How to make an enchanting Jane Austen style picnic

Do you yearn for a lavish picnic?

Do you secretly yearn for lavish picnics like you see on Downton Abbey or on Bridgerton or read about in a Jane Austen novel?

Picture wicker picnic hampers filled with homemade food and carried by servants. Or grand laid tables with crisp white tablecloths under trees.

In this article, we’ll meander through the history of picnics AND I will leave you four proudly old-fashioned ideas for a picnic that Jane Austen would have been proud to attend.

Picnics began inside

A picnic, according to Collins Dictionary is: 

A trip or excursion to the country, seaside, etc on which people bring food to be eaten in the open air.

Or: Any informal meal eaten outside.

People have always eaten outside. The rich gorged themselves at Medieval hunting feasts or dined at Renaissance country banquets. These were elaborate events with hundreds of servants needed to make, prepare and carry the food to the outside eating area. Pastries, hams and baked meats would have been eaten.

Hardly informal.

Field labourers ate outside too during harvest time. They grabbed their food on the go as families arrived with food that was eaten outdoors so they could carry on working. Hardly a trip or an excursion. More like eating on the job.

The first picnics to be called picnics weren’t even outside

And you might be even more surprised to learn that the English picnic has much to do with the French.

The word picnic is originally French

The word picque-nicque is first recorded in France in 1692. It combines the French words ‘picque’ (piquer) ‘to pick’ and ‘nique’ a small thing. By the 17th century, the thrusting fashionable elite in Paris named their informal indoor feasts picque-niques.

They were so radically informal that a requirement of entry was the guests bringing their own food or at least paying for their share. These pot luck feasts were attended by the aristocracy and gentry but were brought to an end by the French Revolution. Fleeing nobles are thought to have brought the picnic concept with them to London.

So 1801 in Tottenham Street, London a group of 200 young and wealthy Francophiles founded the ‘Pic Nic Society’.  Each attendee was required to bring a dish or six bottles of wine. The indoor picnic was informal eating and entertainment with gambling, music and a play. This is when the word ‘picnic’ first appeared in print in English.

How do picnics go from inside to outside?

It is argued that changes in attitudes to the countryside influenced the desire for picnics.  Poets and artists began to swoon over the beauty of landscapes. The wealthy elite began to see the countryside as something to be delighted at rather than as somewhere to escape from. 

Rather than mere landscapes hung in their dining rooms the young and fashionably wealthy wanted to dine IN the landscape. The picnic was born.

And the idea of eating for pleasure outside started to become popular.

Picnics began formally

Jane Austen is one of the first to talk about fictional picnics. And in her book Emma (1816) she talks about the different ways it is possible to picnic. Grand or simple. She prefers the simpler way:

‘Two or three more of the chosen only were to be admitted to join them, and it was to be done in a quiet, unpretending, elegant way, infinitely superior to the bustle and preparation, the regular eating and drinking, and picnic parade of the Eltons and the Sucklings’

But picnics could be much grander. They echoed back to those grand Renaissance hunting banquets I mentioned earlier in this article.

Mrs Beeton, writing later, gives us an idea of just how grand an Elton or a Suckling picnic could have been:

A joint of cold roast beef, a joint of cold boiled beef, 2 ribs of lamb, 2 shoulders of lamb, 4 roast fowls, 2 roast ducks, 1 ham, 1 tongue, 2 veal-and-ham pies, 2 pigeon pies, 6 medium-sized lobsters, 1 piece of collared calf’s head, 18 lettuces, 6 baskets of salad, 6 cucumbers. Stewed fruit well sweetened, and put into glass bottles well corked; 3 or 4 dozen plain pastry biscuits to eat with the stewed fruit, 2 dozen fruit turnovers, 4 dozen cheesecakes, 2 cold cabinet puddings in moulds, 2 blancmanges in moulds, a few jam puffs, 1 large cold plum-pudding (this must be good), a few baskets of fresh fruit, 3 dozen plain biscuits, a piece of cheese, 6 lbs. of butter (this, of course, includes the butter for tea), 4 quartern loaves of household broad, 3 dozen rolls, 6 loaves of tin bread (for tea), 2 plain plum cakes, 2 pound cakes, 2 sponge cakes, a tin of mixed biscuits, 1/2 lb, of tea. Coffee is not suitable for a picnic, being difficult to make. 

