The ultimate no-fuss Sydney spring picnic

Perfect picnic fare: Helen Goh's puttanesca tart.
Perfect picnic fare: Helen Goh's puttanesca tart. Photo: William Meppem

The hottest dining spot right now isn't on a Surry Hills rooftop or Manly pier. It's every park in Sydney from Bondi to Blaxland. A combination of cracking weather (Spring! Hello! Oh, how you've been missed) and cautious optimism that we just might have this COVID thing under control, has caused Sydneysiders to hit the great outdoors with hungry excitement. Our picnic baskets are itching to claim any free patch of socially distanced grass possible.

A picnic can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be but, with all the sourdough and stress of the past six months, we're favouring the fuss-free route. Here are our tips to make your next picnic a sure-fire success.

Picnic in the park. A3 Summer Series concept cover. Imaging, please do not sharpen at all. Please do not use auto levels or auto curves. Thanks. Photographed by Marina Oliphant. Hair and Make Up by Blanka at Chadwick. Model is Emily from Cameron's. Styling by Michelle Cammiade. mko041216.001.021

For a seamless experience, don't forget to bring the essential gear. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Essentials 

The most important elements for a smooth-sailing day.

Bistro glasses

These basically unbreakable glasses, usually found in French bistros, can double as wine tumblers and are far better for the environment than plastic cups. Plus, they're cheap and they stack! Use them for wine, water and iced tea.

A foldable knife

Very few things are quite as handy as an Opinel knife. Not only is it an object of beauty, it's also highly functional, stays sharp, and folds safely when not in use, which means it's brilliant to throw into the bottom of a picnic basket or tote bag. If you wanted to get super fancy, Opinel have just released a "nomad cooking kit", which includes a tiny chopping board, cook's knife and corkscrew. Hello, Christmas wishlist.

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Hand sanitiser

Just accept that carrying a pocketful of sanitiser bottles is the new normal, and then consider upping your game by going designer. Whip out one of the nice smelling ones from Archie Rose, Black Chicken Remedies or St Ali and make it a talking point. 

Bottle opener

Ever tried "the boot trick"? It involves taking off your shoe, sticking a wine bottle in the foot hole, and whacking it against a wall until the cork pops or you run out of swear words. The whole thing can be avoided if you remember a corkscrew, or better yet a waiter's friend, which can also flip the cap off that craft beer.

A bag to take away rubbish and empty bottles

The least exciting item on this list, sure, but a sturdy bag that can be fashioned into a rubbish receptacle will save multiple trips to the official park bins. "Sturdy" is key here – you don't want a bag with puncture wounds leaking mayo and seltzer. A 15¢ reusable supermarket number is ideal. 

Serving implements

We're all for a cutlery-free picnic, but during these unprecedented times using serving tongs for sandwich platters and sausage rolls seems like the right idea. 

Picnic at Clovelly Beach. Portuguese tarts from Tuga Pastries  in Clovelly. 4th September 2020 Photo Louise Kennerley GOOD FOOD SMH

Expect a mobbing if you come loaded with Portuguese tarts from Tuga Pastries in Clovelly. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Quick tips for last-minute picnic invitations  

"Hey, it's going to be 27 degrees today and the sun's out. Wanna throw down a rug, drink rosé and play quoits? Awesome, just a bring a plate and we'll see you soon."

Portuguese tarts 

There's never a time when you arrive at a picnic with a massive box filled with still-warm custard tarts with their gooey, silky interiors, burnished tops, dusted with cinnamon sugar that you will be unwelcome. Expect a mobbing – especially if you've bought said tarts from the likes of Clovelly's Tuga Pastries, Sweet Belem in Petersham (the first place in Sydney to serve these to the public) and Natas & Co (find them at the Marrickville Farmers Market).

BYO banh mi 

This is a tried-and-true trick for the absolute die-hard event commitment-phobes out there. Simply rock up to any Vietnamese hot bread shop (if you want to put a little effort into it, you might track down the likes of Marrickville Pork Roll, Hong Ha in Mascot or Kim Thanh in Cabramatta) and order three or four pork rolls with everything, have the sandwich-hand cut the rolls into sections of three, then arrange them on a platter like you'd planned it all along. This is an arrangement that will serve six to eight people happily, with an outlay of about $30. And you won't even look like the slack friend you actually are.         

