I have a copy of a 1968 book from the series Foods of the World that I picked up in a second-hand store for two bucks. This one features the "cooking of provincial France" and in it is a photo that fills me with nostalgia.
It's of a French family, the Goethals, and two of their friends, and four children, who are now likely grown adults with children of their own. They are all perched on a hillside overlooking the Seine some 50 miles from Paris, enjoying a pique-nique , which I always think would make a good name for a smaller version of the Pique .
What takes me back in time is not the green Tupperware container of salad or the straw pique-nique hamper. Rather, it's the woolen red plaid blanket they're sitting on, what we would call a car blanket in Alberta - a blanket kept in the car, no doubt a throw-back to the horse-and-buggy days, to wrap around our short, child-sized legs while we sat in the back seat, which was not warmed, at least not adequately so, by the car heater on any days except the hottest in July and August.
Car blankets in Alberta were also kept handy for picnics, or wiener roasts, to be had at White Mud Creek, a preferred site to Black Mud Creek (I'm not making these names up!). Or at Sylvan or Cooking lakes, if the respective dads were up for a longer drive.
Whatever the location for picnics, I'm sure no one ever brought along what constituted the Goethals '60s pique-nique : a tomato-cheese pie based on Ms. Goethal's mother's rec'ipe; lamb, kidneys and livers to barbecue; baguettes, fruit and cheese; a spicy Provençal tuna salad; and "plenty" of cider and good, local red wine.
The livers and kidneys, intended for roasting on skewers over the open fire, and the spicy salad, would have all been non-starters for a picnic back in Edmonton, but I'm pretty sure we would have gone for the baguettes and roasted lamb chunks. And while the men, and one or two daring women, would crack open the occasional beer, you couldn't exactly have described the alcoholic element plentiful. It would certainly be dumped out by cops patrolling a park today. But, of course, we weren't, and never will be, French.
However, all of this, even the open fire in the middle of the grassy field, worked in the summery countryside of 1960s France, before take-out, before booze-pouring cops and long before smokin', campfire-forbidden summers like this one that's even had French President Nicolas Sarkozy collapsing from the heat. Enough to make one nostalgic for more than a simple red plaid car blanket.
But if you're up for a picnic, I still recommend them heartily, the more home-made, the better. Yes, we're all busy, but it doesn't take much to throw something together that will taste ten thousand times better than the predictably unimaginative deli salads from most take-out counters.
Take a tip from James Beard, who grew up on the Oregon coast and knew the joys of cold poached fish or a Cornish game hen poached in chicken broth. Go ahead, buy a couple of boxes of organic chicken broth and throw in that hen and simmer it for about 20 minutes a pound. Done.
How about a bunch of shredded raw vegetables - carrots, cucumber and celery - marinated in a vinaigrette sauce. Use a commercial vinaigrette if you have to, but it's so easy to throw together with the classic two-to-one ratio of oil to vinegar, as in 2/3 cup of good olive, grape seed, sunflower or whatever oil, to 1/3 cup of good vinegar. Add salt and pepper, favourite herbs, maybe a crushed garlic clove and/or some good mustard.
One of the important points of planning a cold meal that Beard emphasizes is serving a variety of textures and flavours. If you have cold meat or fish, counterpoint it with a crisp green salad. Creamy yogurt dips add to the mix. Add some fresh fruit - berries, apricots, watermelon - good bread or buns, and a good chunk of cheese, and you're off to the adult version of a Teddy Bear's picnic.
Oh, and don't forget the blanket.
If you're feeling more adventuresome, here's the recipe for the Goethal family's tomato-cheese pie. Bon appetite!
Tarte à la tomate
1 pâte brisée pastry shell
1 pound Gruyère cheese, cut in thin slices,
2 or 3 large tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried basil or 1 tablespoon finely cut fresh basil
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons melted butter
Use an 8- or 9-inch square pan or dish and bake a pâte brisée pastry shell and let it cool. (If you're not quite up to that much of a culinary adventure, just buy a pre-made one). Sprinkle the tomato slices generously with salt; place them on a cake rack to drain for about 1/2 hour. Preheat oven to 375. Slightly overlap the cheese slices in the bottom of the pieshell and arrange the drained tomato slices side by side on top. Sprinkle with pepper, the basil and Parmesan cheese. Dribble the melted butter over the tomatoes and bake for 25 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the top of the pie is lightly browned. Serve warm or hot. For their picnic, the Goethals warmed theirs over the fire, but given our fire bans this summer, enjoy it at afternoon temperature.
6 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into 1/4-inch bits
2 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 to 5 tablespoons ice water
In a large chilled mixing bowl, combine butter, vegetable shortening, flour and salt. Working quickly, rub the flour and fat together until they blend and look like flakes. Pour 3 tablespoons of ice water over the mixture all at once; toss together lightly and make a ball. If the dough seems crumbly, add up to 2 tablespoons more ice water by drops. Dust the pastry with a little flour, wrap it in wax paper or bag, refrigerate it for at least 3 hours until firm. Remove the pastry from the fridge 5 minutes before rolling it. Place the ball on a floured board and press it into a flat circle. Dust a little flour over and under it and roll it out until it's about 1/8 inch thick and about 11 or 12 inches across, or a size that fits your pan.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who prefers limeade to lemonade.