‘Hold hard a minute, then!’ said the Rat. He looped the painter through a ring in his landing-stage, climbed up into his hole above, and after a short interval reappeared staggering under a fat, wicker luncheon-basket.-The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
‘Shove that under your feet,’ he observed to the Mole, as he passed it down into the boat. Then he untied the painter and took the sculls again.
‘What’s inside it?’ asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
‘There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly;
‘O stop, stop,’ cried the Mole in ecstacies: ‘This is too much!’
‘Do you really think so?’ enquired the Rat seriously. ‘It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut it VERY fine!’
After reading about Mole and Ratty’s picnic in The Wind in the Willows, who wouldn’t be enthusiastic about a springtime picnic?
Picnics evoke simplicity and ease, a pleasant day spent in the fresh air. Picnics in England have been around for centuries, traditionally recorded as hunting picnics where a quick meal provided energy throughout the day. Picnics first gained popularity as a social activity and a ‘pleasurable pastime’ in the early nineteenth century (early 1800s). The key to capturing this effortless feeling is to select uncomplicated food.
Here are the 13 simple picnic food ideas you’ll need for your own Wind in the Willows picnic.
- Cold chicken. Pork and beef are recorded as more popular meats in English cooking, however, the roast chicken still makes its appearance. Whether you roast the chicken yourself determines the level of preparation. First, you can roast the chicken the day before. Alternatively, you can purchase a precooked chicken. Slice the breast and separate the legs on the day of the picnic to make eating the chicken easier.
- Cold beef. Sunday roasts are the essence of English culture, so it’s no surprise to find cold beef in Ratty’s picnic basket. What is telling is the fact that all of the meats are noted as being ‘cold’. ‘Cold meats’ can refer to leftovers, or it could mean that Ratty has an ice house for storing his food. During the time of the writing of The Wind in the Willows, refrigeration had not yet been invented. While some large properties may have had ice houses, others smoked or salted meats. Cold spiced salt beef, also known as corned beef, is a personal preference that can be prepared the day before. Prepare the beef in advance so you can either eat it with your hands or use it as a filling for the French rolls.
- Cold ham. An English style ham is usually boiled or baked with brown sugar and mustard, scored and studded with cloves. It is delicious sliced up cold for eating as-is, or in a sandwich. You can also find ‘raw’ cured hams that have been salted, dried and smoked for long term storage. They are great to keep in the fridge as they don’t need to be cooked. This makes them handy to keep on hand for adding quick flavour to last-minute dishes, or for impromptu picnics.
- Cold tongue. It is still common in the UK to find cold tongue that has been salted or brined, cooked, and canned. You can buy slices of ox or pork tongue in the cold meat section or potted tongue at most grocery stores, which is typically eaten cold with a salad or in a sandwich. You can sometimes find canned tongue in the British food section of the grocery store in Australia. Another option is to check a specialty British food store. The tongue is harder to come by in North America. It seems easier to get fresh tongue in some places, so it will have to be prepared at home. British food stores may have canned tongue, as they do in Australia.
**In a pinch, pre-cut sandwich slices of chicken, beef, ham and tongue can all be purchased from the butchers/ grocery store.
- Potted meat. Through several centuries, potting was used as a method of preserving meat. The general idea was that meat would be cooked in a pot, and stock or fat would be heated (and therefore sterilised) and poured over the pot to seal in the meat, before an animal bladder was stretched over the pot. When the bladder cooled, it shrank, sealing the pot and preventing oxygen from entering. During the 16th and 17th centuries, potted meat was considered fashionable and served at dinners. When The Wind in the Willows was written, potted meat was less ‘fashionable’ but still a preservation method. As mentioned previously, refrigeration wasn’t yet invented, so preserving food required drying, curing, smoking, pickling, and potting. Today, anything we know as ‘potted meat’ is either canned or pate.
- Salad. Those living in rural England would have looked forward to gathering fresh greens from their gardens or from foraging come springtime, after a winter of preserved foods and root vegetables. You can find salad combinations of lettuce with watercress and mustard greens in Mrs. Beeton’s cookbooks, as well as radishes and cucumber. Fresh garden salad is a nice stand-alone dish, but makes a nice addition as a sandwich filling with the meat and rolls. To prevent the salad from wilting, bring a small bottle of salad dressing separately.
- French rolls. Fresh rolls with a crisp crust from the bakery are a must before your picnic. I like to buy bake at home types when I don’t have time to leave the house. Nothing tastes better than fresh from the oven!’
