December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Picnics past

By |2018-03-21T18:43:40+01:00March 11th, 2011|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Detail from Monet's "The Picnic," 1866.

inter doesn’t led itself to thinking about picnics. It’s hard to imagine the softness of light, the wind strokes, the earth’s warmth on your body after bread, cheese and wine, the cloth beneath you smelling of grass and sandwiches.

When I think back to impromptu winter picnics I often remember my time in Southern California.

One day, while working together to put together our newborn company (we baked bread, my husband and I), we returned late one afternoon after a successful business jaunt to secure a new account from a difficult client. Heady with success but missing lunch, we stopped for ready-made sandwiches, fruit and a beer to split on the long drive home.

Anyone who knows Southern California knows the wasteland between San Diego and Los Angeles. It’s nothing but freeway, shopping centers, and chain restaurants. We knew more work awaited us before day’s end. Once in L.A. it was time for a picnic, at four o’clock to be precise, under a tree on Sepulveda Boulevard, possibly the only tree in that neighborhood. The tree was shade from the heat. Winter success never tasted better. A tuna sandwich, an icy beer and a shared apple.

Another favorite was in the underground parking lot of the Director’s Guild. We were in the middle of back-to-back films, time only for a quick bite before returning to the silver screen.

Romantic? Maybe a parking lot wouldn’t have been my first choice, but, then again, our menu was above-average for a parking lot menu: cold roast chicken sandwiches with mustard, mayo and fresh basil on homemade bread, a split of crisp white wine, tomatoes from our garden in their bath of olive oil and 100-year-old vinegar. One can do great damage to such a picnic in 15 minutes.

Then come truck stops in Italy and France, pullovers sweetly called aires in French, where trees abound and the views are spectacular. I remember one stop where we sat gazing at Carcassonne and its medieval walls and castle turrets. We plunged into Reblochon, baguettes and wine from the Corbieres.

Another extemporaneous picnic in southern France happened on a bench in the square of a tiny town. We had local cheeses, honey and beignets. How could we not stop? We sat with the old men of the village as they smoked and spoke in lilting Catalan, watching us all the while to make sure we properly appreciated the town’s treasures properly.

There are also picnics on tiny, deserted winding white roads in Wales, Andalusia, Umbria, even just outside Rome in the Frascati hills. Yes, it would have been easy to drive home and eat.

But the magic of the outdoors, sheep for company, wind for music, can’t be found in enclosures. Except perhaps in a well-chosen underground parking lot with the right man beside you.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.