In Praise of Picnic Power

Issue 297
July/August 2016
Natural Healing

Ethical Living

In Praise of Picnic Power
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issue cover 297

Cover: Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 1932 by Georgia O'Keeffe. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London

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Julia Ponsonby enjoys the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of eating al fresco.

As summer sunshine tempts us outdoors, it is good to be reminded that the sheer pleasure of our woodland walk, beach trip or camping expedition has a merit that goes beyond sensory enjoyment. Indeed, every picnic carries the potent power of a mini-expedition into Nature’s own unlicensed health spa.

Packing a hamper of food to enjoy al fresco with friends (as well as sometimes on our own) can become a means of ensuring a few rejuvenating hours of outdoor living with very little notice. At its simplest, a picnic can be entered into on the spur of the moment, when we wake up to blue skies and decide to grab some ready-made sandwiches from the local garage. At its more involved, we could plan our picnic well in advance, preparing some delicious nibbles, trusting in the weather forecast and choosing a location that offers shelter should the weather get rough.

The natural benefits of our burst into Nature partly depend on the location we have chosen. A visit to the seaside will relax and inspire us, filling our lungs with the salty air that does wonders for the respiratory system and dosing our bodies with vitamin D direct from the sun. A visit to the forest has us breathing in essential oils from trees and has long been regarded as a form of natural aromatherapy in Japan, where shinrin-yoku (‘forest bathing’) trips have become increasingly popular.

In both environments, our eyesight will naturally be drawn to the horizon, countering the contemporary epidemic of myopia that is blighting a generation that spends hours a day staring at computer or mobile phone screens. The Journal of the American Medical Association has reported that 50% of children suffer with myopia in the United States, whereas in some urban areas of Asia levels of high school graduates with myopia reached 80–90%. Chinese research suggests that this level could be significantly reduced by prescribing more time out of doors.

Much of our lives has become about looking at things close to, rather than looking into the distance to see birds, trees, mountains, clouds and stars. Our peripheral vision, which is more suited for noticing movement, is sacrificed at the altar of our central or ‘hard’ vision. As soon as we get outside for a picnic in Nature we are forced to use our eyesight differently. We also have the benefit of the natural ambient light from the sun, which contrasts with the artificial light, often from harsh fluorescent sources, that we use at home or work. In addition, outdoor light may increase dopamine levels in the eye, which in turn prevents the development of a certain kind of eye shape associated with myopia.

Both seaside time and forest time have been found to correspond with a decrease in stress hormones, such as cortisol, and an increase in hormones that contribute to relaxation and compassion, such as seratonin. In a woodland setting this effect is associated with the phytoncides (plant-protective compounds) released by trees. On the beach, it is associated with the fresh sea air, which contains the negative ions that help balance out serotonin levels, resulting in more energy and reduced depression. The sound of the lapping waves also alters wave patterns in our brains, lulling us into a deeply relaxed state that can help rejuvenate mind and body.

Let yourself be coaxed by the power of the picnic! Don’t forget that getting some sunshine every day is also good for your health. Whereas prolonged sunbathing may lead to sunburn and skin cancer, a short meal in the fresh air will allow your skin to absorb vitamin D from the sun. This in turn will improve autoimmune protection, increase endorphins, lower the risk of cancer and enhance bone health.

It is also important that picnicking allows us to witness the changing state of Nature – if not in our ultimate destination, then in our journey to find it. We need to see what is happening in the real world and become witnesses to it. If what we experience is fragmentation between treasured places of natural beauty, rather than connective ecological pathways, this awareness will heighten our effectiveness as defenders of the natural world.

So, what shall we take on our picnic? If we are inviting children who have become reluctant walkers, then a few tempting treats that transport well and don’t often appear at the kitchen table are worth packing into our hampers. As a child I thought that the term ‘sandwich’ came from the presence of sand in accidentally dropped seaside sandwiches. Later, I much preferred the make-your-own picnics that came when we took crusty French baguettes down to the beach and helped ourselves to fillings of cheese and salad.

In recent years I have enjoyed the flicker of barbecues on the beach. I’ve also enjoyed making sushi for gluten-free picnics and can just imagine these tasty morsels being taken on forest bathing expeditions in Japan: déjeuner sur l’herbe with a difference. Another picnic favourite that rings the changes is a kebab stick (see recipe below) – vegetarian kebabs roasted in the oven before setting off and eaten pleasantly lukewarm, or reheated if a fire is available. At air temperature, kebabs made with juicy chunks of marinated red pepper, cherry tomato, aubergine, squash or sweet potato, red onion and either halloumi cheese or marinated tofu are quite delicious on their own or wrapped in a pouch of pitta bread.

