Far from the ‘Beast of the East’ that bombarded us with freezing temperatures last year, the ‘Guest from the West’ is bringing us unprecedented warmth and sunshine. The perfect time then for a winter picnic and Anna Pocock has all the tips you need to make yours a resounding success.
Maybe I read too much Enid Blyton in my youth, but picnics have long been my favourite way to eat. And walking, cycling, sailing or kayaking somewhere beautiful, then unpacking a carefully prepared feast, is a pleasure that’s too good to confine to the all-too-short summer months. Not that anyone wants to brave a rain-lashed, windswept beach for an alfresco snack, testing the stiff upper lip of even the bravest Brit. But on a dazzlingly crisp winter’s day, what could be more welcome after a heart-pumping walk than to be handed a steaming broth or still-hot pies that simultaneously warm belly and hands; and something sweetly sticky afterwards, washed down perhaps with an eye-watering gulp from a hip flask.
Unlike the languid, sit-down affairs of summer picnicking, the focus here is on a warming feast to revive body and soul. You’re not looking to set up camp – unless you are also prepared to make an accompanying camp-fire to keep everyone warm! But even with a Boy Scout in the party, hot food is essential on a winter picnic, and brings an instant smile to every rosy-cheeked face. Speed is also of the essence – you don’t want to faff about cooking in the cold, so preparation beforehand is key. Do as much as you can at home, in the well-stocked convenience of your kitchen, so you can tuck into a warming snack before anyone gets cold feet (literally, as well as figuratively).
Tried and Tested winter fare
A warmed-up vat of soup, spicy chilli or a hearty casserole is undeniably inviting when there’s a nip in the air. Picnickers will enjoy hugging their hands around a steaming bowl of goodness as much as they will devouring its contents. But unless you have very patient friends, it’s advisable to cook these options at home (or pack some tins of tomato soup if you don’t have the time or inclination to cook from scratch) and warm through at your chosen picnic location. Use a portable camping hob, such as this mini stove that’s light, easy to use, and packs away into its own bijou suitcase, making it super-simple to transport. Pimp tinned soups up with dollops of sour cream and good fresh bread.
Hot dogs are universally excellent picnic options, whatever the weather, and best assembled just before eating. Either wrap pre-cooked sausages in aluminium foil, or take a disposable barbecue to cook them from scratch for that authentically smoky flavour (make sure you extinguish the BBQ before you leave, and either find a bin or take it home with you). As ever, the devil is in the detail, so don’t forget to pack some pre-fried sliced onions, chopped gherkins (if you like that sort of thing) and whichever mustards and sauces your crew are partial to.
A tasty vegetarian dish, which always transports me to the virtual cosiness of an Alpine log cabin, is a whole camembert, skewered with rosemary sprigs and drizzled with vermouth or white wine, then wrapped tightly in baking paper and warmed in a frying pan for as long as your patience will allow. Unfold the paper wrapping to form an impromptu serving plate, and share out hunks of dark rye bread or ciabatta to dip into its gooey depths. Thickly sliced figs are delicious in lieu of chutney.
My personal favourite winter fodder, which is both filling and warming, is a homemade pasty or Spanish-style empanadita: both variations on buttery envelopes of pastry filled with crab, chicken or tuna and whatever vegetables you can cram in – sautéed leeks work well, and black olives are essential for the empanadita. I usually bake these just before we leave the house, then double-wrap a mound of the pasties in thick aluminium foil. They should still be warm an hour or so later. Whilst they will happily munch on a chicken pasty, my children prefer Croque Monsieurs (toasted sandwiches) – we make the ham and cheese sarnies up at home, buttering the outside of the bread too, before wrapping in baking parchment. When we reach our picnic destination, I’ll pop open the mini-hob, fish a frying pan out of my rucksack, and fry the pre-greased sandwiches until the bread is toasted and the cheese begins to melt.
Alfresco desserts are best suited to simple, hand-held options, since you’re unlikely to be lounging back on a picnic blanket for any length of time. Panettone spread with clotted cream or a scoop of brandy butter tastes suitably seasonal in winter, as do mince-pies. Alternatively, chocolate gingerbread loaf and chilli-chocolate cupcakes give just the right hit of spicy-sweetness. Children may prefer their sweet without any spice: try toffee apples, salted caramel brownies or iced snowflake biscuits.
Hot chocolate is a perennial favourite amongst little ones, and perfect for warming them up when the temperature drops – don’t forget marshmallows and squirty cream! Adults may prefer spiced cider or mulled wine, packed in a thermos, while a hip flask is useful for fortifying nips of stronger stuff. Or if you fancy a warming cuppa of the nation’s favourite beverage, it’s worth packing a thermos of freshly boiled water, a separate stash of cold milk and some teabags, so you can make a cup of tea on site. Pre-prepared tea never tastes as good – and the tannins will stain your thermos flask, making it impossible to get clean.
Our picnic options have expanded vastly since converting our camper-van last year; now I can simply pop the van roof up, pull out the built-in gas hob, and cook anything the kids fancy, from risotto to an omelette; I have even been known to make tea at the ferry terminal while waiting for the boat to dock. But for those off-the-beaten track destinations, I shall still be relying on my trusty portable hob and mini barbecue to cook all our winter picnics.
Words & Pictures: Anna Pocock – Isle of Write