Al fresco dining

5th August 2005 at 01:00
With the exception of Edouard Manet's 1863 painting Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, in which a naked woman shares a rug with two fully clothed men, it is the formality of the mid-19th century picnic that is striking. While most of Mrs Beeton's ingredients are available from any large supermarket (try the car park for those pigeons), it's not what you've got but what you do with it that makes the difference.

The former Shire Hall in Presteigne, Powys, is now the home of the Judge's Lodging Victorian Museum ( or phone 01544 260650), and staff there have recently published a booklet called Recipes for a Victorian Family Picnic, based on such works as Mrs Rafald's snappily titled Domestic Cookery Formed Along the Principles of Economy and Adapted to the Use of Private Families. Mrs Rafald describes how to make potted salmon by seasoning leftover fish with pepper, mace and salt, sprinkling it with shredded fennel, beating it in a marble mortar and covering it with clarified butter. "This is really quick and easy to make if you have a food processor," says the museum. "You can use cheap tinned salmon and it still tastes great." It makes a great sandwich filling. An interesting variation on the sandwich comes from Alexis Soyer, who did so much to improve army provisions during the Crimean War. He suggests mixing cream cheese in a basin with salt, pepper, and a little mustard, beating it to the consistency of butter, and using it "as butter on bread with slices of meat between".

No Victorian picnic would be complete without authentic lemonade, and the museum suggests the following recipe, using three large lemons and sugar.

"Remove the peel very thinly from the lemons (with a potato peeler or a zester). Put them into a 7in heavy pan and cover with about 1in of water.

Cover with a lid and put on to a very low heat. Do not let it boil or it will taste bitter. Leave to cool and strain the liquid into a jug. Add the squeezed juice and sugar to taste. Must be sweet and strong. Dilute this cordial with sparkling or still spring water."

Where to do it

* Cragside, near Rothbury in Northumberland, has picnic facilities liberally sprinkled around its 1,000-acre site. There are tables in woodland, or overlooking rivers, lakes and rockeries, and even one with a thatched boathouse attached. A trail takes visitors around Armstrong's hydraulic installations, and his house is full of the devices and gadgets that made it the wonder of the age. Tourist information and education details on 01669 620333620150, or visit property178.htm.

* Also try Cliveden in Berkshire, former home of the Astors, Highclere Castle in Hampshire, home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, the arts and crafts Wightwick in Staffordshire, or the sternly neo-classical Belsay in Northumberland. All have splendid grounds, and Wightwick and Belsay organise Victorian picnic events during the summer.

* A number of more venerable properties also boast Victorian gardens, one of the finest being that designed by Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. And remember that most of our public park and botanical gardens first opened their gates to picnickers in the 19th century. Typical examples are Manchester's Heaton Park and Liverpool's Calderstone Park, while many of the 610 square miles of green spaces in London owe their existence to the Victorian passion for collecting trees from far-away lands and then dining beneath their boughs.

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