Chic Nic

June 18, is International Picnic Day
Royal Ascot racegoers picnic on the grass of an event car park, on 18th June 1992, in Ascot, England. Trays of food and two bottles of Champagne have been consumed during a break from betting and socialising. They are dressed in formal morning dress of top hat, waistcoat, tails with two of the men wearing red roses in their lapel button holes, all traditional and obligatory dress code in the Royal Enclosures which can be seen by visitors in the public car parks near the famous Berkshire race course. Royal Ascot is held every June and is one of the main dates on the sporting calendar and social season. (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)
Carlo Cambi
18.06.2022 06:00

Please call it «chic nic». It’s the latest buzzword in stylish sociability and a clear sign of post-viral lockdown intolerance. The déjeuner sur l’herbe has made a comeback, but not quite in the manner of Edouard Manet, since many designers are busy creating the perfect outfit and dress code for feasting amid the flowers. Hence comes the chic nic that requires appropriate attire, very fine tableware, the most natural baskets, and the signature menu from a chef with a minimum of one or two stars. The day for it? June 18, a day that has become an international picnic celebration. And it was needed as this «ritual» that was invented by French aristocrats weary of long court luncheons, which became a boast of British style living, is now a kind of social novelty. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in Physiologie du Goût, «you became a cook but you are born a rôtisseur». So while on the meadows of Brittany, along the shores of Lake Lugano, nearby the Castle of Bellinzona, in the Casentino pastures, at Hyde Park or at the Jardin du Luxembourg we spread out our blankets and enjoy artist’s menus, in parts of Miami or Los Angeles we get barbecue. For the Americans, the picnic is exo-cooking, grill parties, «primitive» gastronomy, but nonetheless it is a sign of freedom. On this side of the Pond, even an outdoor snack becomes an elegant meeting.

You can arrive at the get-together with the Rolls Royce Boat Tail: only three were produced, list price is around 23 million francs, but they have everything, absolutely everything for a perfect outdoor lunch time including crystal glasses, ceramic and gold plates, and of course silver cutlery. All the most prestigious car manufacturers (as was the case with the landos, the carriages of yesteryear) have fittings for open-air dining. If, however, you’re on a different budget, don’t worry: you can shift down a bit with a Toyota, which has created a model specifically with those many fittings that several other car manufacturers (namely Mini, Volkswagen, Citroën, Kia and Renault) devote to outdoor living. In high society, even wedding banquets styled with a basket, plaid tablecloth, cover and inevitably anointed fingers are glamorous. The difference is in the service: whereas in country jaunts with accompanying snacks everyone brings for themselves as well as a little for the others, here there are waiters in full dress uniforms, the string quartet nestled among the bougainvillea, and sparkling wine or champagne flowing. So this craze for the laid lawn has erupted and June 18 is sort of the start of the picnic. Each year it is marked by a color: white, red, green. This year it seems that yellow will be favored as a sign of vitality, which dictates that ladies should wear matching attire and matching ton sur ton tablecloths, blankets and tableware. It will be worth asking, however, why give up the comfort of the restaurant to explore the glades and parks with the unavoidable stretching of legs? It is a very aristocratic reason. Leaving aside the novellas of Boccaccio, who even to the love between Nastagio and the Traversari dedicates the most theatrical of narratives from the fifth day of the Decameron, from which Botticelli sketched at the urging of the Magnifico four stupendous paintings (the picnic one is in the Prado), history tells us that it was Marie Antoinette Queen of France (the one with the brioches, to be clear) who, to escape the boredom of court luncheons, scattered the gardens of Versailles with pleasant places to take (piquer) a small amount (la nique).

So now we also understand why. It became picnic with Queen Victoria, who made a cult of it in Britain. The French-style menu is known as well: quiches and savory pies, Flanders (the legendary puff pastry rolls from Provence), game terrines, and also in more recent times of fish, pâtés and then cheeses, and finally bonbons. The sides of vegetables are scarce. More elegant is the British «basket» in which they offer finger sandwiches. It was Leonardo da Vinci who invented the sandwich and Gabriele d’Annunzio who named it after ancient cookbooks - scones, cold meats, chicken salads and savory cream. Out of this British custom, reminiscent, however, of the end-of-hunting table settings of fifteenth-century Italy, came a school of highly refined craftsmanship dedicated to picnicking: woven baskets, small cutlery often with horn handles, silver glasses and finely engraved flasks. The very grand curriers (that’s the name given to leather craftsmen) like Hermès, Ferragamo, Vuitton have always had lines of bags and accessories for the must-have. Today, a house like Fortnum & Mason in London produces picnic baskets and a comprehensive line dedicated to picnicware that is worth many thousands of pounds, including a sparkling tea - produced just by the champenois method - which goes down a storm. It is the basket that the British royals use for their picnic at Ascot, which typically falls on the fourth day of scheduled horse racing in the third week of June. The Royal Pavilion is dressed up and then everyone on the lawns around the racecourse has a special menu with the ladies required to sport the most bizarre hat creations and the men compelled to wear the Ascot tie (a neck scarf involving a special knotting). Incidentally, Queen Elizabeth is a fan of the déjeuner sur l’herbe. On her outings she is always accompanied by the «Royal Hamper» a basket that her sister Margaret presented to her as a wedding gift. Last year on June 21 she opened the gardens of Buckingham Palace for the first time, organizing a royal picnic. Until September paying a fee of 20 pounds you could enter the park and arrange your own outdoor lunch there. Many imitate the sovereign’s favorite menu (she never forgoes champagne), which, according to revelations by court chef Sir Darren McGrady, consists of sandwiches with chicken and mayonnaise or tuna and cucumbers (also an all-British invention attributed to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich), Scottish wild smoked salmon, salad, Cheddar quiche, and the ever-present shortbreads of which Lilibeth is fond of, and scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam for tea. For an Italian-style picnic, savory pies, grilled vegetables, excellent cured meats, a cold pasta and fruit and cream pastry cannot be missed. A travel mini-cellar is essential, because even outdoors you simply cannot betray the appropriate pairing. And you also need impeccable know-how. Introducing Petra Carsetti, author of Galatime. È sempre tempo di buone maniere (Edizioni Maretti), one of Europe’s foremost experts on good manners, we compile the handbook of the perfect picnic. «One should always check that the chosen place is a suitable one. Then you make invitations to which you usually respond within a week. It is essential to bring or provide umbrellas. Dress code - explains Petra - is fundamental: a rescue sweater is allowed, ladies must still wear stockings, sunglasses are allowed, and bold colors are permitted in dress, but not too much cleavage or skirts that are too short, so that they can sit comfortably. For men, casual but never shabby clothing is permitted. Bermuda shorts are banned. As for the equipment, if the British admit plastic and cardboard, on the Continent all this is banned: only ceramic, glass and metal for cutlery. It is good to have wooden cases where dirty cutlery can be stored. There is one rule for sitting: never with your feet toward the food, which shall be prepared in small portions. Prepare an area for the children and leave no waste. The first rule of etiquette is respect, even for nature». To the rescue comes the fact that picnic-mania is now so rampant that there are now, all over Europe, areas in parks equipped with barbecues and pitches. Of course the Boboli bird snares are something else, but a plaid, a beer and a sandwich are enough to feel à la page, and above all happy.