly- made Devonshire treats using the finest ingredients. Think rare roast beef and horseradish sandwiches, ham hock Scotch eggs and scones with home-made strawberry jam and lashings of clotted cream!
For bespoke picnics and hampers, delivered to your door in compostable and plastic-free packaging. Packed full of revamped picnic classics, made with the freshest ingredients and perfectly presented to elevate your al fresco
dining. Upgrade with summer drinks; organic wines, champagne or a tequila slammer.
Little Picnic Company, Surrey
Indulge in a freshly prepared luxury picnic, beautifully put together with local produce. From Classic to Gourmet, your picnic will arrive perfectly chilled and beautifully boxed, ready for your picnicking adventures.
The Little Kitchen Co, Hampshire
Embrace the great outdoors with an individually made Posh Picnic, celebrating the art of modern food. From the Henley to the Ascot Hamper, expect a delicious and imaginative spread prepared using fresh,
Goodness Grazers, Somerset
Stylish and innovative eco-friendly grazing platters and picnic boxes. Indulge in the freshest produce from local artisan bakers, cheesemongers and charcuterie suppliers. Accompanied by an abundance of fresh fruits, tangy chutneys, hummus with veg crudités and sweetest treats, made in the heart of Bath, delivered to your chosen location.
Honey + Harvey, Suffolk
An independent specialty coffee and brunch spot, serving locally sourced produce and lovingly crafted beverages. Recently introducing its award-winning afternoon tea-to-go, each is made to order and makes the perfect posh afternoon picnic spread.
Scottish Wild Picnics
Savour a wild picnic with a dramatic backdrop, where the best Scottish produce is brought straight to your spread. Every picnic is styled to your personal request, pared with delicious fare.
The ultimate picnic recipes
A super-savoury mix which works as well as a lunch for four at home as it does on a picnic – just put it in a huge bowl and tumble through a bagful of mixed leaves.
Asparagus works brilliantly with the egg and bacon. You can use homemade or shop-bought shortcrust pastry, or you can buy a ready-baked savoury pastry case.
I love the hint of leafiness from the thyme, but leave it out if you prefer.
A cheat’s cocktail, really, because you buy in the main mixer. It’s particularly refreshing, so make it in seconds in hot weather.
This alcohol-free cocktail demonstrates the sweet succulence of the pink grapefruit.
Everything you need to add a little style to your summer picnic
Saint Germain Picnic Hamper for four (£104.50, souschef.co.uk)
Rio Medallion Melamine Salad Plate (set of 4) by Tar Hong (£35.96, wayfair.co.uk)
Set of Four Picnic Margarita Glasses (£5, bmstores.co.uk)
Textured Linear Leaf Outdoor Cushion (£19.99, beanbagbazaar.co.uk)
Extra large floor cushion in cherry print (£60, Denys & Fielding)
Emily Brooks Nested Snack Boxes (£12, johnlewis.co.uk)
Yvonne Ellen Cooler Bag 20L (£35, johnlewis.co.uk)