Picnics are thought of as an All-American invention, but in truth, the word began life in France. A 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Françoise de Ménage is the first time the word Piquenique was ever seen in print. In French, the word piquer means to bite, pick or dip. Nowadays, in both France and Italy the word picnic is commonly used, although in Italy you may go on a scampagnata--an outing.
The published use of the word outside the French language was in 1748, but picnic was rarely used in English prior to 1800. Even still, "picnic" was not used in America, either as a word or a concept. Around the same time in England, the word "picnic" was used to describe a social event for the upper classes similar to a pot-luck gathering, but was not held outdoors.
As time passed, the outdoor element became more and more a part of what a picnic is today... not necessarily a gathering of people sharing food they all contributed, but a casual meal held outdoors in a peaceful, natural location. For most, the location of the picnic is as important--if not more so--than the food they are going to eat.
Curiously, in France (in my opinion) the piquenique has de-volved into merely a necessity when traveling. I can't tell you how many times when traveling 3000 miles throughout the French countryside I saw cars pulled over alongside of the ugliest, dirtiest, un-scenic stretch of highway--with cars buzzing past--with lunches set up on folding tables (with chairs) pulled from their trunks. Entire traveling families chomping down their quick meal--all without the slightest regard for the aesthetics of the location. Weird.
Now, contrast that with Italians... They choose a place with a view. It might be as simple as church steps having their bread and cheese and watching people walk by, or spreading a blanket at the side of a vineyard and having a simple feast while just gazing down at the wonders of nature and man, or sitting at the edge of an old castle wall atop one of the countless hilltowns across Bella Italia. Workers will spread their handkerchiefs out to hold their bread, cheese, perhaps a Tupperware lunch from home that the wife made and afterwards lie down under a shady tree for a nap. Remember, lunchtimes are hours long in Italy. Once I saw some workers sitting on top of their scaffolding having their boxed lunches picnic style, while enjoying the view of the valley below from their bird's nest perch.
To me at least, it seems that the picnic really started in Italy... long ago with the Romans. They knew how to enjoy simple foods barely a step away from nature itself--and they knew how to keep cool. After all, that's what alfresco means in Italian: cool... fresh. When Romans ate outdoors under the shade of a thousand year old olive tree, it was more than likely done in the heat of the day--to keep cool as they feasted. All over Italy during harvest times of the year (different times for different crops), rural farming families and neighbors still throw a sheet or blanket on the ground in the shade, gather together bread, wine, olives, cheese and sausages from whoever brought this or that... and they have their picnic. Except they don't think of it as a picnic. It's just a way of life. A way of refueling the body and soul with good food, good neighbors and family... and wonderful views of nature, which thankfully in Italy are just about everywhere you look.
So, the next time you think of having a picnic, think of the Romans... think of the Italians... and bring together not the most complex foods, but the simplest. A great piece of cheese. Some ripe fruit. Crusty bread and wine---and olives. Some of your favorite sausage... and a knife, and some simple glasses or plastic cups. No fine crystal here. Just look for a place with a view of the sky, some water, some beautiful inspiring architecture... drop a bandanna on your lap or a sheet on the ground or just sit on a bench. Then add a friend or two, your children, your lover... and eat. Slowly. Taste each bite and then use your eyes as you would some wine in your mouth to mix the flavors and heighten your senses.
I've taught Lucas to put a morsel of your food in your mouth, chew a bit to release flavors and then (and only then) sip a bit of wine to mix with the flavors... and a new, complex flavor is born. It's like that with picnics. Mix what you see and feel in your surroundings with your food... and find some new flavors in your entire spirit.
If you enjoyed this little picnic with use, please tell all your friends to stop by Grand Voyage Italy. Grazie!
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