In Britain, we have a long history and fondness for picnics. Their origins can be traced back to the medieval hunting feasts, which were grand occasions offering a magnificent array of pies, hams and cold meats. In the 19th century The Romantic Movement, made popular by the likes of Wordworth and Lord Byron created this idyllic image of picnicking in a scenic location and the desire to get back to nature. In the early 19th century a picnic would have referred to a large scale communal “pot luck” event with everyone contributing a dish. Literature and art has cemented our rose-tinted vision, my favourite is the charming chapter in “Wind in the Willows” when Ratty and Moley set off on an adventure. “The Rat brought the boat alongside the bank, tied it up, helped awkward Mole safely ashore and swung out the picnic basket. The Mole begged to be allowed to unpack it all by himself. He took out all the mysterious packets one by one and arranged their contents, gasping “Oh my! Oh my! At each fresh surprise.”
Picnics encompass all demographics -social, cultural and geographical. They can be a favourite local spot, or on top of a mountain on the other side of the world. A sandy sandwich at the seaside; a posh picnic at an outdoor theatre production, complete with the fizzy, smoked salmon sandwiches and candelabra. For city dwellers and workers, a welcome escape to a park. A picnic elevates a simple meal into a chance to get away from it all, a moment to savour.
My most unusual and memorable picnic occurred 21 years ago, when I went backpacking around the world. Back in 1996 for reasons that still mystify me today, one of my friends and I decided we should leave our careers and go travelling for a year. Back in the day I lived down in Devon and worked for the local radio station. Our plans began to crystallise and gather momentum. We employed a highly scientific method of choosing our route, involving several bottles of Chablis and selecting pink countries on the map, that we assumed would sell Clarins. Despite our woeful planning, naivety and arrogance, we somehow survived. It’s astonishing how our means of communication have changed in the last two decades. Back then there was no email, no mobile phones, no texting and definitely no skyping. The world seemed a much bigger place; contact home was a weekly phone call using a BT phone card.
Our first stop was Hong Kong, staying with a friend who conveniently had a beautiful apartment complete with balcony overlooking Repulse Bay. A few weeks on to Orchard Road in Singapore. Whilst there we decided to embark on an intrepid trip to Changi Prison (Nick Leeson was a guest at the time). We set off on the bus, the driver, despite his obvious reservations deposited us outside the prison gates. It was very intimidating - high walls topped with coils of barbed wire all around the perimeter. Guards stood at the gates eying us, machine guns slung across their chests. We decided that it perhaps wasn’t our most sensible idea and we were about to leave, when one of the armed guards gestured for us to enter the prison grounds. With mounting trepidation, we did so. When we got inside, we could faintly hear music and singing. Without speaking a word, the guard beckoned for us to keep following him as we wound our way down this little path through tropical greenery and towards what appeared to be the source of the music. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally came to a beautiful manicured lawn and there before us, was an open-air church service. An enthusiastic congregation of about fifty men and women, were animatedly singing and dancing to gospel music. There was an archway at the front bedecked with pink and white fragrant flowers to form the altar. It was so incongruous and utterly unexpected that we just stood there, very hot and very confused. The guard disappeared and a smiling Reverend waved for us to join in, which we did. Alongside the pews were rows of tables laden down with the most amazing pot luck picnic. A plentiful and colourful assortment of foods had been contributed, some familiar, some not. When the service was over we were asked to join them. Communication was challenging, but we muddled through happily enough, food and hospitality the universal language. We ascertained it was Pentecostal Sunday and the guard must have just assumed we were guests. After several enjoyable if somewhat bewildering hours, we thanked the Reverend and our hosts (inmates?) for their kindness and we made our way back to the barbed wire gates and the armed guards, who to our overwhelming relief sent us off with a wave. The same bus driver picked us up for the trip back and looked quizzically at our little parcel of cake in a Napkin! To this day, it is one of the most surreal experiences of my life and one which I will never forget.
