Summer is fully upon us, and, as the sun begins to shine, nothing can quite compare to unfurling a blanket and lolling around in some dappled shade, fork in hand, enjoying the lush countryside, or sitting on golden sands hearing the waves lap against the shore.
In our world today, picnic simply means a pleasurable outing at which a tasty meal is eaten outdoors, preferably in a beautiful landscape. But did you know that the relaxing and carefree act of eating outdoors and sharing quality time with those you care about has its roots back in the medieval times in England?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary a picnic originally meant “a fashionable social entertainment in which each person present contributed a share of the provisions; now, a pleasure party including an excursion to some spot in the country where all partake of a repast out of doors.
The oldest print evidence of the word picnic in the English language can be traced back to 1748, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word picnic was known in France, Germany, and Sweden before it became part of everyday English society. According to Oxford Companion to Food (Alan Davidson) the first usage of the word picnic was traced to a 16th century French text, describing a group of people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. A theory has it that the word picnic is based on the verb piquer which means 'pick' or 'peck' with the rhyming nique perhaps meaning trifle. The 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Franqoise de Ménage, which mentions 'piquenique' as being of recent origin, marks the first appearance of the word picnic in print. The word picnic first appeared in English texts in the mid-1700s, and may have entered the English language from this French word or from the German Picknick.
Hundreds of years ago, a picnic meant a potluck, an entertainment at which each person contributed some dish to a common table for all to share.
Picnics evolved from the elaborate traditions of outdoor feasts enjoyed by the wealthy. Medieval hunting feasts and Renaissance era country banquets can be credited with laying the foundation of the outdoor dining experiences we enjoy today. The history of picnicking is credited to the Europeans, and nowadays people all around the world enjoying participating in these leisurely outings.
The earliest picnics in England were medieval hunting feasts. Hunting conventions were established in the 14th century, and the feast before the chase assumed a special importance. “Gaston de Foiz, in a work entitled Le Livre de chasse (1387), gives a detailed description of such an event in France. As social habits in 14th century England were similar to those in medieval France, it is safe to assume that picnics were more or less the same. Foods consumed would have been pastries, hams, baked meats, and so on.
Picnicking really came into its own during the Victorian era, and enters into the literature of that period. Dickens, and Jane Austen both introduced this form of social event into their fiction. One can see why: a rustic idyll furnished an ideal way of presenting characters in a relaxed environment, and also provided an opportunity to describe a particularly pleasant rural spot. Painters have also been drawn to the subject, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne to name but a few.
The change in the meaning of picnics, from "everyone bringing some food" to "everyone eating out of doors" seems to have been completed by the 1860s. Dining outdoors with a casual atmosphere, no strict course menu and jovial company is something that has taken hold of not only the European countries, but in the United States. By the mid 19th century, probably down to the influence of immigrant populations, Americans had also adopted a flair for picnicking.
Nowadays picnics are more personalised. We choose the foods we serve, our dining partners, and the venue. Planned or impromptu, they are very different from public outdoor dining events: community feasts (New England clambakes, Texas barbecues, New Orleans shrimp boils) and al-fresco dining (trendy waterfront bistros, central city cafes).
The modern-day picnic can be a pretty instant affair - numerous shops now offer ready-made hampers to take away, but there is nothing like tailoring your hamper to suit you and your guests' individual tastes. Better still revert to the tradition of old, get everyone to bring a dish for truly stress-free entertaining.
Just because you are going picnicking it doesn’t mean you have to revert to the old stereotypical childhood memory of hot, curled up sandwiches and warm fizzy drinks. If you are countryside bound, why not pop along to one of the ever-increasing number of local farm shops or farmers' markets to uncover some seasonal produce that won't have travelled far? Or, consult one of the many organisations making the best of small producers countrywide such as FoodLovers Britain (www.foodlovers britain.com). If you are heading for the beach, why not pack a portable barbecue and pop to the nearest fishmonger for the catch of the day?
Georgina Ingham is a freelance food writer and editor of Culinarytravels.co.uk.