We must take adventures to know where we truly belong. I am a bit of a control freak, I admit, so my way around “adventures” with three kids, is to pack a great picnic to take with us … at least lunch will be predictable! Since moving to France nearly four months ago (eek time flies!), our way around EVERYTHING being closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays is to jump in the car and drive somewhere new. It’s backfired once or twice, believe me. In the middle of winter, we once drove forty minutes to greet the pouring rain in a ghost town with nowhere to take cover. So the picnic happened in the car, right after I lost the coin toss and had to make a (very cold and wet!) dash to the boulangerie at one minute before noon. The kids thought it was great … hubby was not so impressed and spent the next few days picking breadcrumbs out of the upholstery.
But mostly, we’ve had beautiful picnics – in front of World Heritage Listed chateaux and cités, by gushing rivers and trickling streams in tiny towns that look like they’ve almost been forgotten about, and by shiny lakes with looming mountains in the background and a smattering of nearly naked trees struggling to show off their early-Spring leaves in maroon, burnt orange and bright yellows. We even picnicked in the courtyard of an old library-turned apartment building in a country village once, which was perfected by the smiling young mademoiselle who swished by offering “Bon appetit!” as she disappeared inside.
I feel like I may have perfected the art of packing a picnic into one bag and being able to walk out the door with three kids and a hubby in fifteen minutes flat. I’ve learned there are two rules to make it work. The first rule is to keep it simple. It’s not at all like hosting lunch at home. The second rule is that people don’t eat as much as they would at the table. The kids are more interested in the playground or their surroundings, so you can pack far less, and top them up later with an ice cream as a treat or an afternoon tea when you get home. (As a side issue, the French really don’t do morning tea – just coffee – but they are big on their gôuter – afternoon tea).
The easiest picnic I’ve packed was when I had leftovers from my poached chicken and beetroot salad from the night before. It filled a large Tupperware container, and it’s an all-in-one meal. I threw in some plastic bowls and some vintage cutlery I had bought the day before for only five euros (it’s always nice to have real cutlery – real crockery is way too hard) and the bulk was done. I always have baking in the freezer and cheese in the fridge (several in fact) so they get popped in the bag with some mandarins, a baguette bought on the way, and you’re a superstar mum and caterer. If you want to really create a memory, it’s lovely to include a bottle of bubbles and some plastic flutes. Discard all the plasticware before you leave and it makes for a quick getaway and a no-mess cleanup.
For colder weather, prepare in advance by having soup already made in the freezer. Take it out the night before (ha! who am I kidding … a whole day and a night before in the European winter …) and store it hot in a Thermos. A mug of soup finished with cheese and baguette – and perhaps some olives? – is very satisfying, packs neatly and fills up tummies.
The only other trick I have used is to make up a homemade dip (usually hommus or garlic and herb dip in fromage blanc) and transport it in a jar with a screw top lid. Cut up a stack of carrots, zucchinis, cucumber, capsicum – whatever you have on hand – into batons and you’ve got a speedy, nutritious snack. Throw in some cured ham, don’t forget the cheese and baguette and everyone’s happy.
Being away from “home” and living a much slower paced life has allowed me to really fall in love with the simple things you notice when you get good at doing the picnic thing … nature has so much to offer, a foreign culture always has a surprise or two waiting and quality time with your nearest and dearest can turn into amazing memories when you create a reason to huddle around a rug or a weather-beaten picnic table. Deadlines are non-existent and conversation flows easily. Picnics are food for your tummy and food for your soul.