My parents trained me from an early age to love cheese. I know what you’re thinking… is this the same girl from the butter story? (click here if you don’t remember that somewhat humiliating post). Yes, it is, and no, I’m not ashamed. My first real food was goat cheese, and I never looked back. When I was little my parents traveled in Europe fairly frequently, carting me along the way on icy cold overnight ferries from London to Paris, through dusty alleys in Rome, and up steep, sunny, Interlaken slopes. It wasn’t as glamorous as that all sounds. We often camped or stayed with my grandparents, who lived overseas at the time. No, it wasn’t fancy, but it was beautiful and a bit wild and very carefree for a such little girl. I’m not sure my mother would say the same thing – don’t ask her what it’s like to push a stroller over old German cobbled streets – but she would say she built up quite a store of wonderful memories and photographs that we often spend lazy Christmas afternoons reliving. Then they had two boys, no more trips across the pond, and one very pouty little girl.
In addition to the photos, we managed to retain what we fondly refer to as “train picnics.” This wonderful meal, which we don’t limit to picnics but instead enjoy for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between, always involves a crusty baguette (sourdough if my dad chooses) and a piece of cheese. This tradition was born out of necessity when my parents needed to pack a quick bite to eat on the trains we often traveled by during our trips.
More often than not the train picnic also includes a bit of sliced meat, a bar of Lindt chocolate and a bottle of red wine. This is the standard, but with only the slightest encouragement additions such as pate, olives, fruits, cornichons, some salad, jam, or a sliced onion begin to appear. It’s very simple, but it’s one of my favorite spreads to sit down to, at any time of the day.
In college I started to really enjoy cooking dinner for groups (large or small) of friends, but sometimes I would just serve or suggest a train picnic. When you’re able to present your friends or family with a beautiful, elaborate meal that you spent a lot of time preparing it can be incredibly rewarding and satisfying. The planning, the effort, the research, the thought that goes into it makes the end result that much sweeter. However, sometimes it’s more fun to let everyone bring something and sit back to drift away into an intimate evening of great conversation with greater company. Some of my very dear friends and I used to enjoy train picnics (though we like to call them charcuterie nights) about once a month. There were many tears when Kathryn moved to Canada, but there were many more laughs when she returned for a charcuterie night very recently. I hope it’s not another 18 months before we get to do this with her again….
There’s no recipe for a train picnic. Simply assemble some sliced deli meats and a variety of cheeses, some crackers and bread, a lot of wine and whatever else you might like to nibble over the course of a long evening, and set it all out at once. Most recently we enjoyed this sitting around the island in my kitchen but it lends very well to a more genuine picnic atmosphere in the center of a soft rug or around a coffee table. It’s the easiest and most relaxing way that I know to entertain, with virtually zero cleanup. If I have some time I throw in an interesting item or two just for fun. This time I made some roasted figs (stuffed with manchego, wrapped in prosciutto and roasted in a 400F oven for 20 minutes) and our dessert (fudge pie), but usually all I do is unwrap a few things.
Here’s to a wonderful weekend. Stop. Relax. Train picnic.