Pre-batched cocktails

Unless you're also sporting a monocle, chances of you turning up to an outdoor blanket lunch with a full coterie of spirits, bitters, glassware and stirring rods is slim. But. There is a solution. The city's best bars have invested in the gear to do the legwork for you, pre-batching signatures and classics in cans and pretty glass bottles, in perfectly measured serves for two (or one, if you're thirsty). Newtown bar Earl's Juke Joint is now stocked in David Jones and BWS stores, making it even easier to get your hands on the hooch. City-based darlings of the house-made soda scene, PS40, are offering a delivery service – PS Sofa Series – through their Instagram (@PS40bar) and Mexican-inspired bar Sonora will deliver margaritas anywhere around the deep east from Friday to Sunday. Out near Randwick? Maybe Frank is offering Ratpack-inspired cocktails from their sister bar, Maybe Sammy. Take two Dean Martins and call us in the morning.   

Patchett's Yorkshire-style pork pies made in Sydney.

Patchett's Pies in Mascot can stock you up with pork pies. Photo: Supplied

Pork pies 

Look, you could always make your own lard-pastry pork pie – studded with boiled eggs like buried treasures, and fragrant with pepper and sage. It's a splendid thing and looks fantastic on gingham. For those of us less inclined to simmer pig trotters for three hours, the good folk at Patchett's Pies in Mascot are at the ready. 

They've been providing Yorkshire-style pork pies to Sydney since 1982: hot-water crust treats that are gently spiced with a bang-on meat-to-fat ratio.

"They're best served with Branston Pickle or Colman's Old English Mustard, which you can often find in major supermarkets," says bakery owner Dan Patchett. "Piccalilli is also good, and, dare I say, French mustard." If Mascot is a trek, Patchett's pies can also be found in David Jones Food Hall, select Woolworths and independent grocers.

Cheese plate

No one will complain if you bring a cheese plate to a picnic. In fact, people will love you for it. Newtown's Continental Delicatessen, Cheese on Wheels at Balgowlah, and Surry Hills' Formaggi Ocello are only some of providores that have you covered for every hard, soft and double-cream need.

Nifty picnic idea: source soft cheese contained in its own little box such as Brillat Savarin or Le Dauphin washed rind. Both are guaranteed party pleasers, and their balsa wood homes will stop a river of cheese oozing forth and drowning ants like Vesuvius. 

Dan Lepard's focaccia.

Dan Lepard adds a slosh of white wine to his focaccia. Photo: William Meppem

Make your own no-plate picnic hamper 

You know what's worse than washing up at home? Nothing. Except the double whammy of washing up after a picnic. Because it's not just ordinary food goo and debris you're cleaning off those plates, it's sun-ripened food goo. You're very likely performing this dehumanising task while also sun ripened, and very likely wine ripened, yourself. All in, it's enough to destroy the hardiest of picnic-goers. And so, here it is, the No Plate Picnic Hamper. (We mean, you'll still need a plate or two for serving of course, but you get the idea.)

One majestic cake  

The majesty of a butter cake is its inherent simplicity – this is a cake made of little more than butter, flour, eggs and sugar: mixed until smooth then bunged in the oven till golden. It's the perfect vehicle for any amount of outrageous garnishing you care to throw at it. Let it cool, slice it in half, fill it with cream cheese frosting and blackberry jam, or whipped cream and fresh strawberries, dust the top with icing sugar and decorate with some pretty flowers and you suddenly embody the very essence of cottage-core without trying very hard. Just add swathes of linen and a solid board to serve it on.  

Individual quiches and savoury tart  

A sign of a Very Good Picnic is the amount of pastry scattered down everyone's fronts. That, and the amount of wine that's also been spilled down everyone's fronts. Keep it Simple, Civilised and Sanitary by making individual tarts or quiches (Helen Goh's puttanesca tart is a favourite) or slicing before arrival. Also try: Jill Dupleix asparagus pea and buttermilk quiche or Neil Perry's cheddar and onion tart.

Peach iced tea 

The beauty of a fruity iced tea is it's just as refreshing alcohol-free as it is spiked with a slug of rum or gin, and it can be easily transported to your picnic location in a large jar or jug cooler, if you have one. Take two or three ripe peaches, place them in a medium-sized saucepan with a cup of water and a cup of castor sugar, bring to the boil (stirring often to crush up the peaches) then turn down to low heat and simmer for around 25 minutes. Turn off the heat and let everything make friends together while you make enough black tea to serve 10 people a cup each. Strain the peach mixture and the tea mixture and add the liquids together. Place in a large clean container of your choice and refrigerate overnight. If you were feeling fancy, you could even consider making some fresh peach and mint ice cubes to garnish.

