I love the idea of eating alfresco, I really do, but I can’t recall ever enjoying the reality. It’s not for lack of aptitude. I’m perfectly capable of assembling the elements of a really good-looking picnic, with white napery and champagne misting photogenically in a bucket. I’m good at this because I write books about food and have spent days on location, watching stylists organise food and props while people in baseball caps scurry about lighting the damn thing.
I can pack the perfect picnic, I believe I know what’s required for the ideal setting, so why does the reality of both always fall so horribly short?
I’ve begun to appreciate that there is an unbridgeable gap between the ideal we have of alfresco eating, the pictures we make and share, and the truth — the myriad tiny indignities and inconveniences that inevitably thwart us. Between that and reality falls the shadow.
I’m not sure quite when it was that we Brits turned our eyes to the Mediterranean. Blame Lord Byron and the young Milords doing the Grand Tour on their gap year, blame cheap package holidays or Elizabeth David, but when we dream of outdoor eating, it is always overlooking blue sea or in some sun-baked piazza. But we are not people of the sun, just look at the atlas. We share latitudes with Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. A truer image for us would be braving the drizzle in a square overlooked by a lowering Gothic bell tower, or huddling around the brazier in a pine forest somewhere, collar turned up against the rain and grilling some sort of fungus. Better still we are indoors, in some Valhallan bierhalle, the fire alight and singing morose drinking songs with our fellow northern Europeans. It would really help if we could manage our expectations — not Amalfi or Saint-Paul de Vence but Tallinn or Bruges.
Perhaps the defining image of alfresco dining is Édouard Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe”. The painting is often cited as symbolising the transition from Realism to Impressionism, and art critics delight in its contradictions and inconsistencies — not least the fact that the principal female character in the piece is, for no logical reason, entirely naked. Why are the men wearing indoor clothes? Why is the naked woman lit as if by sunlight, the men as if by studio lighting? The Academy jury was incensed enough to reject the painting outright in 1863, but Manet got one thing right. It’s a picnic so everybody is obviously bloody miserable.
The man in the funny little hat seems to have found himself a rustic tussock to lean on, or possibly a shallow hole in which to place his bottom, so he’s at least not in screaming pain, but his mate is staying upright solely thanks to frankly unbelievable core work. Naked woman is twisted into a spiral in her desperation to catch our eye so none of them is in any position to eat. If you’ve got a 17-degree lateral kink in your L3-L4 vertebrae, your entire stomach wall clenched to keep you in position, you couldn’t swallow even if you could get the food to your mouth with your one free hand.
Funny, isn’t it? In pictures of picnics, from classical paintings to Instagram, people drape themselves elegantly, propped insouciantly on an elbow, always laughing maniacally, flirting or chatting animatedly but no one, no one, is ever trying to actually masticate an egg sandwich.
I’m evolved to eat sitting at a table and I consider it my responsibility to do so in order to maintain my position at the top of the food chain. This bunch are oblivious. They don’t care that their déjeuner is strewn across l’herbe, prey to ants and wasps. My God. Have they even considered the wasps? This painting, which is supposed to define the relaxed, bohemian charm of alfresco eating, looks more and more like a rolling disaster.
OK, enough of the physical discomfort. Let’s talk logistics.
I have another dream picture pinned up in my office. It’s by Slim Aarons, an American photographer who, after experiencing the horrors of the second world war through his camera, spent the subsequent decades photographing the jet-set jeunesse dorée in their favourite resorts around Europe. The picture is an odd one. There are four people, tanned, obviously wealthy, relaxing at a table with a cloth, bowls of fruit and pasta. There’s a small side table with wine, dessert and a pile of clean plates. They’re perched on a vertiginous terrace halfway up a cliff in Capri, looking out over a very private view of some spectacular rock formations and the eternal lapis lazuli of the Med.
Given the nature of Aarons’ photographs — rich, beautiful people doing expensive things — I’m not sure I like myself for liking this one so much. I console myself with the interesting angle from which it was taken. It’s not visibly posed like most of his work. In fact, the photographer is further up the cliff, perched and shooting downwards, ignored by the diners. Perhaps the most significant thing about the photo to me, though, is something that would only really occur to someone who’s spent too much of his life in food service. People were involved in setting the table, plating that food and getting it down those precipitous steps. Quite a few people. And I am almost certain that none of them is in shot.
I am entirely in agreement with the idea of eating something while taking in an awe-inspiring view. I too would like to slake my hunger gazing out over an unbroken highland vista or 50 miles of unspoilt, uninterrupted Pembrokeshire coast, and that is why good people have invented the Thermos, Kendal Mint Cake and nourishing energy bars. But the thing about views is that they get better the more remote they are. The thing about food is that it gets less enjoyable the farther you have to hump it. They say the view doesn’t start until you’re out of sight of the car park and that’s already further than I’m prepared to carry a folding table. I want, with all my heart, to be sitting on that terrace in Capri, but I’m not sure I want a team of Sherpas carrying everything from the kitchen.
How can I be so positive that we suffer a kind of false consciousness about outdoor eating? I know because I’m secretly part of the problem. Like many foodies, I sometimes Instagram things I’ve cooked (@timhayward, since you ask). My family is now used to the brief pause before eating, to me fiddling with a light, or climbing on to the step-stool kept in the kitchen solely for the purpose of framing better “overheads”. It’s a shallow business to be sure, but that’s not even the most embarrassing bit. The kitchen door opens on to the only outside space in the house — a small terrace on which I keep the “InstaTable”. It’s a terrible thing. Too rickety to support anything, the underpinnings held together with metal strapping and rusted screws. Nobody is allowed to clean it in case they diminish its authentic wabi-sabi. Whenever the sun is bright enough, I slide back the door, shoot the plate in gorgeous, dappled light . . . and then bring it back indoors to eat it.
You think I’m eating outdoors, at the attractively patinated table, as the sun trickles through the bougainvillea, my adoring family around me, drinking pink wine and laughing appreciatively at my bon mots . . . Hell, I want to believe that too. Like everyone else, I’m deeply invested in the idea, but, when it finally boils down to it, I can’t be arsed. I’d rather be somewhere more controlled. Just inside, sitting on a proper chair at a proper table, doors open and looking out. Maybe in a restaurant with a view. Maybe best of all, on the terrace of a restaurant somewhere, where lots of people are deeply invested in the idea of me eating alfresco, will bring me stuff and sort things out if they go wrong.
I am looking now at what I believe to be the only honest representation of picnicking in the canon, a black-and-white photograph of a couple having a picnic on what the caption tells us is the A38 outside Newton Abbot. She reclines on one of those aluminium framed folding bed/chair things we used to pinch our fingers in. There is a tartan blanket. The inevitable Thermos. He’s ageless the way men still were back then. He could be anything from 30 to 70. There is a Primus stove and a kettle for tea. He looks like he might have learnt to use it driving a tank to Tobruk. Neither of them looks particularly happy and we can see why. They’re sitting in a lay-by and, though they may be looking at a perfectly lovely view behind the photographer, inches behind their shoulders, a Hillman Minx passes at speed.
I made a print of it and keep it in my notebook. A useful touchpoint. It reminds me of the strange indignities of postwar British life, of our continuing resilience in adversity, if not with a gay laugh then at least with sullen determination. But above all I keep it like a sort of memento mori, not so much to remind me of death, but to show as a sobering shot of reality to anyone who suggests we eat outside or “pack a picnic”.
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