Just imagine how difficult transporting all that food would be even today with a car?

A lavish Victorian picnic in a wooded glade

The Four dishes you need to create your own Regency style picnic.

Do we really want an elaborate Victorian-style picnic in the style of Mrs Beeton? Do we have the staff or even enough friends to even attempt it?

I suggest a picnic that is more suited to characters from a Jane Austen novel, say Emma

Let us imagine we are going to picnic on Box Hill. But without the arguments, they end up having in Austen’s story. What would we need to take with us?

I suggest a picnic with just four wonderful dishes. Do bring cheese, ham, bread and strawberries. And a few pretty plates and cups. No plastic.

Here below are the four essential classic picnic dishes that will see you dining outdoors in a way I am sure Jane Austen would delight in.


It is a mixed salad served on a large platter with the ingredients displayed in layers or even geometric patterns. Some even hid bowls under the salad so it could rise majestically on the plate.

The word comes probably from the French salmagundi which means a hodgepodge. Though in France it is referred to as a stew.

It contains chopped meat, usually chicken, duck or pigeon, and chopped eggs, anchovies, onion, lettuce, celery, and shallots. Everything was chopped up small.

Pigeon Pie

No picnic is complete without a pie. And cold pigeon pies were the popular fare for summer picnics. Originally served at the weddings of nobility they were enormous in size. 

Only wealthy landowners could afford to keep pigeon cotes which supplied fresh meat over winter.

An early recipe for pigeon pie was given in A Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye, published in London in 1575. 

They can be made with puff pastry, shortcrust or hot water crust. Hot water crust pies are easy to handle and are perfect for a picnic.

Ingredients include veal, or mince, hard-boiled egg, mushrooms, shallots, and spring onions. They are usually flavoured with cayenne pepper, nutmeg and mace.

Rout Cakes

These are small rich sweet cakes made for ‘routs’, or evening parties but also perfect for a picnic.   During the Regency evening parties, they were very much the rage. The word rout, synonymous with large unruly gatherings, soon came to mean a fashionable assembly, or large evening party.

Some of these routs were large and unruly with groups of fashionable sorts invading homes, drinking and eating rout cakes, before bustling off to the next home. Contemporary sources talk of the relief afterwards. Nobody was said to enjoy the bustle and the commotion at the time but a rout provided conversation for weeks afterwards.

Rout cakes are mentioned over and over again in the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries – and especially in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ where bad rout cakes indicated the bad character of Mrs Elton.

She was a little shocked at the want of two drawing rooms, at the poor attempt at rout-cakes, and there being no ice in the Highbury card parties. 


A fool is a dessert made by blending fruit purée with sweetened cream or cooled custard. But, confusingly, the first fool was called a Trifle though wasn’t a trifle as we know it.

Trifle used to mean ‘a dish composed of cream, boiled with various ingredients’. In essence, what we know call a fool.

Historians tend to think the cream in a fool was not whipped, something hard to do without forks or metal whisks, but instead was clotted cream, thick by the process of cooking and preserving. 

For many years the word ‘trifle’ and the word ‘fool’ were used interchangeably. 

I hope this article helped you learn a little about picnics and gave you some wonderful picnic ideas. 

Would you like to create these four recipes online with me?

If you’d like to learn how to make these four recipes in an online course, check out my Jane Austen Picnic Experience course on Sunday 17th of July 2022

It’s booking now. Early bird tickets are still available.

Jane Austen Picnic Experience Online