top of page

Picnic on the Park? The History & Tradition

As summer is in full swing, I wanted to tell you about the Great British past time of the traditional picnic. But in a modern age when you can get almost anything pre-packaged, have we forgotten how to pack a perfect picnic?

Gone are the homemade meals and multiple courses, replaced by convenience foods, to go food (or as the Brits call them “takeaways”).

The earliest picnics in England and France were medieval hunting feasts in the 14th Century, says The Oxford Companion to Food, but the word itself did not come in to common use until 1740.

Picnic, or pique-nique, is of French origin, formed from piquer, the French for "to pick at food", and nique meaning something small of no value.

Its meaning has slightly changed over the years.

In the Littre dictionary it was described as "an informal meal in which everyone pays his share or brings his own dish", however later the Oxford English Dictionary said it was: "An occasion when a packed meal is eaten outdoors, especially during an outing to the countryside."

Once only reserved for wealthy hunters and country people out on their estates, it was the Victorians who popularized the picnic and made it commonplace, with writers like Dickens, Trollop and Jane Austen all adopting the convention in their books.

The Victorians used to pack the most wonderful picnics.The Victorian picnic was a way of taking the meal in its entirety outside, whereas the modern picnic is about fuss-free easy to eat food, that can be enjoyed whilst in good company and enjoying the short-lived British summertime.

Upscale British department store, Fortnum & Mason's archivist, Andrea Tanner, says eating outdoors was not originally something for the upper classes, but Fortnum's was at the forefront of the picnic hamper.

They didn't start off as picnic hampers, they started off as travelers’ baskets in the 18th Century. There were a lot of coach inns along Piccadilly and baskets would be given to people to continue their journeys.

By the early Victorian period they were producing very large hampers full of raised pies, the Scotch eggs which they invented in the 1730s, boned and sliced chickens and capons, English cheeses, bread baked goods, butter wrapped in lettuce leaves, to keep it sweet and cool, very rich fruit cake.

Originally servants and coaches used to come in Victorian times at 4am to pick up a picnic hamper for Epsom Derby - that was a big event, and lobster salad was the great luxury. It was half a lobster and great quantities of alcohol.

Simplicity was not the Victorians' strong point - as can be seen in the "Bill of fare for a Picnic for Forty Persons" in Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management of 1861.

The menu: A joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, two ribs of lamb, two shoulders of lamb, four roast fowls, two roast ducks, a ham, a tongue, two veal-and-ham pies, two pigeon pies, six medium-sized lobsters, one piece of collared calf's head, then salads, biscuits, bread and cheese, and 122 bottles of drink - plus champagne.

Cooks wrapped a hard-boiled egg - or pullet's egg - in sausagemeat and coated it in fried breadcrumbs and called it a Scotch Egg. The scotch egg was not named after Scotland, but rather after the word scotched - another word for processed. Fortnum & Mason's claims to have created the portable snack in the 1730s, when people traveled on long-distance carriage journeys and needed food they could take with them. Fortnum's says: "Substantial, tasty and full of protein, it was an excellent way to stave off hunger pangs."

Since then it has become a classic British food, but unlike in the USA where scotch eggs are served warm, these would be served chilled on a picnic.

In the Edwardian era it was more like having banquets out of doors and would supply everything, including servants and livery.

Picnics became more and more elaborate in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the 1920's, a big department stores had an entire department for picnic hampers and for motorists, which was the sport of the day, and made up the menus for them, and supplied the little wicker baskets and linen.

During the yachting festival Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight, Fortnum's even had a boat to deliver the picnics to yachts moored in Cowes.

The main change since Victorian times is that today people don't have the same number of servants to carry everything around.

In 1936, Hilda Leyel, of Shripney Manor, Shripney, Sussex wrote the Perfect Picnic.

"The art of arranging cold meals is to choose dishes that are better cold than they would be hot," she wrote.

She championed local seasonal ingredients and recommended dishes like egg mayonnaise on crusty bread, watercress, beetroot and nasturtium salad, and chicken and leek pie.

Picnickers still seem to enjoy a taste of nostalgia and a splash of yesteryear - with pies still a picnic staple.

Individual items seem perfect picnic food - for example the pork pie. A cold meat terrine covered in a lardy pastry again served cold. It was very popular among fox hunters as it was easy to slip into a pocket.

If you are looking for traditional picnic food, why not drop in to Tina's Traditional and take something from the "Tina's Traditional To Go" menu. We have quiche, sausage rolls, Cornish Pasties and a selection of sweet pastries which will make a great Picnic in the Park adventure.

We also make pork pie and scotch eggs to order. Call 317 565 8716 and order your picnic food and pack a proper picnic for the family to enjoy.

1,287 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page