Nobody Picnics Like the French Can Can

Scheenagh Harrington takes a look at two things that make her world go round: food and France!


Every parent knows that day-to-day life can be, well, bloody awful. Finding socks that have been buried behind the washing machine for six weeks and ominous-looking oozings on bedroom ceilings (I swear there’s a leak above our daughter’s room…) are enough to put a kink in even the perkiest person’s day.

But then, there are the moments we all live for – especially those of us lucky enough to call some of the prettiest parts of France home.

Last weekend, to give my hard-working other half time to press his nose to the grindstone without having a backdrop of murder and mayhem, I took our three children to a park just a whisker outside of town. There, while small boy and slightly bigger girl whipped back and forth on a zip-slide, smallest boy snoozed and I gazed around at the lovely landscape.

The park is bordered by unfenced lakes and waterway, so dragonflies zip about at knee level (perfect for small boys to chase). Beyond the stable paddocks there are mature birch trees, screening a bird sanctuary, where egrets and otters frolic.

Even further in the distance are our beautiful Black Mountains, the inspiration for our little company’s name. Ironically, even in the clearest light, they’re more softly blue-grey, but who am I to split hairs?

It’s a tiny corner of heaven that also includes a picnic area – and it’s this that has prompted me to put fingers to keyboard. Nobody – at least nobody I know – picnics like the French.

As a child of the 1970s and UK welfare system, my idea of a picnic was a quartet of jam sandwiches carted around in a carrier bag. That’s it. No juice (that was something that happened to other people anyway – we drank tea so strong you could slice it, or water), no cake, nada. And yet in the context of WHY we were having a picnic, it didn’t matter. What was important was the outing that required food we could carry.

It’s not quite the same here. Our first picnic on French soil wasn’t a million miles away from those heady childhood days – except cold meat had replaced the jam between the bread. Essentially the food we took out was cold and easy to transport.

What a shock lay in store at our municipal park in the summer of 09. I saw a French family – past masters of the picnicking business, clearly – rock up with not one or two but SEVEN of the biggest cool boxes I’d ever seen. Seriously, small boy could disappear into one of them and never be seen again.

On top of that were several large carrier bags – ending in an instant my eternal shame of using them for anything other than lining bins. I watched in absolute fascination as the children scarpered to play on swings, roundabouts and an enormous rope araignee (designed solely to put the fear of god into parents), while the adults set to work.

First the table – a common-or-garden bench – was thoroughly swept and cleaned, before a pure white tablecloth was laid over it. Next, out came clingfilmed bowls of salad – at least three – and two of pasta. The coolboxes held tartes, pitchers of juice, platters of cakes and meat – a complete feast! Shiny silver cutlery followed and I swear a candelabra was going to follow, but no: it was just the wine – in a cooler. Finally, plates (real china!) were gently placed on the table along with bread.

I was amazed. THIS was how to eat outdoors! The next time we tried it, spending hours preparing quiches, sandwiches, cakes, buying a coolbox and a real picnic set. I even packed a tablecloth. Sitting down to that meal, with the sun warm on my back, sipping at ice-cold orange juice, I told my children about how I picnicked when I was their age. My daughter was shocked. “You mean you didn’t have HP sauce?” she gasped, as she dipped her slice of quiche Lorraine in it (philistine).

Sitting watching my children play five years later, even the most ordinary picnic area in our home town makes me smile. I’ve seen groups of up to 20 friends lay blankets on the ground and pool their culinary resources, and been vaguely jealous of the social bubble they basked in.

I’ve seen families eagerly waiting to snaffle chunks of meat and fish from public barbecues (something else that was a complete novelty), before spending lazy afternoons lounging in the sun and watching the world go by. They are all simple pleasures, but when life throws six-week-old smelly socks and potential roof collapses at you, sometimes the only answer is drag out the coolbox, grab the BBQ tools and head for the nearest wide open space.