Shaded by sun-dappled trees, the women in the painting enjoy a picnic flanked by elegant suitors. Like swans, their white gowns form a circle of ruffled lace on the ground. Nearby are mounds of fresh fruits, baguettes, thick wedges of salt-cured ham, a chocolate cake and bottles of red wine. “The Picnic Lunch” memorializes Claude Monet’s sentimental, idyllic view of picnics.
With broad strokes, he inspired many impromptu picnics during my trip to Paris. Memorable afternoons were spent in solitude on the quays of the River Seine. And, as if in a movie, I recalled couples stretched out on the Eiffel Tower’s grassy knolls, reveling in each other’s company while breaking bread. The beauty of their surroundings seemed to amplify their simple meal, framing it with an aura of enchantment.
French kings may have coined the term pique-nique, but their humble subjects didn’t embrace this royal tradition until the aristocrats were deposed and parks were opened to the general public in the late 1700s. So for July Fourth and National Picnic Month, which also happens to be July, France will be my inspiration for the picnic basket. After all, the French helped the American colonists defeat the Brits in the Revolutionary War. Plus, French Independence Day (Bastille Day) is on July 14.
Au Petite Paris Restaurant owner and chef Eric Legros said he looked forward to Bastille Day in Paris, when fireworks plastered the skies with a Technicolor display and families picnicked on sandwiches.
“Picnic is a way of life for the French,” he said. “I remember many, growing up. It was always simple, but delicious, like ripe tomatoes, sliced at the picnic grounds and enjoyed simply with salt.”
French native Monique Pouyau recalls elaborate picnic meals from her vivacious mother.
“My father hated picnics. As a compromise, my mother would make a whole meal, such as roasted chicken,” she said.
Karen Urbani enjoyed numerous picnics all over France. For seven years, she and husband Olivier Lichtarge traveled there for work and enjoyed exploring French castles and medieval villages.
“One of the most memorable picnics was on top of a castle,” she recalled. “While we ate in the church yard under a chestnut tree, we could see the hills around us and fields of lavenders below.”
Always an impromptu affair, Karen said, shopping for a picnic in France was always as enjoyable as the meal itself because it was never one-stop shopping. She would start with a visit to the cheese shop, then move to another shop for sausages and to the bakery for crispy French baguettes.
“You never knew what you would get that day. It depended on what was in season and fresh,” she said. “In France, cheese came in different (degrees of) ripeness. You would tell the shopkeeper when you wanted to eat the cheese, and he would help pick a cheese that was ready that day or two weeks later.”
Here are other ideas from Urbani, Legros and Del Frisco sommelier Jaffer Kovic for your French picnic:
Fill a large Thermos with a cold, refreshing tomato-tarragon soup. In a blender, add canned diced tomatoes, such as Muir Glen, and blend until smooth. Add chopped tarragon, olive oil, red wine vinegar, a pinch of brown sugar, salt and fresh, cracked black pepper.
Layer a baguette with cold butter and ham (jambon de Bayonne); sprinkle with Maldon sea salt.
Make crepes the night before and keep in the refrigerator, using wax paper to separate them. When ready to eat, spread them with hazelnut-chocolate Nutella.
Pan bagna, or bathed bread, is a southern France specialty. Make an anchovy smear with balsamic vinegar, minced garlic and pitted, Nicoise olives. Layer with canned tuna, such as Ortiz or Serrats. Top with fresh basil, radishes and tomatoes. Drizzle with sea salt and quality extra-virgin olive oil. Wrap the sandwich in plastic or white butcher paper and squish it with a heavy plate, then store it in the refrigerator to marry flavors overnight.
Add sparkle with Gramona Cava. This bubbly wine, reminiscent of toffee, baked green apples and lemon zest, pairs well with cheese, foie gras and pates. For smoked meats and roasted chicken, consider a Chablis. Try Jean-Marc Brocard’s ’07 Fourchaume Premier Cru with flints of minerality, aromas of lemons and clean, crisp green apples. It pairs well with white meats, seafood and smoked fish. Finally, to accompany cured meats and sausages, consider a ripe, fruity Cote du Rhone, such as Domaine d’Andezon or the ’07 Domaine de Marcroux.
Editor’s Note: The Buzz welcomes Dai Huynh as a contributing writer. Dai is an award-winning journalist who has traveled the world for a good meal. In August, she will share ideas on preparing quick family meals with just five easy ingredients.