Planning The Perfect Picnic (Food Poisoning Not Included)

paris picnic
Trey Ratcliff, Flickr

The solstice may be a few weeks off yet, but let’s not kid ourselves: summer has begun. A favorite warm weather pastime the world over is dining al fresco. I first discovered the joys of the picnic, in particular, when I was 10, and my family spent the summer traveling Europe in a borrowed Westphalia camper van.

From the Swiss Alps to the Yorkshire Dales, we practiced the art of picnicking and the menu was always a regional variation on bread/cured meat/cheese/chocolate (this is also what fueled my obsession with those foods).

Now that I’m an adult (at least, in theory), I still find picnics to be the ultimate form of outdoor indulgence. This summer, whether your travels take you overseas or only as far as your backyard, plan on making a habit of putting together a portable meal. Eating outdoors is a fun, easy, relaxing way to enjoy the season, especially if you follow these food-safety tips:

  • Make your menu tempting at room temperature. Fried chicken may be a Southern picnic staple, but it’s also a case of food poisoning waiting to happen if it’s not consumed within two hours of preparation (click here for the USDA’s microbiological explanation). Also, two words: soggy coating. Instead, serve sandwiches and grain-, pasta-, or roasted vegetable-based salads.
  • Keep it cool. Line an ice chest with ice packs, and then stash perishables, or if you’re hiking, fill and freeze the bladder from a hydropack. If something needs to be served at “room temperature,” use the ambient air temp to gauge when you should remove it from the cooler. Got some great cheese and it’s 100 degrees out? Five or ten minutes will do the trick.
  • retro picnicepiclectic, Flickr
  • Good hygiene begins at home, but don’t forget to pack some anti-bacterial gel for pre- and post-meal cleanup.
  • Keep it compact, green and clean. A bottle of wine is the ideal companion for a picnic, but broken glass definitely doesn’t make for a good garnish. Use a neoprene wine bag to keep your bottle chilled and protected (if temps are soaring; even red wine needs a cool-down). Use designed-for-outdoor-use stackable cups. For plates and cutlery, forgo the paper-waste and invest in either outdoor dining dishware or biodegradable bamboo products, which are widely available. If you have access to a compost bin (or some chickens), save all non-meat and dairy food scraps in a Tupperware. Leave your picnic spot cleaner than you found it.
  • Keep food fresh and pest-free by covering it with a lid, clean dishtowel or mesh dome (you can frequently find vintage versions of the latter at flea markets and antique shops).

10 reasons to travel to Ljubljana

Ljubljana travel
When I found cheap airfare from Istanbul to Ljubljana, I didn’t find many other travelers who’d been there or even say for sure which country it’s in. The tiny of country of Slovenia is slightly smaller than New Jersey and its capital city isn’t known for much other than being difficult to spell and pronounce (say “lyoob-lyAH-nah”). After spending a few days there last month, I quickly fell madly in love with the city, and recommend to everyone to add to their travel list.

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Here are some reasons to love Ljubljana:

1. It’s Prague without the tourists – Ljubljana has been called the next Prague for at least the last 10 years, but the comparison is still apt. Architect Jože Plečnik is known for his work at Prague Castle, but he was born in Ljubljana and is responsible for much of the architecture in the old downtown and the Triple Bridge that practically defines the city. While Prague is a lovely place to visit, it’s overrun in summer with backpackers and tourists. In Ljubljana, the only English I heard was spoken with a Slovenian accent, and there were no lines at any of the city’s attractions.

2. Affordable Europe – While not as cheap as say, Bulgaria, Ljubljana is a lot easier on the wallet than other European capital cities and cheaper than most of its neighbors. I stayed in a perfect room above the cafe Macek in an ideal location for 65 euro a night. A huge three-course dinner for one with drinks at Lunch cafe was 20 euro, and a liter of local wine in the supermarket is around 3-4 euro. I paid 6 euro for entrance into 4 art museums for the Biennial, and the same for all of the castle, including the excellent Slovene history museum, and the funicular ride there and back.3. Everyone speaks English – Sharing borders with Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, Slovenia is multi-cultural and multi-lingual. Everyone I met in Ljubljana spoke at least a few foreign languages including English; one supermarket cashier I met spoke six languages! While a language barrier shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a foreign country, it’s great when communication is seamless and you can get recommendations from nearly every local you meet.

4. A delicious melting pot – Slovenia’s location also means a tasty diversity of food; think Italian pastas and pizzas, Austrian meats, and Croatian fish. One waiter I spoke to bemoaned the fact that he could never get a decent meal in ITALY like he can in Slovenia. While I’d never doubt the wonders of Italian food, I did have several meals in Ljubljana so good I wanted to eat them all over again as soon as I finished. Standout spots include Lunch Cafe (aka Marley & Me) and it’s next-door neighbor Julija.

