Strange, isn’t it, that despite having such famously terrible weather, we Brits are so fond of a picnic. It’s something to do with making the most of what sunshine we get — but if you ever plan to eat outdoors, it will almost invariably end up raining. Never mind. There’s very little that we’re better at than embracing our terrible weather, and keeping buggering on.
This year’s Ascot was, for me, a case in point. Every day of the meet was blessed with excellent weather — except, of course, the one day I went. A person more sensible than I might have looked at the forecast and planned accordingly. I checked, saw that it was going to rain — and just got on with my picnic preparations as usual. So come 11 a.m., eight of us were perched around a foldable table with a rose-embroidered cloth on it, drinking English sparkling wine in the drizzle and gazing up at the depressing sky. Grey, just grey, as far as the eye could see.
But as we all know, fortune favours the brave. I had chosen to brave the weather, and fortune was on our side. ‘Would you like to borrow our spare gazebo?’ piped up our car-park neighbours. ‘Our boys can put it up for you, as well.’ A spare gazebo? I’m usually lucky if I have a spare pen in my bag. But they were our saviours.
The problem is, there’s rarely anything simple about ‘just’ having a picnic. It can range from the smartest of meals — complete with linen tablecloths, champagne flutes, vases of flowers and spare gazebos — normally reserved for the likes of Ascot, Glyndebourne and Henley, all the way down to a few clingfilm-wrapped sandwiches and a thermos of tea on a hillock. The simple act of eating ‘al fresco’ — and the fact that you are most likely going to have to transport your food some distance from your own kitchen — calls for quite specific catering. Ice is always tricky, salads have a tendency to wilt, and anything that could blow away (including plastic wine glasses) can be problematic. Pâtés and pies: good. Soup: could be trouble. Pre-dressed salad: bad. Cold, cooked asparagus: excellent choice.
But these days, there’s no need to bother faffing around packing up hampers of teacups and crockery, buying up Waitrose’s entire stock of spring onions, or indeed doing any preparation at all. There are hundreds of companies all willing to provide you with everything you might possibly need. All that’s left for you to do is to load up the car. Well — if you’re going anywhere for your picnic, that is. In London, plenty of places are willing to prepare a lunchtime hamper and send you on your way. Dukes hotel in St James’s will even send their staff to set up a hamper and picnic blanket (and hot-water bottles, if it’s seasonably chilly) for you in Green Park.
We might have experienced one of the coldest Junes on record, but the sun has finally come out, and we find ourselves in a July heatwave. Oh, the joys of an English summer. Time for a picnic, I reckon.