The Mole, wriggling with curiosity, asked: “What’s inside it?” “There’s cold chicken inside it,” replied the Rat. “Cold tongue, cold ham, cold beef, pickled gherkins, salad, french rolls, cress sandwiches, potted meat, ginger beer, lemonade, soda water…”
When it came to filling a picnic basket with all the good stuff required for a royal-feasting, tummy-packing, belt-loosening grand day out, few did the task better than Ratty in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.
Today though, the idea of a motoring picnic – a proper picnic, not a couple of sandwiches and a packet of crisps grabbed from a fuel station forecourt – seems long lost in far off halcyon days of the past. Now, in a post-lockdown world, we have to socially-distance queue for overpriced motorway service food, secure a table with 360-degree, one-metre-plus bio protection and then hose it with hand sanitiser before sitting down. So, perhaps it is time for the return of the Great British Motoring Picnic.
But how do you create an alfresco dining experience that lives up to expectations? To get some ideas, we spoke to Lisa Goodwin-Allen, executive chef at the Michelin-starred Northcote, a luxury manor hotel located on the edge of the Ribble Valley in Lancashire.
And for those with no time for unfurling tartan blankets by babbling brooks, who just want to get there, and get there fast, we asked Audi Sport doctor and dietician Vincenzo Tota what he packs in his cool bag ahead of tackling a long motorway journey.
“If you want to make nice sandwiches, then you need to spend a little bit of money on good quality bread,” says Goodwin-Allen. “I’d go for small sub rolls, crusty on the outside and soft in the middle, then you can have a nice selection of fillings, rather than going for rounds and rounds of the same thing.
“You can keep it simple with ham and mustard, egg and cress, things like that, or you can go to the other extreme with a little tub of caviar and blinis – it just depends how luxurious you want to be.
“If you really want to push the boat out, you can go to your fishmonger and get some ready-cooked lobster or crab, chop it up with some herbs and mix it in a good mayonnaise and you've got yourself a delicious sandwich."
If you are not a fish fan, what about some coronation chicken? And no, we’re not talking about those little “sandwich-filler” plastic pots you can buy in the supermarket. “It’s easy to make your own with cooked chicken, curried mayonnaise with some sultanas and chopped onion,” says Goodwin-Allen.
Cucumber sandwiches are a staple of the great British picnic, but the chef believes they are best “jazzed-up” with some locally-sourced cheese. If you are feeling ambitious, the traditional sausage roll recipe can also be given the jazz treatment with a little sprinkle of truffle. And no decent picnic is complete without some homemade scotch eggs.
However, Goodwin-Allen also isn't averse to adding a few purchased items: “Roy Porter Butchers in Chatbun make amazing pork pies, so I never bother making my own,” she admits.
When it comes to something sweet to finish with, the chef is in favour of the traditional scone, although she admits it is being overtaken by the more on-trend cupcake. “Fresh fruit, such as strawberries, helps keep things healthy, but I am a sucker for a homemade vanilla slice – they’re messy, but they are not that hard to make,” says Goodwin-Allen. “Buy some good puff pastry, cook it, and then whip up some cream with vanilla essence – just make sure it is quick enough to hold.”
The traditional tartan car blanket and a vintage picnic hamper, brimming with some plastic clip boxes to keep the food fresh, are a must. But not, however, the flask of lukewarm tea. "No, not the flask of tea!” exclaims Goodwin-Allen. “You want a nice chilled-to-perfection sparkling English wine to wash it all down with. And somebody to drive the car home, of course.”
When it comes to picnic hampers, like making sandwich fillings, it’s a case of how extravagant you want to be and how much you want to spend. The Wholeleaf Company produces a plastic-free recycled card picnic box that comes complete with 25 palm leaf plates and bowls, along with compostable cups suitable for hot or cold drinks, for just £29.99. Regency Hampers will kit you out with a two-bottle folding hamper for less than £70. Shop at Fortnum and Mason and you can easily spend north of £400 for a picnic basket, but it does come with fine bone china.
Of course, lavish, languid picnics are not much use when you need to get to your destination as quickly as possible and have only a few minutes to prepare your food before heading off. Part of Doctor Vincenzo Tota's job is to ensure that Audi's racing drivers eat the right grub to keep them sharp on the track, and in the past he has helped fuel drivers to victory at the gruelling Le Mans 24 Hours race. He’s a practical man though, who likes to keep things quick and simple when it comes to food.
“Recently I had to drive from London to the Lausitzring circuit in eastern Germany, which is a 15-hour trip. I wanted to minimise any risk of exposure to Covid-19, which for me meant avoiding eating in motorway services," he explains. “So, I went to the supermarket and bought some bread, cheese and ham and made sandwiches – although, of course, you could just have cheese or vegan cheese.
“The important thing is it does not need to be complicated. It just needs to be easy to make, easy to digest and tasty.”
Tota has a small fridge in his car, but a cool box or bag will also help keep things fresh. “I put some bottled water in the fridge,” he continues, “along with some Coca Cola Zero, because sometimes you need something dangerous in your life and it gives you a shot of caffeine.
“Being Italian I am not a fan of taking tea and coffee with me in a flask. But if you want to do that, it's fine. You need to have something to give you pleasure on a long drive."
Choosing the wrong food, though, can severely affect your ability to concentrate during a long drive warns the doctor. “The more workload you put on the liver during digestion, the greater your risk of feeling tired and even falling asleep,” he says.
“In order not to overload the liver, you have to avoid fatty, creamy greasy, heavy food." Carbs, a little bit of jam or marmalade, fresh fruit and protein bars and energy bars, if not over-consumed, are all good news.
“A little piece of chocolate with nuts is nice too,” concludes Tota. “You need some fun on your journey – just don’t eat a full super-size bar, because then you’ll almost certainly fall asleep afterwards.”
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