Every English person knows what a picnic is, but who knows why it is called that? Well I didn’t until I began to write this article. It is a French word for a start; pique-nique; but beyond that fact its origins are obscure. Any apparent similarity to an English phrase such as “picking up nicknacks” has no validity. It originated in the late 17th century and referred to a meal to which the participants brought their own wine. This makes me rather keen to have a real picnic quite soon; I had never before associated a picnic with the fruit of the vine, but trust the French.
I am sure that no English person has ever considered alcohol as part of a picnic. My father’s idea of a picnic did revolve around drinking it is true, but his favourite beverage was tea. As picnics are open air affairs, this posed a slight problem, as you need some boiling water to make the tea. This meant that no picnic was complete without a picnic stove. Towards the end of my father’s life this meant a Camping Gaz stove, but for most of my childhood it was a spirit stove. The smell of meths as you poured it out of the bottle is etched in my memory of summer picnics. That, and the slowly increasing volume of the whistle as the kettle came to the boil.
Another outdoor meal is the barbecue, but this was a relatively recently adoption by the English; before 1970 the idea was unknown to us, or regarded as impossibly exotic. Because a barbecue needs some heavy equipment, like a gas bottle or a bag of charcoal, barbecues tend to be enjoyed at home; picnics are invariably taken away from home. if only a short bike ride away. The point is that barbecues form no part of this article.
Certain other things go with a picnic; sandwiches of egg and cress, cheddar cheese or ham; and an apple to finish off with. A rug to spread out on the grass more or less completes the arrangements. The provisions would be enclosed in a hamper, or a simple basket. There should ideally be no folding tables or chairs as these take up too much space, but by the time the picture above was taken my parents were a bit too elderly to sit on the ground. When we were all younger we regarded such things as much too fancy for a picnic.
The ingredients of a meal may be much the same, but if eaten alone a meal is just a snack. Even if it is taken outdoors, this solitary eating does not constitute a picnic. We all have to eat alone from time to time, but the nub of the picnic (for me at least) is that it is a family occasion. It has not always been so; Manet’s famous picture, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, depicts a far from suitable occasion for families; fully clothed young men lounge around a completely unclad lady. It is a French scene naturally, and that says it all. It is something that could never have taken place in England; it includes a naked woman for heaven’s sake; but in one respect it is an authentic picnic – the meal is taking place outdoors.
The open air picnic has followed Europeans around the world, from Australia to North America. In France, where the pique-nique began, in the year 2000 a huge 1000 kilometre long picnic was organised to celebrate the first Bastille Day of the new Millennium. In Italy (where Spring is rather warmer than it is in England) a popular time for picnics is Easter Sunday. In other cultures a picnic is an alien concept; Kenyans do not go in for picnics I gather, nor do Saudi Arabians. I would not want to live in a country that did not do picnics, but Europe does. Had we voted to remain in the European Union we could all have had a picnic together to celebrate, but that is now not going to happen. The people have spoken, and now we all have get on with living in post-Brexit Britain; but we should not forget the European origins of the picnic. We are all family really.