Loaded focaccia 

Let's face it. Once you start covering a slab of focaccia in blobs of fresh cheese and ribbons of cured meat, you've pretty much made a pizza. Whatever – turning up with the makings of a truly generous salty, oily bread situation that's been rubbed with garlic and rosemary and then laden with prosciutto and burrata and juicy slices of sun-warm tomato is about as baller as you can get as a picnic guest. There are plenty of recipes out there for the Italian bread. Dan Lepard adds a slosh of white wine to his focaccia, for extra flavour. Samin Nosrat douses hers in a saltwater brine, Ligurian style. Melbourne baker Michael James uses sourdough starter rather than dry yeast to create more flavour. It's a highly personal journey and finding one that works for you is like the perfect pair of swimmers – once the perfect fit is achieved, you'll want to stay with it forever. 

Bagels on rusty background. Bagel image from iStock. for Goodfood.com.au bread story March 2020

The bagel's robust structure means it won't become soggy. Photo: iStock

DIY bagel station 

Glossy on the outside and chewy within, the bagel's robust structure means it won't become soggy on contact with coleslaw and grated carrot like other rolls. While the Jewish treat is perfect for filling with delicious things pre-picnic, creating a bagel station is a lot of fun. "Set up a spread with cream cheese, a little bit of salmon, salad, meat, whatever you want, and invite people to stack their own," says Michael Shafran, owner of Brooklyn Boys Bagels in Marrickville.

Shafran's bagels are particularly well-built for picnics due to a traditional boil before baking. "Boiling is key to achieving a bagel's chewy texture," he says. "Many larger bakeries will steam instead because it's easier. That will give a bagel its sheen, but won't change the soft inside texture too much."

Brooklyn Boy's plain and seed-topped bagels are available from farmers' markets in suburbs such as Warriewood, North Sydney, Mona Vale and Double Bay, plus the bakery's Marrickville drive-through. Making your own spread isn't difficult. Simply fold chopped capers, pickled cucumber and chives through cream cheese with a good crack of a pepper. Jalapenos and dill are other worthy additions. 

(PS: North Bondi's Lox in a Box has just partnered with LP's Quality Meats to create a reuben bagel featuring smoked beef cheek, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing. Available from the Seven Ways store through September. Do it.)

Pineapple princess

Essentially you're just sticking hors d'oeuvres skewers in the biggest pineapple you can find, but this 1950s favourite creates a massive visual bang with very little effort. If you're feeling frou-frou, consider the gilda (white anchovy, guindilla, green olive), although there's a lot to be said for pickled onions with cheese cubes. Cornichons, cherry tomatoes, grilled Spam, more pineapple – there's no right or wrong Princess adornment – just as long as the finished product looks like a hedgehog at at Rio street parade.

Hummus. Karen Martini MY TUNISIA recipes for Epicure and Good Food. Photographed by Marina Oliphant. Styling by Andrea Geisler. Photographed April 13, 2013.

Karen Martini's hummus recipe. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Hummus

OK, you can forget the blanket. You can misplace the corkscrew. You can even lose the cake. A good picnic, however, must have hummus – preferably made from scratch and covered in pinenuts. It's a dip worth doing right.

"There are a million ways to dress up hummus," says Michael Rantissi, owner-chef of the modern Middle Eastern Kepos Street Kitchen in Redfern. "I love pine nuts with a big lug of olive oil and a handful of chopped parsley. Traditionally, it will be served with minced meat and caramelised onions, but you could do a similar vegetarian version with sauteed mushrooms. Harissa or [spicy herb sauce] zhoug are also great."

To make about one kilogram of hummus, Rantissi says: soak 150g of dried chickpeas overnight in a large saucepan of cold water, before draining and rinsing them well. Transfer them to a large saucepan with a lid and cover them with at least double the quantity of water to the chickpeas and bring to the boil. Cook over medium heat with the lid on for two hours, topping up with more water as needed. 

After about two hours, when the chickpeas are soft, add a quarter teaspoon of baking powder. Cook for another hour or until the chickpeas begin to break down, but aren't mushy. Meanwhile, throw five cloves of peeled garlic in a food processor with 200ml water and blend to a very smooth consistency.  Put through a sieve and keep the liquid. Discard the pureed garlic.

Drain the chickpeas and blend them to a smooth paste in the food processor. This will take about 7 to 10 minutes. Add 400g of tahini, the reserved garlic water, a pinch of ground cumin and a teaspoon of salt. Blend well, adding more water if necessary. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and gently whisk in 100ml of lemon juice to finish. "The gentle whisk is important," says Rantissi. "You don't want to over-aerate the hummus and lose the dense consistency."

The Israeli-born chef says a Middle Eastern picnic involves a lot of charcoal and grilled meats. "Plus lots of lots of salads – as many as possible to stuff in pita bread with hummus and get dirty. The food everyone enjoys the most is the food that gets your hands messy – pizza, sandwiches, pitas, street food. That's the kind of simple stuff people crave and it always tastes better outdoors in beautiful weather. Bring it on!"

Also see: Peter Rowland's famous chicken sandwiches