The word itself, comes from the French, pique-nique, and referred to an indoor meal in which all of the guests contributed food for the table.
Piquer being a French verb to “pick” or “peck”, and -nique, being a nonsense rhyming syllable that made it a fun word to say.
Fast forward to Victorian England and the word picnic has become associated exclusively with eating outside. But it is still a grand affair, with the English aristocracy sending forth small armies of servants loaded down with fine china, crystal goblets, delicate linens, tables and chairs to set up a dining setting in a forest or meadow, where their cooks and kitchen staff would be expected to prepare an elaborate meal.
The seminal book on British cooking and housekeeping, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, gave detailed instructions on how to hold a picnic. For 40 people, Mrs. Beeton insisted on, among many, many other things: cold roast beef, four meat pies, four roast chickens, two roast ducks, four dozen cheesecakes and one large cold plum pudding. To quench the picnickers’ thirst, three dozen quart bottles of beer were on the menu, as well as claret, sherry and brandy.
And there our story would probably end, were it not for the railways.
The rapid expansion of rail-tracks spreading out across Britain made it possible for the middle-classes to now access the countryside at weekend. These day-trippers would take with them a pre-prepared lunch packed, along with the necessary tableware, inside a wicker hamper. And so, more accessible and less extravagant in fayre, the modern picnic was born - although don’t think for one moment they were taken less seriously.
The 1920’s etiquette book, Perfect Behaviour, A guide for Ladies and Gentlemen in All Social Crises, dedicates a whole section to picnic etiquette and reminds us that:
“One should not make the mistake of thinking that because he or she is ‘roughing it’ for a day, he or she can therefore leave behind his or her ‘manners’, for such is not the case.”
On our doorstep is one of London’s great open spaces, Hyde Park. Here, because of its vast size, it is not difficult to find a quiet place to set up your picnic, especially as you head west towards Kensington Palace, where you could easily imagine yourself in a country wood. Alternatively, a spot along the Serpentine watching birds float by, or a secluded bench in the pretty rose garden, make for a memorable setting for any picnic.
Even better news for the al fresco enthusiast, is our special summer offering of a unique picnic hamper packed with the finest ingredients selected by our very own Theo Randall. The details of which you can find here.