- Cress sandwiches. The term ‘cress’ in British recipes refers to watercress, a member of the mustard family with a slight peppery flavour and crisp texture. I’ve interpreted it to mean ‘cress sandwiches’, although it could also mean ‘cress’ and ‘sandwiches’. Watercress season runs from May to November in the UK. It’s not always easy to find watercress in stores around the world. You’ll find it in the lettuce and herb section of the grocery store if it is sold. Alternatively, you can grow your own watercress at home (although you’ll need to plant several weeks before your picnic). If you cannot find watercress, you can substitute rocket, also known as arugula, since it has a peppery flavor. A simple sandwich can be made by putting butter on both pieces of bread, rinsing the watercress and cutting the sandwiches into finger-sized triangles or bites.
- Pickled gherkins. Nowadays, we just call them pickles, but at a time when most vegetables could and would be pickled, the type of vegetable needed to be defined. Gerkins are a small variety of cucumber that do well when they are pickled and are traditionally served with cold meats.
- Ginger beer. Ginger, sugar, yeast and water are fermented together to make this popular fizzy, spicy soft drink. Once bottled, it’s perfect served cold in spring or summer.
- Soda water. During the Victorian era, soda water was sold as powders, where an acid and alkali mixture was added to water, causing the water to fizz as the customer drank the glass. Today, you can buy soda water already bottled in the stores. It may also be called club soda or seltzer water. Sparkling mineral water and tonic water are different from soda water.
- Lemonade. Today lemonade can mean fizzy lemonade or lemon soda, but good old fashioned lemonade is made just with lemon juice, water and sugar. An easy recipe to make at home or you can typically find a bottle in the grocery store.
- Jar of mustard. “…and last of all, behold! the mustard pot, which he had been sitting on without knowing it.” The mustard may have been missing for Rat and Mole’s picnic, but it’s a must for serving with the cold meats. Those trying English mustard for the first time will have an experience. English mustard is considered ‘strong’ and a little bit goes a long way! Find a pot of Colman’s Mustard (est. in 1814) in the grocery store to round out your authentic English picnic.
How to theme your Wind in the Willows picnic
- If purchasing any drinks or potted food items, look for cute glass bottles and jars instead of plastic, for a start.
- Alternatively, pour your beverages into glass mugs with screw top lids or glass pop-top flasks. If you’re worried about breakages, wrap everything in tea towels or napkins to prevent the glass from knocking against one another.
- Wrap additional food items (meats, sandwiches) in brown wax paper (baking paper) and tied closed with string.
- All your food items should have handwritten tags.
- Don’t forget a comfortable picnic blanket and an adorable “fat, wicker luncheon-basket” to pack all the food in. Amazon has a whole range to choose from at different prices –> Picnic Baskets
Preparing for picnic challenges
The Victorian era was not without its challenges despite the idyllic visions of picnicking. As Mrs Henry Mackarness warns in her social etiquette guide ‘The Young Lady’s Book’ (1870-4), those who attend picnics must be willing to eat ‘under difficulties’. During this socially driven time, some of these challenges included eating without clean plates and cutlery for every course, and wearing sensible dresses and boots that could handle a little mud. It was also suggested that the ladies who attend a picnic should be ones ‘who do not have hysterics at a cow or stoutly refuse to get over a stile in case they should show their ankles.’
We have fewer concerns today, but it’s always a good idea to be prepared.
Check the weather before your picnic, not just for rain, but also for wind speed and direction. A gust of wind will have you scrambling to pin down picnic blankets and keep sand from getting into your food.
Insects have a way of finding your perfectly laid out picnic. Pick your spot wisely (avoid areas with stagnant water nearby- a mosquito’s favourite breeding space!) and pick the right time of day to avoid flying insects. Citronella oils can help ward off mosquitoes. Cover your food with tea towels whenever possible to keep the flies from tap dancing over your food.A hot day can make a picnic not only extremely uncomfortable, but it can also quickly make your food and drinks warm. Be sure to pack ice packs and a thermos of ice cubes to chill any cold drinks.
- Cunnington, Phillis. English Costume for Sports and Outdoor Recreation from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries. Black, 1969.
- Mayhew, H. London Labour and the London Poor. Vol 1, 1851
- Hardingham, Roger. The Mid-Hants Railway : From Construction to Closure. Runpast, 1995.
- Beeton, Isabella, editor. The Book of Household Management … 56th editi, Ward, Lock & Company, 1939.
- Mason, Laura, and Brown, Catherine. Traditional Foods of Britain : An Inventory. 1999.
- Mackarness, M. A. P. The Young Lady’s Book: A Manual of Amusements, Exercises, Studies, and Pursuits. George Routledge & Sons, 1888.
- Davidson, A., et al. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press, 2014
- Seymour, John. Forgotten Household Crafts. Knopf, 1987.
- David, Elizabeth. Summer Cooking. Grub Street, 2011.