I say festival, but it could be any event, sporting or otherwise, a village fete or a family outing to the seaside – we still need to eat, and dining al fresco is decidedly a British tradition, arguably dating back before post-war austerity in order to travel (in the days when it might have been a day trip to Blackpool by train) and eat economically on your spam sarnies.
At one time it was almost exclusively the picnic – the packed meal you would carry around with you and eat at whatever spot was deemed suitable, and not necessarily because it was cheaper. There was something very family-oriented in the picnic, something you did together, bringing the food and drink that suited you so you were not dependent on anybody else. You were a self-contained, hermetically sealed family unit.
This being the UK, you would probably bring your picnic blanket and plenty of umbrellas too. You would aim for a grassy spot, but if the grass was wet maybe a picnic table and chairs, though that always struck me as a tad too organised and lacking in spontaneity. You would carry your hamper with containers for plastic plates and cutlery, but over time additional items were added to the list, notably the cool box to keep your salads edible and your drinks icy. The iced sleeves designed to fit around your wine bottle are a further refinement, meaning you could not only eat outdoors but be civilised in the process – your corner of an English field would be home removed.
Like a boy scout, my mother was always prepared. If ever we went on day trips, the front passenger footwell in the car barely had any room for her legs – it was packed high with bags and containers laden with picnic essentials, for wherever we ended up, and placed strategically to benefit from the cool air blown out through the footwell. As kids we looked upon such events with slight dread, though the convenience was undeniable and mum’s resourcefulness undeniable: if you were thirsty, there was a Tupperware tumbler with lid, full of diluted orange squash; when you were hungry, a cheese and chutney sandwich, bags of crisps (possibly including the blue wrapper with salt) and an apple, cake or something was always available at the drop of a hat.
Picnics can be much more creative and don’t need to consist of butties, tired salads and feeble pork pies any more – though making your own rather than buying from supermarkets is a good start. Potted salads, such as those made from cous cous, pasta, beans, potato salad and coleslaw, are one easy add-on to buy, but try making your own variants – not expensive and very tasty.
Even BBQs are possible, if you choose the right area to cook them in, though some places thoughtfully provide the barbecue hardware for you to cook on – just bring your coals (eg. one of those self-contained bags or portable BBQs) and raw materials to cook.
Of course, while it doesn’t take much effort to bring along a sandwich, there are disadvantages with picnic culture, and being laden down with heavy bags is but one of them. The fact that on hot days the food often decayed and disintegrated into an inedible mush was another. There was also vaguely a feeling that this was uncool, but given the lottery and cost of dining out in the UK in the 60s and 70s, it may well have been a better option. British dining has come on a long way since then!
Cheap options for dining out have always been around, and not all of them depended on junk food, fish and chips or feeble overcooked roasts. If you visit a British village, you try the tea rooms, possibly with home-made cakes – every bit as much a tradition as the picnic. If you stayed at a B&B, you filled up on the excellent English breakfasts, though in my formative years it was always Youth Hostels and mum’s portable breakfasts, supplemented by ingredients bought en route.
Festival food was always another matter. Sure, people brought picnics, though many didn’t and still don’t to this day. I remember the days when festival food was a greasy burger van, though these days that image has changed out of all recognition, both in quality and choice.
The options are now many and varied, and the art of alfresco dining refined to the last degree. A favourite for any outdoor event is now the hog roast, all the more so because of the cabaret of watching the whole pig being spit-roast for hours before being carved up and sold in baps with stuffing, crackling, a touch of gravy and apple sauce. Comfort food par excellence!
Pizzas were an obvious choice, though now the stall selling them contains a proper pizza oven. Noodles, following in the wake of Wagamama’s success, now sell by the bucket load at these events. At the Cambridge Folk Festival, I spotted stalls selling Indian, all-purpose Oriental, Turkish (kebabs mostly), Jamaican (jerk chicken, goat curry, ackees etc.) Mexican, pizza, veggie & vegan, sausages, the ubiquitous fish & chips, proper coffee, world class burgers made from first rate meat (see Northfield Farm), and many more, all at affordable prices. You could argue that it makes more sense to travel light and eat on these options when you’re hungry, budget permitting.
However, I am tempted to do a picnic sometime soon, maybe taking my kids out to take advantage of an Indian summer, should we have one to enjoy, and find ways to create something a little different. One thought did occur to me: the chick pea massala and sag aloo I cooked yesterday can be cold curried salads today, and the basmati rice a fine rice salad. Everything is possible!