A perfect picnic in a pandemic?

Perhaps it is a sign of the times but the other day I had to remind myself of what day it was and I wasn’t entirely sure I was right. In the 10 weeks since the Coronavirus lockdown began it has felt like time has not exactly stood still but that the days have become increasingly melded together in a never-ending sameness. It has only got worse since the weather has improved because now every day feels like it’s a long weekend. Which is not entirely a bad thing because who doesn’t like a holiday? But ever since the lockdown regulations changed to allow more time spent outdoors it seems that everyone has fully embraced their new freedoms. With so many families outside relaxing in the sun and playing, it makes it much harder to convince myself that it’s still a workday. At least the sunny days have given me the opportunity to start trying out some more warm weather themed recipes and what better way to enjoy them than on a picnic.

I think most people would agree that there are 3 essential elements of a picnic and they’re pretty straightforward: you need great food, a nice location and good weather. If even one of these is slightly lacking then a picnic may quickly turn sour. No one easily forgets the experience of having a bad picnic. Whether it was because the food didn’t survive the journey, leaked everywhere and you sat down to unpack a soggy mashup of flavours that was mostly inedible. Or if it was when your chosen secluded picnic spot was more popular than you realised and you arrived to find crowds of more organised early-rising picnicking families. And the only free spaces left to spread out had in turn, been taken over by ants. Or if it was the time that you realised too late that the weather forecast had been optimistic at best and you had to shelter under a tree from torrential rain. The memory of a bad picnic will hang around you forever like a bad smell that is revived every time you suggest the idea of going on another one.

Not that there is anything you can do to guarantee having a picture-perfect picnic. As far as I am aware, there is no way to reserve a picnic spot other than using the controversial towel on the sun lounger technique, i.e., arrive early and plant your basket firmly before others. It also goes without saying that you can count on the British weather as being entirely unpredictable so if you don’t pack an umbrella then it’s on you. However, there is at least one thing that you can try to get right which is, of course, the food. But what ingredients make the perfect picnic? And can anyone picnic safely at the moment while we’re in the middle of a pandemic?

When it comes to food, there is a long history of picnicking in the UK going back to the Middle Ages. Although the menu has changed even in recent times traditional picnic food has been a bit on the heavy side. Classic picnic fare has included scones, jams and clotted cream, sausage rolls, pork pies, scotch eggs, slices of roasted meat or poultry and sandwiches among other delicacies. It was really a portable banquet eaten outdoors and definitely the kind of meal that necessitated a very long nap afterwards. However, our picnic menus look somewhat different today. With the increase in the variety and range of different foods now available, the rapid rise of convenience foods and the greater influence of other cuisines, practices, and diet trends, it was sure to happen.

Now most people would recognise that picnic staple foods include fresh baguettes or flatbreads; hummus and dippers; cheeses, such as halloumi, marinated feta and mozzarella; chorizo or Parma ham; various salads including pasta salads and grain bowls; falafel, olives, crisps and berries. Notwithstanding any alternatives including vegan options. Though this is not to say that you will not find any families spread out on a blanket still feasting on the some of the same traditional picnic foods of the past. In fact, there are many out there who resolutely hold the firm belief that scotch eggs are an absolute prerequisite to having a proper picnic. End of. They will not be shy about telling you that every picnic should at the very least, have the mini versions. Even so, the outdoor stodgy banquet of the past now resembles a more sophisticated smorgasbord of lighter tapas and little plates to pick from.

Only food historians will be able to pinpoint exactly where on the trajectory of the picnicking timeline when this menu shift began but I suspect it started around the time when tahini became mainstream. In any case, these days the perfect picnic seems to be less about including particular traditional elaborate dishes (with the exception of scotch eggs) and more about having a wider selection of different foods to choose from. But with so many picnic options to choose from, the only real difficulty is deciding what to pack without taking the entire contents of your kitchen with you. Which means you either need to compromise with your fellow picnickers to try and keep the menu to a reasonably sized buffet. Or buy a bigger picnic basket…

Once you’ve got the food sorted, it’s good to know that we now have the official go-ahead from the government to safely picnic as long as you follow the social distancing rules and ‘Stay alert’. Their crystal clear guidance says that you can now travel anywhere in England you wish even including illustrious picnicking hotspot, Barnard Castle. However, if you live in Scotland or Wales, you can only travel within 5 miles of your home. In England and Northern Ireland, you can picnic outdoors in groups of up to 6 people as long as you stay 2m apart from anyone who is from a different household. In Scotland and Wales, you can only picnic with one other household at most and you must stay 2m apart. In Scotland your picnic group must be a maximum of 8 people whereas there is no limit on the picnic group size in Wales as long as it is only made up of two households. Which is great news for students attending Welsh unis who are still living with a large number of roomies in their university accommodation. We all know that uni students like nothing more than celebrating and the end of their (online) exams has coincided with the relaxing of these new Coronavirus rules…

But what about sharing food? It is too risky? Can you catch Coronavirus from eating someone else’s hummus? To date, there is no evidence that you can catch Coronavirus by eating food that someone else has prepared even if they are asymptomatic. Certainly, an untold number of families have spent the last 10 weeks cooking meals for others who are still shielding without unintentionally passing on the virus through food. The evidence shows that you can only catch Covid-19 while sharing food by being in close contact with someone who has Coronavirus or by using shared cutlery, dishes, utensils and packaging without practicing good food hygiene. The virus may live for up to 72hrs on hard surfaces but simply washing your hands or using antibacterial gel can kill it.

But back to picnicking. Theoretically, it should be possible to share food with others on a picnic by laying out all of the food in a separate area 2m apart from everyone else. You could then help yourself to food using your own clean utensils, taking care to not touch the outsides of any dishes or packaging and of course, using good hand hygiene. However, you would need extra picnic space to do this and it would be near impossible to police this with any young children. Understandably, the government recommends that to reduce the risk of catching Coronavirus, each household should take their own food, not share cutlery or drinks, or share items between them. And maybe, for now, that is just a whole lot easier than having to try and stop your children from licking their fingers after swiping another pack of shared crisps.

As we slowly start to return to a semblance of normality in these strange times, it can still feel slightly disorientating while readjusting to new routines. Although everyone can play their own part in keeping themselves and others safe, we will have to wait to see how the new Coronavirus rules play out. One thing is for sure, this pandemic has been no picnic and in the UK we still have a long road ahead. In the meantime, we might as well join the rest by making the most of the weather while we can. And there is no better way to enjoy the sunshine while finally catching up with a few select family members and friends other than having a picnic. Because in the end, the perfect picnic is most of all about the company you sit down with than anything else in your basket. Then again you may still want to stay alert by remembering to pack in some scotch eggs…

Now, for the recipe. Although I do not wish to offend any traditional picnickers the truth is that I do not like scotch eggs. There is nothing inherently wrong with them but I just happen to dislike hardboiled eggs and sausages which doesn’t leave much left to them. However, I have come up with a veggie version which I think is sure to become a new picnic staple. These Veggie scotch eggs can be made in advance so they will be ready to pack when needed.

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