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A TASTE OF ITALY Picnics

The summer picnic is a much anticipated event on every Italian’s culinary calendar, so Mario Matassa shows us how to prepare for the occasion in style

First, the picnic needs to be distinguished from the pranzo al sacco (packed lunch). The packed lunch is what Italians do when they are going hiking or cycling in the country, the meal being of secondary importance to the physical activity. A picnic is a much weightier affair. If you want to have an Italian picnic, you first have to familiarise yourself with the picnic code. To begin with, you must travel in convoy. Two cars is the absolute minimum, and these should be packed to capacity with screaming adults and their patient children, and enough food to feed everyone for a week. The boot of your car must also be stuffed with any equipment you might ever consider that you might possibly find useful. This equipment will vary according to the kind of picnic you want to have. There are three types: the Sunday lunch picnic, the barbecue picnic, and the deceptively named no-cook picnic.

You must travel in convoy. Two cars is the absolute minimum, and these should be packed to capacity with screaming adults and their patient children, and enough food for a week

The Sunday picnic, as the name implies, is Sunday lunch outdoors. This was one of my first experiences of picnicking Italian-style, and the memories have stuck with me. I remember Giuseppe handing me a wedge of Parmesan and a grater as he emptied a packet of spaghetti into a 15-litre cauldron of boiling water while Carla spooned tomato sauce, meatballs and sausage from a tupperware container into a large saucepan. Somehow pasta takes on a completely different flavour when eaten outdoors in a beautiful setting…

For many Italians, barbecues and picnics are virtually synonymous. On a hot summer’s day one year, my wife’s cousin Adriano suggested a mountain picnic to escape the heat. It seemed a sensible idea. The drive itself – under an hour – wasn’t too arduous compared to the 30-minute hike to the stream carrying, amongst other things, two sets of tables and chairs, a 12kg watermelon, a crate of assorted bottles, two refrigerator boxes packed to the brim with ribs and chicken, not to mention the impossibly heavy 15kg barbecue! If an Italian tells you he’s packed the ‘kitchen sink’, assume he’s not being metaphorical.

Then, finally, there’s the no-cook picnic. This picnic was designed to take all the stress out of picnicking on the day. (What everyone fails to mention is the 24 hours of cooking it entails beforehand.) The no-cook picnic tends to be a leisurely affair, the meal sometimes lasting from lunch into early evening. Several years back I went on a no-cook picnic in the mountains above Lake Como. There were around 20 families, with everyone bringing a selection of their signature dishes. To any foreigner looking on, it must have been a spectacle: 100-odd Italians sitting on a picnic blanket tucking into a feast on the side of a mountain. But to any Italian it would have looked perfectly normal.

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About Italia!

The June issue of Italia! comes to you ready to inspire and inform. Crammed with travel features, stunning photography and delicious helpings of Italian food and drink, it’s a celebration of il bel paese right at your fingertips.