Gone are the days of picnics involving butlers and footmen (powdered wigs optional), porcelain dining services, wooden dining chairs, silver cutlery, extravagant silver candelabra, menus longer than your arm, and a chef on hand to freshly prepare the food. One only needs to read Anabel Loyd’s book Picnic Crumbs to see what we have lost: she quotes from Dinner at Buckingham Palace a typical meal Edward VII would take to the opera, which consisted of six hampers filled with a wide variety of luxurious dishes. Lobster mayonnaise and cold duck, chicken, lamb cutlets were included with the essential selection of sandwiches; four different desserts and a number of Parisian pastries would be waiting to follow, all served on gold plate, and, one would imagine, washed down with a large quantity of champagne.
Naturally, this is the extreme end of picnicking, but it is perfectly symbolic of that which we have lost, to be looked back upon with a wistful nostalgia – an affliction felt no more strongly than the Glyndebourne devotee. In days gone by, picnics of this sort had a part in most of the events of the season, but, as noted in Thursday’s instalment, the accelerating pace of life and the rise of food outlets at events have eroded the institution. And this, then, is the other reason we must go through the rigmarole at Glyndebourne – the tradition of patrons dining in this fashion dates to its founding, and as the chance to picnic properly becomes increasingly elusive, those few remaining opportunities each year take on a special worth, and truly justify the work involved.
It’s always amusing to see the different incarnations of the picnic jumbled and juxtaposed. While champagne is ubiquitous, meals can range from an intimate bite for two by the lake to large parties, holding court at tables with full three or four-course dinners. There’s undoubtedly competition among some larger groups to have the most visually impressive spread. I have seen some picnickers have their food supplied by Mosimann’s served by the Mosimann staff. An admirable effort, although the table I will truly never forget was set for four diners, adorned with silver candelabra almost the same height again, and consisting of so many arms and candles that the span of it covered the table. It was frankly impressive that its weight could be supported; certainly, there was no way the diners could have seen their companions through it. But it’s not just the larger groups where you can see some of the old panache. In his foreword to Michael Smith’s Glyndebourne Picnics, Sir John Pritchard, the former Music Director, recounts how one gentleman would have his butler and chauffeur set up an antique table with a white linen table cloth by the lake, set with silverware emblazoned with a crest, as well as arranging ice buckets and crystal. All this would be attended to while he enjoyed the first half of the opera, and, emerging at the interval dinner was served by his staff from a warmed silver chafing dish.
Certainly all this is a bit ostentatious, especially these days, and I would not go so far in the way I set up my picnics. But the beauty of it, and the moral of my anecdotes, is that there is the freedom at Glyndebourne to go as far as you want and feel comfortable with. It’s about making it a special occasion, which can’t be had readily at other times. One can appreciate why some prefer to dine in the Glyndebourne restaurants: they take the stress out of the catering and mean that the weather impacts upon the day far less. In the end, though, nothing could claim to top relaxing on the lawns on a warm summer evening, eating a well-prepared home-made picnic.
And even when the weather isn’t perfect, surveying from one’s sheltered first-floor table trumps the hustle and bustle of the downstairs food service any day.
Either way, great thought goes into what will be consumed. Just as those self-catering spend plenty of time in planning, so too do those ordering from a preferred supplier – Glyndebourne itself offers the service as well. Decisions commence months in advance and with great care. Catered picnics are not what they used to be in years gone by – today they tend towards the simple and traditional: roast beef, chicken, smoked salmon, asparagus, a terrine of some description.
A century ago stores such as Harrods or Fortnum & Mason had rather more on offer. Anabel Loyd gives the contents of a 1907 picnic hamper from the Army & Navy Stores, containing:
Boiled Salmon or Lobster, Pigeon Pie, Roast Fowls, Ham, Rolled Tongue, Salad and Dressing, Mayonnaise Sauce, Bread, Rolls, Butter. Cheese, Cake, Pastry & Condiments.
All this was augmented with a bottle of Achille Morat Champagne for each person and two bottles of Sherry, four bottles of Claret, and one of Whisky or Brandy, along with linen, plates, glasses and cutlery, all of which would serve twelve people – with their twelve bottles of Champagne – and could be had for 8 pounds and 14 shillings.
Just as modern catered picnics are not like those of yesteryear, nor are the home-made ones. Yes, there are still the traditional choices of roast beef, chicken, smoked salmon, and the like, but updated to modern palates – especially by making use of international ingredients and dishes not available to picnickers of the past. The modern diner demands the cosmopolitan twist on tradition. So while our high-end picnics may have moved away from showing their credentials with a positive cornucopia of dishes, they are now marked more by quality and flavour, something that the picnics of the past had, but to a lesser degree, as one might expect with rather more restricted access to goods, the tastes of the time, and preserving methods available.
So even if you’re not off to Glyndebourne, but you fancy a picnic with style and sophistication, don that black tie, or even morning dress (topper and all of course) and go for it.
Just remember to go all out on quality, expense and taste, both on the food and the copious amounts of champagne and wine – after all, how often does the opportunity present itself? To start you with a few ideas, here’s the menu I’m taking for ten to Glyndebourne’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, including the pre-performance lunch.
Cured Salmon with Pickled Cucumber and Mustard and Dill Sauce
Prawns with a Paprika Aioli
Charcuteries and Comté and Olives and Crisps
Lobster with Frisee Salad Leaves, Raw Fennel, Radish, Salmon Roe, a Yuzu Mayonnaise, Salmon Roe and a Soy and Ginger Dressing
Roast Prime Rib Beef
with Roasted Herbed New Potatoes, Celeriac Remoulade, Asparagus, and a Rocket and Parmesan Salad
Summer Pudding and Double Cream
Pear Tarte Tatin
Selection of Cheeses
Soft, Goat’s, Blue, Hard and something special
Bread, Crackers, Chutney and Butter
Coffee and Petit Fours