The weather in the UK is a capricious beast at the best of times, but the last couple of weeks have seen the sky bare her teeth with monsoon downpours, only to about turn and surprise us with a sunshine smile, and all within the space of fifteen minutes. Who knows what will happen next, but as an incurable optimist, I live in hope.
When I was a student at Leeds University, my housemate and I would celebrate our birthdays every year with a joint picnic in Roundhay Park, and no adverse weather conditions could put us off. These picnics became such a diary event of the year that I even bought a half priced croquet set from Past Times to add to the glamour. More often than not, the croquet would be abandoned after the first hour, and instead we’d spend the afternoon rolling down hills to see who could get to the bottom without spilling their beer.
We had all the usual stuff – salads, cheese, cold meats and Scotch eggs, washed down with several boxes of wine and a bucket of Pimms (did I mention we were students?). This was followed by pudding in the shape of a tin overflowing with “gaudy cakes”. It became a competition between my housemate and I to see who could create the most lurid coloured icing and fit the most jelly tots on top of our fairy cakes. I shan’t offend your taste buds with a recipe here, but needless to say, they injected a crazed, hyperactive mania to the afternoon and no one went home without a blue tongue.
Although those Leeds picnics helped to shape my love of al fresco eating, packing up afterwards was always an unwelcome effort. These days, I try to keep containers to a minimum to avoid carting all that tupperware back and forth. Tin foil parcels can be made in minutes and crushed down to almost nothing, so taking them home for the recycling bin won’t leave you breaking a sweat.
Some picnic irritations can’t be avoided, however hard you try. You can’t always be protected from the odd spell of rain or the discovery at 4:05pm that the park keeper locked the loos at 4, but that’s all part of the British picnic experience, isn’t it? They might lose a little of their charm if everything ran completely to plan, but I try to keep any mishaps firmly outside the picnic hamper.
Hand pies are perfect, as no plates or cutlery are necessary and you’ve still got a free hand for effusive gesticulation or for holding a G&T. You can be as experimental as you like with the fillings, just try to steer clear of anything too saucy. You don’t want to bite into a pie only to lose the contents down your shirt.
I’ve also experimented with a gluten-free sliced picnic pie, inspired by a similar gluten-filled version in Angela Boggiano’s excellent book, Pie. Everyone loves pie after all, so it’s not fair to leave the gluten dodgers out in the cold. These delicious squares can be cooked, pre-sliced and carried in a disposable tin foil tray and hold their shape perfectly for a no plates spread. One thing’s for certain, even if you do get soaked in the summer rain, at least you won’t go home hungry with these.
I filled mine with pork sausage meat layered with a prune and apple stuffing and topped with a generous blob of piccalilli, because I adore prunes and like the idea of my pie being self-relishing. You can swap the prunes for apricots and the rosemary for thyme or sage, or you can leave the stuffing out altogether and instead burrow a boiled egg into the meat for a speedy take on a gala pie.
This is enough for 4 medium or 8 mini pies. The recipe for the hot water crust pastry is from Victoria's blog, where she uses it to make delicious Ham hock and horseradish pies.