There are perhaps few months that test the cook's art more than that of August; and not only the cook, but the housekeeper, must exercise some little tact, in order to avoid the waste that too often ensues from heat and thunderstorms.
We live in so variable a climate that housekeepers are at times apt to forget that, though in winter a haunch of mutton will hang for a month, and be all the better for it, yet there are occasional days on which meat that has been killed in the early morning is bad by sunset.
It is these sultry days that seem to invite us to wander forth into some shady wood, and, stretched on the soft green turf, eat cooling food and imbibe cooling drinks, by the side of some clear rippling brook. Nor should we necessarily, whatever be the weather, enjoy our lunch the less for a little society — in other words, August hot days are admirably adapted for picnics.
Picnic! the very name conjures up before my eyes hundreds of faces. Wonderful institution ! almost the only one that seems capable of driving that curse of English society, formality, out of the field.
First, the unpacking of the huge hampers, at times necessitating almost the diving in of two heads at once—bright eyes meet under cover of the unromantic wickerwork, and look brighter for the meeting. It is wonderful, by-the-by, how stooping over a hamper causes most people to flush. Ah ! happy time; when most are young, and the world before them as fresh, as bright, and as green as the grass on which they sit. How many staid old married couples are there who can look back upon a picnic as the starting-point in their long road of happiness. No rose, however, without a thorn. How many, too, can look upon the same festive occasion, and remember as if yesterday the sharp sting of the green-eyed monster, then felt for the first time, and the poison of which has blighted a lifetime !
"Lift not the festal mask, enough to know No scene of mortal life but teems with mortal woe."
Fortunately, we are not all moulded alike by the parent hand of Nature.
The majority, in fact, pass in early life from face to face like the butterfly from flower to flower, seeing no difference beyond that the present one is always the sweetest, and at last settle down into a humdrum life, as unacquainted with the heaven of love as they are incapable of feeling the stings of disappointment.
" How much, methinks, i could despise this man, But that in charity i am bound against it."
But the very class of whom we are speaking—viz., the majority—have probably long ere this looked for the practical part of the subject to commence—viz., the lobster salad, pigeon pie, cucumber, ice, champagne, etc.
A few hints on the general management of picnics may possibly be of service.
All know the difference between one well-managed and one ill-managed. The things most generally forgotten are the knives and forks and the salt. The most awful thing of all to forget is the hamper containing the drinkables. One indispensable thing for the comfort of a picnic on a hot day is a large lump of ice. If this is well covered in sawdust, and wrapped round with a blanket or thick cloth, it is wonderful how little will melt even in a long journey.
We will run hastily through the ordinary picnic dishes, with a word or two to say on each.
Bear in mind that the former is very apt to turn quickly, in hot weather, especially if packed close, or put in a hamper near the top exposed to the sun. Pepper the joint, and wrap it up in cool cabbage-leaves. The mint sauce must be put in a small bottle, a stone ginger-beer bottle being as good as anything.
This of course is dressed on the ground. Take care, however, in packing the lobsters, that they do not impart a fishy flavour to everything else. A few hard-boiled eggs should be taken to garnish the salad.
A good pigeon pie ought to have plenty of gravy, and this gravy when cold should be properly a firm jelly. I recollect once in a picnic the pigeon pie had leaked, and the gravy had soaked quite through the table-cloth, which had been placed folded up near it in the hamper. Now a very little trouble would have avoided this in making the gravy for the pie, bearing in mind the time of year, and how unlikely gravy is to set firm unless made exceedingly strong. All the cook has to do is to put in a little gelatine. This will insure the gravy being firm when cold.
A cucumber properly dressed is an exceedingly nice accompaniment to cold fowl and cold meat in hot weather, and perhaps never appears to better advantage than at a picnic. A cucumber improperly dressed is a very different thing, however. Who has not at times at hotels or restaurants met with the small glass dish containing thin slices of cucumber soaked in vinegar, on which float a few spots of oil, looking more like the fat on beef-tea before it is cold ?
How utterly uneatable is the cucumber in question, simply because the waiter was too ignorant to know how to dress it! The cucumber must be sliced very thin, and of course all the green peel removed before slicing. These slices must next be placed in a dish with a good-sized pinch of salt, and then covered with fresh oil, and well mixed up; they may now be peppered and mixed again, the vinegar, in very small quantities, being added last of all. The cucumber, being well covered with oil to begin with, will not soak up the vinegar and taste like sour pickle.
I have already given directions how to make claret-cup. When claret-cup is required for a picnic, it will be found best to take ready mixed in a small bottle some plain syrup, and also in another bottle a little sherry, brandy, and noyeau, mixed in the proportions I named before. All, therefore, that is required is a strip of the peel from the cucumber and a slice of lemon to be added to a bottle of claret, the mixed wine and spirit out of the bottle next, a little syrup, a lump of ice, and a couple of bottles of soda-water to finish with.