Back to the here and now and I would like to share with you two of my favourite recipes. Portable and delicious, they are perfect addition to your hamper. I’ve got two classics for you to try – Rhubarb and Strawberry Picnic pies and Scotch Eggs. Homemade Scotch Eggs are a joy, completely different to supermarket offerings and also a lot bigger - the size of a tennis ball in fact. This recipe will make six and I use our award-winning Lincolnshire Sausage meat and Fairburns local free range eggs. The little picnic pies make good use of seasonal rhubarb and mixing it with Strawberry is a delicious American combination that works brilliantly. Happy picnicking!
Makes 24 muffin pan size pies
2 x 1lb/453 g packs of shortcrust pastry
1 large 500g/ 1 lb punnet of strawberries
10 large stems of Rhubarb
1 Free Range Egg
Small bag of caster sugar
12 tsp Semolina
2 Tsp Ground Ginger
Line a baking tray with parchment and preheat oven to 200x/180cfan/gas mark 6
Top and Tail Rhubarb and wash, slice into chunks
Spread over the baking sheet, cover with caster sugar to your taste and 2 tsp ground ginger. Mix all together well and then spread out in a single layer.
Roast in the oven for 25 minutes. It should have softened and started to caramelise at the edges.
Cool, cover the tray with clingfilm and chill overnight.
Top and tail and wash strawberries, cover with caster sugar to your taste, mix well together, cover with clingfilm and chill overnight.
Spray the muffin tins with cake release spray.
Line muffin tins with pastry and make 24 lids, use a funnel to create a hole in the centre of each lid. Try and get your pastry quite thin.
Cover with clingfilm and chill overnight.
The next day preheat oven to 200c/180c fan/gas mark 6
Get the pastry out of the fridge
Drain the liquid off the rhubarb and strawberries and mix them together
Sprinkle a little semolina in the bottom of each pastry case, this absorbs some of the moisture from the fruit and stops you having a soggy bottom!
Fill each pastry case with the fruit, but don’t overfill.
If you think the fruit is still too sharp, then sprinkle a little more sugar over it.
Brush beaten egg around the top of each pastry case and then place the lid on top and seal with a fork.
Glaze the top of each pie with egg and sprinkle on some caster sugar.
Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown.
Carefully remove from the muffin tin with a flat bladed knife and cool on a rack.
Eat within 3 days or can be frozen for up to 3 months.
6 Free Range Local Eggs
1lb 5oz/ 600g Good quality Lincolnshire Sausage meat from your local butcher
2 Tbsp Plain Flour seasoned with a generous pinch salt and ground white pepper
2 Free Range Local Eggs for coating
4oz/ 100 g Breadcrumbs of your choice (I used Japanese Panko breadcrumbs)
1 litre vegetable oil
Boil 6 eggs. I put eggs that are at room temperature into a pan of cold water, bring up to boil and then simmer for 6 minutes. Run cold tap on them as soon as they are cooked to avoid black rings around the yolks. Then peel the eggs and cover and chill until ready.
Divide sausage meat equally into 6 and flatten into patties.
Have three shallow bowls, first one for seasoned flour, second for 2 beaten eggs and last one for breadcrumbs. (Panko breadcrumbs give a lovely crunchy coating, but use whichever you prefer.)
Coat the peeled hard boiled eggs in seasoned flour, then gently form the sausage meat all around the egg. It’s easier to do this with latex gloves on or wet hands.
Coat again in the seasoned flour, then the egg and then breadcrumbs.
Then coat again in egg and final second coat of breadcrumbs
Pop on a tray and chill until ready to fry
Heat oil to 140c in a pan large enough to take the oil and plenty of space to spare or use a suitable deep fat fryer.
Gently lower two eggs in to the oil and fry for 12 minutes. If necessary lower the temperature of the oil, you don’t want the outside burning before the sausage meat has cooked.
Cook the remaining four in batches of two. Don’t we tempted to crowd the pan, it lowers the temperature too much.
Drain on kitchen paper and allow to cool, then chill ready for your picnic.