What's the Best Picnic You've Ever Had?

From June 19th to June 25th, I traveled around the Jura region of France as a guest of The Comté Cheese Association. I'll be filling you in on what I ate, drank, poked, prodded, and otherwise documented on the awesome trip in the land of cheese and wine.

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I have to admit to feeling a bit sheepish about writing this post. I don't normally do this kind of experiential, "look what I got to do, too bad you couldn't be here isn't my job awesome" type posts, but this time, I just gotta share it.

When I was first starting off my culinary career as a lowly line cook at No. 9 Park in Boston, I distinctly remember a day when the then-chef de cuisine Jason Bond (now chef-owner of the awesome Bondir in Cambridge) put together a picnic for the kids of one of our VIPs. It was a multi-course affair complete with well-composed sandwiches, salads, excellent bread, drinks, and a bit of dessert.

It's the model for a picnic that I've followed ever since, and I'd like to think that I put together a pretty mean one these days. That is, I thought I put together a mean picnic. Last week I experienced a picnic that left me thoroughly humbled.

Let me walk you through the recipe.

The Setting

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The pastoral landscape of Jura is idyllic, to say the least. Our picnic table was underneath a chestnut tree atop a bluff overlooking green hills and pasture as far as the eye could see. Herds of red-and-white Montbéliarde cattle slowly roamed across the fields to fill their udders with the creamy milk that would eventually turn into the cheese we had as our fifth course.

The weather was perfect: brisk, slightly cloudy, with a nice cool breeze to carry the scent of cut grass and wildflowers.

As a former architecture student, I spent many sleepless nights trying to design spaces as awesome as this. I never succeeded.

The Drinks

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I always like to pack a wet lunch for my picnics, even if they're breakfast. But all of the pre-mixed cocktails, carafes of wine, and chilled bottles of Saison beer pale in comparison to the spread set out by our hosts from Domaine de la Borde and Champ d'Etoiles. Bottles of sparkling rosé Crémant de Jura made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes started us off before we moved into taste after taste of Savagnin, Trousseau, and Ploussard. And that's before the sweet and strong Macvin de Jura and funky-tasting Vin Jaune, a highly local product made by maturing white wine made from Savagnin grapes under a thin veil of yeast known as a voile. It finishes with a characteristic sherry-like aroma.

Note to self: invite winemakers to all future picnics.

The Food

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This was the kicker. I've seen some serious picnics in my time, but never the kind of well-designed, multi-course, balanced affair that this one brought. It was almost frustrating. I mean, just for once, couldn't the French be wrong about their food? But nope. It was ridiculously good.

Clockwise from the top left, we've got:

  • First Course: Salad. Shredded carrots dressed in a vinaigrette and a salad of beans and onions. I really appreciate how nearly every meal comes with some form of salad, and that the salad is always dressed. It makes daily vegetable intake really simple.
  • Second Course: Seafood. Poached salmon in aspic with lemon and mayonnaise, along with chilled sauteed shrimp.
  • Third Course: Charcuterie. Thin slices of the local smoked jambon cru along with saucisson sec and a pâté de campagne wrapped in lard. It's served with tiny cornichon and a French breakfast radish (which goes really well with fatty meats).
  • Fourth Course: Dessert. A miniature galette topped with sliced apple and glazed with apricot jelly. It pairs wonderfully with the glass of Macvin de Jura we had—a local wine fortified with brandy.
  • Fifth Course: Cheese. A block of well-aged Comté complete with tiny flecks of tyrosine (those are the crunchy crystals of protein you find inside older dry cheeses). By this point we've moved on to Vin Jaune.
  • Bread. No meal is complete without good bread. This was good bread.

So there I had it. A brand new bar set on the picnic front. I'm gonna have to plan a few upgrades this year.

Tell me, Serious Eaters: What's the best picnic you've ever had?

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