Saturday, 10 June 2023

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We need to talk about picnics

We need to talk about picnics

I love the idea of eating alfresco, I really do, but I can’t recall ever enjoying the reality. It’s not for lack of aptitude. I’m perfectly capable of assembling the elements of a really good-looking picnic, with white napery and champagne misting photogenically in a bucket. I’m good at this because I write books about food and have spent days on location, watching stylists organise food and props while people in baseball caps scurry about lighting the damn thing.

I can pack the perfect picnic, I believe I know what’s required for the ideal setting, so why does the reality of both always fall so horribly short?

I’ve begun to appreciate that there is an unbridgeable gap between the ideal we have of alfresco eating, the pictures we make and share, and the truth — the myriad tiny indignities and inconveniences that inevitably thwart us. Between that and reality falls the shadow.

I’m not sure quite when it was that we Brits turned our eyes to the Mediterranean. Blame Lord Byron and the young Milords doing the Grand Tour on their gap year, blame cheap package holidays or Elizabeth David, but when we dream of outdoor eating, it is always overlooking blue sea or in some sun-baked piazza. But we are not people of the sun, just look at the atlas. We share latitudes with Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. A truer image for us would be braving the drizzle in a square overlooked by a lowering Gothic bell tower, or huddling around the brazier in a pine forest somewhere, collar turned up against the rain and grilling some sort of fungus. Better still we are indoors, in some Valhallan bierhalle, the fire alight and singing morose drinking songs with our fellow northern Europeans. It would really help if we could manage our expectations — not Amalfi or Saint-Paul de Vence but Tallinn or Bruges.

Perhaps the defining image of alfresco dining is Édouard Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”. The painting is often cited as symbolising the transition from Realism to Impressionism, and art critics delight in its contradictions and inconsistencies — not least the fact that the principal female character in the piece is, for no logical reason, entirely naked. Why are the men wearing indoor clothes? Why is the naked woman lit as if by sunlight, the men as if by studio lighting? The Academy jury was incensed enough to reject the painting outright in 1863, but Manet got one thing right. It’s a picnic so everybody is obviously bloody…

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