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Cookery: 1920s-style picnic

20 June 2012

by Terence Handley MacMath

IT IS flaming June (i.e. blowing a rain-sodden gale again); so I reach for Food for the Rich, by Paul Reboux, first published in 1927 (Blond, 1958), and read what he recommends for a picnic, illustrated by an Edwardian couple in a punt.

“What shall we take?” he writes. “The answer is always the same: sandwiches, salami, chicken, the inevitable cold veal. Sardines? Per­haps, but they are so messy. Hard-boiled eggs? Of course. And don’t forget the salt: we always forget the salt. In point of fact, we don’t, but reminding one another not to forget the salt is part of the ritual of a picnic. What a shockingly dreary menu!” Well, he is right about dreary.

And he is nothing if not a realist: “First, we must face the fact that a picnic is bound to be uncomfortable. Don’t take any food that needs plates: they only weigh down the basket and they always wobble perilously on the grass. Do as your ancestors did, and scoop out the centres of thick slices of stale bread.”

Good plan — only it does not have to be stale. Baguettes, or crusts cut from a bloomer, will give you a firm trencher to fill with finely chopped salads, olives, soft cheeses, or the Cataluñan favourite of pa amb tomàquet — a crusty slice of bread rubbed with olive oil and ripe, flavoursome tomatoes.

“To start with, take some thin salted biscuits sandwiched together with a thick béchamel sauce well flavoured with grated Gruyère cheese. Easy to eat and perfectly delicious.” Oatcakes and cream cheese are another possibility.

“Then some little puff-pastry turn­overs filled with chicken and ham. This will keep your fingers cleaner than if you picked the chicken bones, cave-man fashion.” This is straying into the realm of cooking, but we now have frozen puff pastry; so making a little béchamel sauce and stirring in any left-over chicken or ham, and then making vol-au-vents, or little tri­angular turnovers, is not too de­mand­ing.

If you do not eat chicken and ham, then feta cheese and spinach or tomatoes would do equally well, or mushrooms, grated celeriac, or a well-seasoned nut or bean mixture can be wrapped in a strip of puff pastry, and made into a tiny bite-sized roll or pasty.

“Fish? Why not?” But not sardines for the rich. Reboux suggests a lobster split between two. I confess, I am not hard-hearted enough to be able to bear the thought of killing and eating lobster. So: “A vegetable salad? Scoop out the pulp of some firm tomatoes. Fill them with the salad, and it can easily be eaten, tomato cups and all. They can be packed in a box for the journey. And to end with? You can’t improve on cheese and fruit.”

Other vegetables, such as peppers, can be stuffed neatly, too, or you can press cheese mixtures into hollow cucumber logs or celery boats, or my favourite — a well-seasoned mixture wrapped neatly in a floppy lettuce leaf.

Frozen seedless grapes are edible almost straight from the freezer as little balls of delicious sorbet. If you can insulate them well enough to keep them frozen till lunchtime, you have a very elegant and portable iced dessert to take with you.

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