All of France loves a picnic, especially on Bastille Day
PARIS — There is a problem with Bastille Day this year. The 14th of July national holiday, celebrating the French Revolution, falls on a Saturday. That means no extra day off for a three-day weekend, and three-day weekends are what make national holidays really worthwhile in France.
No matter. The traditional brass bands will march up the Champs Elysees, trumpeting the beat for the annual military parade; jet fighters will streak through the sky above; and, after taking the salute, President Jacques Chirac will head back to his palace for that most standard French Bastille Day pastime, a picnic.
Not that you or I would necessarily recognize the lavish spread in the Elysee palace garden as a picnic. The last time I went, a couple of years ago, every region of France was invited to set up a tent on the impeccably manicured lawn and try to outdo its neighbors in gastronomical extravagance. Have you ever tried to eat an oyster with your fingers while trying to hold on to your plate and glass at the same time - and keep your dignity?
France, of course, is an ideal place for picnic food of a much simpler variety. It is hard to beat a basic baguette for handiness, taste, and crunch, but French bakers have been digging into the cookbooks of their forebears recently, and coming up with new versions of the old loaves as well.
You can find myriad whole meal breads on any bakery shelf in Paris, studded with a farmful of grains, along with chewy white bread made with old-fashioned, slow-acting yeasts and special nut-crunchy breads to eat with cheese.
Cheese is a natural sandwich filler for any picnic, and France is not short of it. President Charles de Gaulle, in a moment of frustration, once wondered how anyone could rule a country so diverse as to have more than 600 different sorts of cheese.
But charcuterie - cooked meats - are popular as well, from the hard, air-dried sausages of the Alps, flavored with everything from anise seed to morel mushrooms, to moist, creamy pink hams carved from the bone, to rough farmhouse pates that can be sliced and slapped between two pieces of bread for a hearty snack.
Where to picnic? Anywhere the sun is shining - though that is not always a certainty in July in France, as some 4 million people found last year when they turned out for a giant national picnic along a meridian line stretching from the English Channel to the Pyrenees mountains. But the rain did not stop them from "putting their feet under the table," as the French say.
For your own summer picnic, try the recipes on this page, which are more interesting than your basic baguette and pate, even if they don't quite match up to the elegance of a presidential party.
French Fish Loaf
This is a delightful summer dish, refreshing, light, and novel, blending Mediterranean flavors of tomato and basil with the delicate texture of white fish.
1 pound white fish fillets
5 medium tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Handful of basil leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Chop the fish fillets and then grind them in a blender or food processor. Blanch tomatoes in boiling water for about 2 minutes, then drain and "shock" them in cold water. When cool enough to handle, slip off tomato skins, quarter them, scrape out their seeds, chop and then fry them with the garlic in olive oil until they have lost almost all of their moisture.
Combine the mashed fish and tomatoes. Add chopped basil leaves. Beat the eggs, and combine them well with the fish and tomato mixture. Add salt and pepper.
Put the mixture in a well-greased, nonstick loaf pan, place the pan in a bain-marie (a shallower dish filled with water), and bake in the preheated 375 degree F. oven for about 45 minutes. To test for doneness, stick a knife in the loaf. When the knife comes out clean, it is ready. Serve fish loaf cold, with a green salad, decorated with cherry tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, and a lemony mayonnaise, if you wish. Serves 6.
Grilled Spiced Chicken
If a picnic is not a picnic without a barbecue, here is a simple but unusual grilled chicken recipe that comes not from France but from one of its former protectorates, Lebanon. The meat comes off the coals aromatic, moist, and delicious after its soak in a yogurt marinade.
8 chicken breasts, skinned
1/2 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tablespoons powdered cardamom
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1 teaspoon powdered cumin
2 teaspoons powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon powdered nutmeg
12 black peppercorns, crushed
2 lemons, juiced
2 cups plain yogurt
Salt to taste
Stab deep holes in the chicken with a knife to allow the marinade to penetrate the meat.
Mix the onion and garlic with all the spices and lemon juice, and then blend this mixture into the yogurt. Cover the chicken in this marinade, and let it rest in a cool place, such as the refrigerator, for 24 hours.
Cook marinated chicken on hot, oiled grill until the juices run clear when a sharp knife is inserted into the thickest part, turning with tongs, about 8 to 10 minutes per side. Serves 6 to 8.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor