Hauling a spread of cheese and crackers, hummus, tea sandwiches and nuts to a grassy, bucolic spot is one of the best things about summer, and in Washington this time of year, places to picnic abound: There’s Jazz in the Garden and Twilight Polo, Rock Creek Park, Gravelly Point, Hains Point, and new parks such as Yards Park (which boasts a view of the Anacostia River). And you can BYO dinner for many of the best free concerts in the area and to Screen on the Green and the zillion other outdoor movie series this summer.
But it takes skills to wow your friends with an amazing spread. What cheeses will keep for five hours outdoors? Can you bring wine? To chutney or not to chutney?
1. Pick foods that will work with the summer heat
If you’re planning a typical cheese-and-cracker spread, stick with firmer cheese, such as Manchego, or Benedictine (of sheep’s, cow or goat milk), goudas — triple cremes such as brie get very runny when they reach room temperature, says Pamela Doherty, manager of the Butcher’s Block in Old Town.
Janet Conley, assistant manager of Cowgirl Creamery in Chinatown, agrees. “When they get too hot, the whey separates,” she says. “They’re not rancid, but they’re not at their prime.”
Salads will work, but stick with non-dairy offerings, such as bean or lentil-based salads. If you have time, sandwiches will work, too, but be sure to load them on a hearty bread such as ciabatta, so they don’t get soggy. (You can always augment your picnic with a few prepacked, ready-to-eat sandwiches at Cowgirl Creamery, Cork Market, or, some place such as Pret a Manger at 11th and F Streets NW.)
2. Mix it up
Cheese, crackers and hummus are great, but you can elevate your picnic with the addition of just a few gourmet touches. Add nuts such as almonds, fruit including grapes, pears and dried figs, and a jam or two, even a fine chocolate bar, advises Doherty, who recommends her shop’s local jams by Big Riggs, including “Strawberry Biscuit Fixer” and a peach, amaretto and pecan variety. Conley and Cowgirl Creamery add olives to their pre-packed picnics (which go for $25.95-$34.95). Doherty loves a good chocolate with such a spread (but you will have to keep it cold). On a budget? Time to raid the nut and dried fruits stash at Trader Joe’s.
If you’re packing charcuterie, go mild: prosciutto and mortedella are safe bets that appeal to a lot of people, says Doherty.
3. Prepare ahead so you won’t be fumbling with knives during your picnic
Smart picnickers pre-slice. Cutting harder cheeses into easy-to-grab pieces and slicing baguettes (store the bread in an airtight plastic bag to keep it from drying out) will help your meal feel effortless.
The goal, says Doherty, is also to “use as few utensils as possible, so people don’t have to wait their turn.”
And Conley makes a brilliant point: If you’re bringing wines, look for screwtops rather than corks. They’re no tragedy worse than forgetting the corkscrew.
4. Know the rules about booze
Public parks, including the Mall, have a firm no-alcohol policy, and on prime picnic days, such as the Fourth of July, security staff will be searching your bags for it. Jazz in the Garden and outdoor movie presenters such as the Rosslyn Outdoor Film Festival also say no (guards at Jazz in the Garden, in fact, began bag searches this year). But you can bring wine or your favorite champagne to Twilight Polo, and Jazz in the Garden sells alcohol during its Friday night concerts (pitchers of sangria go for $18.50 and beer and wine is also available), as does Yards Park.
5. Don’t forget the gear
Essential: a large blanket or two to keep you off the grass, silverware including a knife or two for cheeses, paper plates and bowls and a few cups or bottles of water. Any more than that, and it’s graduate-level picnicking. If you’re hoping to keep a bottle of wine or food cold but don’t want to carry a cooler, consider an insulated lunch bag or something like The Chiller, a clear, portable ice bucket with a hard plastic bottom made to stay upright (Butcher’s Block Market sells them for $4); fill them with ice and put cold goods inside.Just be sure to tuck your chocolate bars and other items into zip-seal sandwich bags, says Doherty. It’ll save you a soggy mess.