How Hill House Vintage’s Founder Takes Alfresco Dining to the Next Level
Plus tips from three other picnic lovers.
Updated Oct 11, 2018 5:45 PM
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One of the greatest joys of warm weather and sunny skies is the opportunity to make mealtime even more special: All you have to do is go outside. Dining alfresco, whether you’re planning a full-on park retreat or picnicking in your backyard, is a satisfying way to make any average day feel like an event.
You don’t have to overcomplicate it—the joy of simply eating a sandwich or a snack while surrounded by nature is enough to give you a lasting mood boost. But that’s not to say you can’t take your outdoor dining to the next level. Here, four creatives—all of whom are strong advocates for the alfresco lifestyle—share their secrets for your best picnic ever.
The Countryside Retreat
Recommended by: Luke Edward Hall, interior designer and artist
What to eat: I love making tarts! Often they’ll be super-simple: homemade pastry with a filling of seasonal, local ingredients, like asparagus and lots of cheese. They keep warm in foil and feed a few people. Best eaten with fizz and strawberries.
What to bring: I have a small collection of old and very bold patterned Welsh blankets that I love using for picnics, and I enjoy drinking from the colorful glass tumblers made by my partner, Duncan, and his company, Campbell-Rey. I pack food into a vintage French wicker basket that has two cylindrical compartments attached to the side for wine bottles.
What makes a perfect picnic: Here in the U.K., the weather is unpredictable and we have to make the most of warm days. On a sunny day, I love nothing more than eating outdoors surrounded by beautiful countryside—by a river, say, or at the edge of a field. I enjoy the whole process: shopping for and preparing food, packing everything up, the journey to a favorite location, and the final part—choosing the best spot to throw down blankets. But even improvised, a quick picnic in the garden on a weekday can feel special.
The Cottagecore Campout
Recommended by: Paula Sutton, founder of Hill House Vintage
What to eat: Rosemary and Parmesan biscuits with a variety of cheeses, topped with a good chutney relish or chunky onion marmalade. They’re easy to make, easy to carry, look wonderful spread out on plates, and taste absolutely delicious as a snack with grapes or figs.
What to bring: Always a set of traditional picnic baskets to carry everything, plus a vintage quilt. I have two favorites: one with a wide pink stripe and one with a red stripe. I like to coordinate with complimentary colored linen napkins, complete with vintage napkin rings. I have a set of glasses that sit in wicker bases and is perfect for picnics. Although they’re not always the most practical thing to carry around, I always use vintage china plates and bowls. They don’t have to match—in fact, the more chipped and more mismatched the better. When you’re eating on grass, so you can’t be too precious.
What makes the perfect picnic: I like to treat my picnic table settings with the same care and attention as I do a dinner party table. Dips and sauces and sandwiches can be as basic and simple as you like, but when they’re presented on beautiful linens and laid out for maximum prettiness in vintage china sauce boats, old-fashioned sugar bowls, and elegant plates, you can elevate a simple picnic into the most chic of outdoor feasts.
The Simple Spread
What to eat: Cheese, fruit, and wine! Not so much weird cheese, though, even though I love a good cheese that makes your house smell like old goat. I feel like people always get too ambitious with picnics and bring all sorts of odd stuff because it would be “nice to have outside.” I say no: Stick to basics and have most things cut up beforehand.
What to pack: A good blanket is essential for sure when picnicking. I have a few different ones, depending on my mood. They’re all vintage or thrifted. I have a picnic basket with a hard bottom for plates to go in so they don’t tumble around. I say bring your real glasses and plates even though you’re in nature—it gives the picnic that little extra something. Plus if you can drink wine out of glasses, why would you go for paper cups? That is madness.
What makes the perfect picnic: A good view is ideal. But good company, wine, and a mini speaker are everything I need for a dreamy picnic situation. I relive those in my memory during cold winter nights.
The Festive Fete
What to eat: I am a big lover of a theme, so my picnics this summer have been predicated on that. I recently threw a Midsummer picnic: The highlight was Nordic deviled eggs, which is moussed salmon topped with roe. In pre-pandemic times I would have said a beautiful cheese board, but the key this summer is food that you can present together for easy transportation but be easily served individually. Sliders are great for that. Earlier this summer, I took my guests on a mental trip to Hawaii, and as an entrée served King’s Hawaiian rolls with barbecued jackfruit.
What to pack: A quilt I got from an antiques store has been my summer go-to—it’s fun to mix and match my more modern pieces. I always bring a big tray to use as a catchall place to put things to serve and to use as a cutting surface. I insist on using real napkins (I’m loving these linen ones from Jenkins & Co.) for each guest but keep a roll of paper towels discreetly tucked in my bag in case of spills. For drinks, rice tumblers are great to throw in a stack and work well for wine, water, or cocktails. For transporting food, enamel containers are perfect. Remember to bring a knife (with a sheath, for safety) and, of course, a wine opener. The last piece is to consider the used plates and leftover food and what to do with them after the festivities die down. I always bring a pop-up trash can to make cleanup easy. I also recommend bringing a large bottle or two of water to hydrate overserved guests and to clean off hands and dishes.
What makes the perfect picnic: It’s basically a dinner party outside, so I plan for all the details that would be enjoyable indoors—a great batch cocktail, a tablescape, and easy but delicious food and wine, all served in the ultimate setting on a summer day with a blue sky surrounded by nature. And unlike your home, the setting will change as the day progresses: The sun will create new shadows, the wind will sweep through cooling your guests, fireflies will crash the party, and cicadas will serenade you. Like any good party, you need a solid playlist and a good Bluetooth speaker. If you plan to host a marathon picnic, throw in a couple stadium seats—and a hand fan is never a bad idea.
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