Stephen Jardine: Challenge of the great outdoors

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jane Barlow
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You have to admire the bravado of the organisers of National Picnic Week.

When it comes to setting a date for the annual celebration of eating outdoors, all they can really do is hope and keep their fingers tightly crossed.

This year National Picnic Week begins tomorrow and faces a mixed forecast – but after nine years they must be used to that.

“Picnics are loved because of our desire to get out into the great outdoors”, said organiser Phil Browne. Sadly, our efforts often come unstuck.

The popular image of a picnic is a travelling rug in a sunny meadow with glistening hams and pies and a handsome Victoria Sponge.

In my experience, it’s more likely to be sandwiches with the main component as sand, on a freezing beach, in a brisk westerly. In Scotland, a picnic without a wind-break is like a chef without a knife. Pointless, for all concerned.

My most vivid picnic memory comes from childhood. I can remember standing next to my mother as she fried bacon and eggs on a camping stove early on a Sunday morning. Before you get too hungry, I should point out we were sheltering from the rain under a bridge on the hard shoulder of the A417 near Cirencester.

If that sounds odd, it’s because it was. For many years, the sizzle of bacon also conjured up the hiss of air brakes and hoots from passing truckers.

That experience could put anyone off picnics for life but just when outdoor eating seems more trouble than it’s worth, along comes a picnic that deserves it’s own verse in the euphoric Elbow anthem One Day Like This.

I’m talking about when the wind drops and the grass is actually dry. Pork pies are on special offer and the leak in the Thermos flask seems to have magically fixed itself. And the sun comes out. At that precise moment, it all seems worthwhile.

Another good reason for National Picnic Week is to fight off it’s great outdoor rival.

Anyone can put together a half-decent picnic but barbecues tend to be the preserve of men who treat cooking as an extension of DIY. Spurning marinades, exotic salads and Thai chicken kebabs, they prefer cheap burgers and sausages, laced with the unmistakable whiff of lighter fluid. When it comes, in these situations, the rain is a blessed relief.

Cookery writer Sue Lawrence is a big fan of the picnic. A mere mention of the word from me was enough to get her enthused.

“Try new things”, said Sue. “Make savoury tarts and just take them in the tin. Or make a salad on the spot with Arbroath smokies, new potatoes, green beans and crispy lettuce with a wee jar of home made vinaigrette.”

Eating al fresco never sounded so good.