Picnic Times: Darina Allen’s scenic summer meals
From breakfast on the cliffs of Ballyandreen to putting a hot casserole in a hay box, Darina Allen reveals her favourite picnic ideas and memories
Darina Allen at Ballymaloe cookery school, Co Cork: ‘If there’s a warm Sunday without wind, we pack up baskets.’ Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Myrtle’s Chest of Sandwiches. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
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DARINA ALLEN: I come from a long line of picnickers. Always there’d be a picnic in the boot of the car, going to the races, going to Tramore for the day. They were the big picnics. We came from Cullahill in Co Laois, which was about as far away from the sea as you can get, so the great thrills of the summer were the couple of days when we went to Tramore. There were nine of us. Mummy would pack this great picnic into the boot and we’d unpack it, and she’d always have rugs and we’d spread all this out near the Metal Man on the cliffs.
Mummy cooked every day. She was a feeder and she just loved the pleasure that her food gave to all of us. She had Christmas dinner at the top of Cullahill mountain once. For her, food was about loving and nourishing. Whenever I’m going on the train or flying somewhere, I always take a picnic. A great favourite is an avocado and some sea salt. I’d just sprinkle it with Maldon sea salt (or Achill sea salt, which is so nice) and eat it with a spoon.
A picnic is always simple to me. It could be a roast chicken with a big jar of garlic or tarragon mayonnaise, some cucumber and little tomatoes. The chicken would be roasted, and not put in the cool box but wrapped in a teatowel on a plate to stop the juices going everywhere. So it would still be warm and juicy, once it’s a good chicken to start with (you don’t want to do that with a dodgy chicken).
There was another lovely thing that Myrtle [Allen] has passed on to us: the use of a hay box. The ones we use now are made out of a timber wine box. You put about three inches of hay around the bottom and sides and then you make a stew, a casserole or a tagine. You cook it until it’s nearly fully cooked in a big Le Creuset or cast-iron pot and then put it in the hay box with the lid on and more insulation of hay between the lid of the pot and lid of the box. Then you put it into the boot of the car. And you can drive for several hours with that and it’ll keep it hot. That’s a really lovely thing to do in the winter.
My favourite picnic of all is a breakfast picnic on the cliffs of Ballyandreen, which is near us. If there’s a warm Sunday without wind, we pack up baskets. They’re not the classic picnic baskets with the flat top and straps; these are just large, round baskets with the usual cutlery, plates and light frying pans. I’d make some brown and white soda bread and spotted dog so that it’s nice and warm, with butter, jam and marmalade.
Then we pack up rashers, sausages, mushrooms and eggs. We make some muesli: crushed strawberries or raspberries mixed up with soaked oatmeal. It’s kind of a bircher muesli that we make in Ballymaloe every day: oatmeal soaked in water mixed with crushed soft fruit or grated apple, depending on what’s in season, and just a little honey. We have bowls of that with freshly squeezed orange juice and flasks of coffee and water for tea.
When we get to the cliffs, we spread out our rugs on the lovely spongy grass at the top. Below us there’s a ledge with shale. The children and grandchildren will start with the muesli and I’ll go down with a couple of the others on to the shale and we’ll make little circles of stones.
We used to send the children off to find driftwood. But now we bring our own kindling, and cheat by bringing a firelighter. So we make several little fires and we start to fry rashers, sausages and eggs. You’d be surprised how quickly you can make a super breakfast and how extra delicious it tastes in the open air. It is just memorable.
I brought Alice Waters and Madhur Jaffrey there, and every time I meet them they say, “Oh my God, I remember that breakfast picnic”. We only manage to do it maybe three times in the summer, because it has to be warm, with no wind. But that’s just the most gorgeous picnic ever.
MYRTLE’S CHEST OF SANDWICHES
Myrtle used to do this for the children and she taught us how to do it in Ballymaloe.
- 1 loaf of good, unsliced bread
- Softened butter
- Flattish fillings of your choice: sliced ham, beef or chicken, cucumbers, egg mayonnaise
Carefully cut the top off the loaf but not all the way across: leave a hinge at one of the long sides. Using a good knife, carefully cut out the crumb from the centre of the block. Slice this, butter it and make your choice of sandwiches.
Don’t make your fillings too plentiful or the next stage will be tricky. Cut the sandwiches into thickish fingers and repack them into the shell again. Put down the lid and cover the chest. When you unpack it, surround it with lettuce leaves, tiny scallions, tomatoes and radishes that people can add to the sandwiches as they like.
READER STORY: MY WORST (AND BEST) PICNIC
“We’ll stop at the next picnic spot,” my dad shouted, barely audible over the rain lashing on the windscreen of our Datsun Cherry. It was 1985 and my brother, my parents and I were on our annual trek from Dublin to Kerry. Every year my mum would pack boiled eggs, chicken sandwiches, red cheddar and yellow-pack crisps into plastic bags. What we were really after were the United bars.
Three hours into the journey we began to crane our necks, trying to spot a landmark through the rain that might point the way to the forest picnic spot we had miraculously found the year before.
My brother spotted the forest. Dad screeched the Datsun into reverse and we aquaplaned into the picnic spot. Two wooden tables materialised through the fog. Coaxed out of the car, my brother and I sat resigned in our matching raincoats and munched our speciality, cheese hunks with crisp coatings, while the trucks sped furiously by just feet away. Then, the gods sang, the skies cleared and the sun came out. To celebrate we banged our eggs on the bench to peel them and my mum opened a bottle of cream soda. We nibbled all the chocolate off the sides of our Uniteds before the sun could melt it.
Food finished, my dad stuffed our rubbish into the Quinnsworth bags and hopped merrily off to the bin. Within seconds he had returned, sprinting around the picnic tables followed by several furious and persistent wasps. We ran, panicking and laughing back to the car.
My poor dad spent the remaining three hours of the journey hunched over the wheel of the Datsun, his back aflame with wasp stings. My brother and I sat sated in the back seat, stifling our laughter. Mum shouted from the front, “Next year let’s just get chips.” We never did.
Jan Doran Gorey, Co Wexford