Of course, picnics are not all about food – they are about enjoying shared time outside in a relaxed atmosphere – and the promise “to hide and seek as long as we please” is often just as enticing to children and adults alike as to teddy bears!

Cool Kebabs!

For these kebabs, I’ve chosen my favourite selection of roast vegetables that are also delicious when eaten cold. Simply cut, marinate and cook the vegetable pieces and then arrange them on sticks – a bit like threading a necklace, only using floppy beads and a very stiff thread! For protein I’ve added tofu – but you could also use lumps of halloumi cheese.

Makes 8 kebabs

You will need 8 long wooden skewers and 3 baking trays.

Ingredients

1 smallish aubergine
400gm firm tofu
1 smallish courgette (3cm diameter)
2 medium carrots (3cm diameter)
1 bulb fennel
3–4 small red onions
2 large red peppers
8–16 cherry tomatoes
8 smallish chestnut mushrooms

Marinade

3 tbsp tamari
1 tsp salt
200ml olive oil
2 tbsp crushed garlic (about 6 cloves)
1 tsp cider vinegar
¼ tsp paprika or black pepper
1 tbsp maple syrup

Method

When cutting the vegetables bear in mind that you want to create a good-shaped chunk that will have a centre with at least 1–1½cm of vegetable around it to keep it secure on the stick. Begin with the aubergines: sprinkle the pieces with salt and leave them to sweat. Next cut the tofu into 16 squares, and cut four of these squares in half to form triangles. Gently place the tofu into a bowl and sprinkle it with the tamari. Use your clean fingers to move the tofu about so that it is all covered. Cut the courgette and the carrots into rounds approximately 2cm thick. Cut the fennel and red onions so that the central core holds the pieces together. Cut the peppers into squares or diamonds, removing the seeds and stalk. Simply prick the cherry tomatoes with a knife. If the mushrooms are large, halve them.

Drain the tamari from the tofu and mix it with the rest of the ingredients for the marinade. Stirring in the maple syrup last seems to help obtain a syrupy dressing that will cling to the vegetables and not run off.

Rinse the aubergine pieces in clean water and pat them dry. Put them in a bowl with all the other vegetables. Pour a little of the marinade over the tofu and gently mix it, and then combine the rest with the vegetables. Leave for 30 minutes. Heat your oven to 200 °C.

To roast the vegetables, first separate out the cherry tomatoes and mushrooms, which will cook more quickly than the rest, and place them on a baking tray. Spread the other vegetables out on a larger baking tray – just one layer thick and quite sparsely packed, so that they will roast rather than braise and thus stay firmer. Spread out the tofu in a third baking tray, preferably on a piece of baking parchment to prevent sticking.

Pop the trays in the oven. After 15 minutes use a wooden spatula to turn everything gently. The tomatoes and mushrooms may need only 20 minutes altogether, whilst the other vegetables will need 30 to 40 minutes, depending on your oven. The tofu will be ready somewhere in between.

When the vegetables are soft and delicious, with perhaps some slightly charred tips here and there, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool. The tofu, by contrast, should have become firmer and more robust around the edges.

Finally, thread the cooled vegetables and tofu onto your kebab sticks – I usually anchor them all with a piece of carrot and finish with a triangle of tofu. If they are to be served the same day, I like to include some small lettuce leaves from the Schumacher garden, folded and pronged onto the stick, to complete the meal!

Wrap your kebabs lightly in foil and carefully place them in a basket, or pop them in a plastic box if you have one big enough. To serve, give everyone a wedge of fresh lemon to squeeze on their kebab, and a pitta bread or slice of fresh brown bread to sop up some of the delicious, ‘utterly butterly’ but moo-free juices.

Julia Ponsonby is Head of Food at Schumacher College, and author of Gaia’s Kitchen, Gaia’s Feasts and The Art of Mindful Baking.

Further reading

Qing Li, ‘Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function.’ Environ Health Prev Med. (2010) 15:9–17. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793341/

M.P. White et al., ‘Coastal proximity and physical activity: is the coast an underappreciated public health resource?’ Preventive Medicine (2014) 69:135–140. ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/18011

Robert Chuckrow, Tai Chi Walking: A Low-impact Path to Better Health, YMMA Publication Center, 2002

Jim Algar, ‘More Time Spent Outside Could Improve Eyesight of Children, Researchers Find.’ Tech Times, 16 September 2015. www.techtimes.com/articles/85071/20150916/more-time-spent-outside-could-improve-eyesight-of-children-researchers-find.htm

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