One of the wonderful things about living in the Charente is the abundance of places to have a traditional French picnic.
Unlike when I lived in the UK, these places aren’t rammed with people, littered with rubbish or spoilt in any way.
In fact, in France picnicking areas are really well set up with benches provided and bins for getting rid of rubbish, all in an idyllic setting.
And the best bit is the wonderful countryside around you and the peace and quiet that comes with it.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen families enjoying picnics in our local area on a Sunday.
It’s such a lovely sight. They come with mountains of food, great wine, plates, glasses, rugs, tablecloths and everything you could think of to ensure a great picnic.
As we’re now in May it feels as though the picnic season is well and truly here.
The Origins of a French Picnic
The origins of picnics in France can be traced back to the 17th century. The French aristocracy would often hold outdoor feasts called “fêtes champêtres” (countryside parties), which involved elaborate meals served on tables in gardens or parks. These events were typically reserved for the wealthy and were formal affairs.
However, the concept of a more casual, informal outdoor meal became popular in France in the 19th century. This was partly due to the growth of public parks and gardens, which provided new spaces for people to socialise and relax.
In the late 19th century, impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir often depicted outdoor scenes of leisure activities, including picnics.
One of the most famous depictions of a picnic in French art is “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (Luncheon on the Grass) by Édouard Manet. The painting caused controversy when it was first exhibited in 1863 due to the fact that it depicted a nude woman among clothed men in a public park setting.
The longest picnic in France
To celebrate Bastille Day in the year 2000, France created the world’s longest picnic that stretched for 1000 km from Dunkirk in Normandy to the Catalan village of Prats-de-Mollo.
The organisers gave each village a length of the traditional red and white checkered tablecloth to spread over their tables. Everyone was encouraged to bring food and wine to share, and it was an event to remember.
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t play ball in all areas, but it didn’t stop thousands of people from turning out to enjoy the event.
Such a great way to promote the sense of community that is so quintessentially French, especially in the more rural areas of France.
I wish I’d been living in France at that time so I could have joined in the merriment. It reminds me of the street party we had for the Queen’s silver jubilee. I was about seven years old and will never forget the sight of all those rows and rows of tables lining our street. Plus, I had a purple silver jubilee dress I loved, especially for the occasion.
What is a French Picnic called?
The word picnic comes from the French word “Pique-nique”, which apparently, dates back to the 13th century. Although at this time, it was more food that was taken out when the nobles went hunting rather than how we think of it today.
What should you pack for a French Picnic
As with everything the French do when it comes to food, it is not something done casually. And there are a few things you need to prepare for a traditional French picnic.
Your basic supplies should include a tablecloth, blanket, picnic basket and something nice to serve your food and drink in.
In France, it’s never just a case of shoving a few things in a bag.
The French Picnic Tablecloth
Whilst it doesn’t need to be red and white checked, although that is traditional, all French picnics need a tablecloth to spread out the feast of food and drink to be enjoyed.
Even if you’re bringing a blanket, the tablecloth sits on top of the blanket. If you’re sitting on a wooden picnic bench the tablecloth covers the tabletop. Either way, it’s an important part of the whole thing.
The Best Picnic Blankets
Whenever I go on a picnic in the French countryside, I always have a blanket with me. Remember not every place you want to stop in will have picnic benches available.
And no French picnic is complete without something comfortable to sit on.
The best picnic blankets will usually have a waterproof bottom, so if the grass is wet, you’re protected.
My blanket came as part of my picnic basket, another decadence of the French picnic.
Choosing a French Picnic Basket
For me, it’s a wicker basket all the way. Although, there are some great picnic backpacks if you’re cycling through the French countryside.
I have both, and it depends on how I’m travelling as to which one I choose.
The important thing for me is that it contains everything I need to enjoy the food and drink I’ve brought with me.
I’m not a lover of plastic glasses or cutlery, so my backpack and basket needed to have proper glassware, cutlery and crockery.
Typical French Picnic Food
Now this is where things become fun. Really, anything goes when it comes to a French picnic. I’ve seen those where it’s a simple affair with cheese, pâté and baguettes to several courses and a full-on French feast.
However, a traditional French picnic usually includes a variety of foods, such as baguettes, cheese, charcuterie (cured meats), pâté, fruits and salads.
Here are some ideas for a typical French picnic.
Baguette: A freshly baked baguette is an essential element of a French picnic. You can get it from your local boulangerie
Cheese: A good variety of cheeses, such as brie, camembert, goat cheese, and Roquefort, should be included.
Charcuterie: Cured meats such as saucisson (a type of French dry-cured sausage), ham, and pâté are commonly served.
Salads: French potato salad, or “salade niçoise” (a salad made with tuna, olives, and anchovies), or “salade de tomates” (a tomato salad with onions and basil) are popular options.
Fruits: Fresh fruits like grapes, strawberries, and peaches. Where we are it will often be a Charentais melon
Dessert: A selection of Éclairs, Macarons and Madeleines from your local patisserie aren’t too messy and easy to eat.
What to drink on a French Picnic
No French picnic is complete without either champagne or a bottle of wine. But remember to bring plenty of water to keep hydrated and soft drinks for the kids and designated driver.
Taking your dog on a French Picnic
Dogs aren’t allowed off the lead in public parks in France. However, when we take Lottie, our border collie, on a picnic with us we always choose a little picnic area off the beaten track.
Many French families will bring their dog with them and it’s a matter of making sure your dog isn’t a nuisance to others.
We always keep Lottie on the lead until we know who is there and if they’re eating. Usually, all she wants to do is jump in the river and swim, but she does have an annoying habit of finding someone who isn’t a dog lover and shaking herself close to them.
And of course, it goes without saying you should always clear up after your dog and use the bins provided.
Conclusion: How to have the perfect French picnic
The main thing to remember when it comes to picnics in France is to treat it in the same way as you would a normal meal. The French never do anything by halves when it comes to food, and the French picnic is no exception.
There are plenty of perfect spots to choose to lay down your picnic blanket and really enjoy the experience.
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