5. Great wine – Slovenia has a thriving wine culture, but most of their best stuff stays in the country. A glass of house wine at most cafes is sure to be tasty, and cost only a euro or two. Ljubljana has many wine bars and tasting rooms that are approachable, affordable, and unpretentious. Dvorni Wine Bar has an extensive list, and on a Tuesday afternoon, there were several other mothers with babies, businesspeople, and tourists having lunch. I’m already scheming when to book a stay in a vineyard cottage, with local wine on tap.

6. Al-fresco isn’t just for summer – During my visit in early November, temperatures were in the 50s but outdoor cafes along the river were still lined with people. Like here in Istanbul, most cafes put out heating lamps and blankets to keep diners warm, and like the Turks, Slovenians also enjoy their smoking, which may account for the increase in outdoor seating (smoking was banned indoors a few years ago). The city’s large and leafy Tivoli Park is beautiful year-round, with several good museums to duck into if you need refuge from the elements.

7. Boutique shopping – The biggest surprise of Ljubljana for me was how many lovely shops I found. From international chains like Mandarina Duck (fabulous luggage) and Camper (Spanish hipster shoes) to local boutiques like La Chocolate for, uh, chocolate and charming design shop Sisi, there was hardly a single shop I didn’t want to go into, and that was just around the Stari Trg, more shops are to be found around the river and out of the city center.

8. Easy airport – This may not be first on your list when choosing a destination, but it makes travel a lot easier. Arriving at Ljubljana’s airport, you’ll find little more than a snack bar and an ATM outside, but it’s simple to grab a local bus into town or a shared shuttle for a few euro more. Departing from Slovenia, security took only a few minutes to get through, wi-fi is free, and there’s a good selection of local goodies at Duty Free if you forgot to buy gifts. LJU has flights from much of western Europe, including EasyJet from Paris and London.

9. Access to other parts of country – While Ljubljana has plenty to do for a few days, the country is compact enough to make a change of scenery easy and fast. Skiers can hop a bus from the airport to Kranj in the Slovenian Alps, and postcard-pretty Lake Bled is under 2 hours from the capital. In the summer, it’s possible to avoid traffic going to the seaside and take a train to a spa resort or beach. There are also frequent international connections; there are 7 trains a day to Croatia’s capital Zagreb, and Venice is just over 3 hours by bus.

10. Help planning your visit – When I first began planning my trip, I sent a message to the Ljubljana tourism board, and got a quick response with a list of family-friendly hotels and apartments. Next I downloaded the always-excellent In Your Pocket guide, which not only has a free guide and app, it also has a very active Facebook community with up-to-the-minute event info, restaurant recommendations, deals, and more. On Twitter, you can get many questions answered by TakeMe2Slovenia and VisitLjubljana.

South by Southeast: Eating in Saigon

Amniotic fluid tastes like chicken soup. At least, that is, the amniotic fluid that comes from Hot Vit Lon, a Vietnamese delicacy consisting of an duck egg with a half-formed baby chick nested inside. As I squatted on a flimsy plastic chair in one of Saigon’s labyrinth of steamy back-alleys, with a cracked-open Hot Vit Lon in one hand, sweaty bottle of Saigon beer in the other, I had to wonder – just what exactly was I about to put in my mouth? Like so many of the favored foods of this rapidly changing Vietnamese metropolis, it was a question with many answers. Saigon’s top notch food scene is much like the city itself – a range of conflicting identities shouting to be heard – a place where the traditional, the sensuous and the social merge as one.

Understanding Saigon in 2010 means juggling these different personalities. It’s a place that’s modernizing rapidly, a mish-mash of high-rises and wooden houseboats, Gucci stores and low-budget guesthouses. Cao Dai, a religious sect based near Saigon, counts Jesus, Buddha and Victor Hugo among its deities. Even the city’s official name, Ho Chi Minh City (adopted in 1975), is up for debate, often rejected in favor of the historic moniker “Saigon.” Yet somehow these conflicting traits manage to work together, particularly when it comes to the town’s legendary culinary diversity. Saigon eating is much discussed in food circles, not only for the quality of the ingredients but also for the mind-bending variety of cuisines on offer. Everything from Western Haute cuisine to street food can be sampled.

This past January, I visited Saigon in order to see for myself why everyone has been talking about Vietnamese cuisine. I found a world-class food city with many different facets, each more tantalizing and top-notch than the next. Curious to get a taste of Saigon eating? Keep reading below.

%Gallery-85632%The Traditional
For hundreds of years, the hallmark of Saigon food has been its simplicity and wealth of high quality ingredients. The city sits along the edge of the Mekong Delta, a fertile agricultural breadbasket that provides a fresh-from-the-garden array of produce, locally produced meats and a mouth-watering array of flavorings. Perhaps no dish better epitomizes this blending of simplicity and freshness than Pho, a simple noodle soup made with beef, bean sprouts and a farmers’ market-worth of fresh veggies and herbs.

I arrived in Saigon fresh off an arduous 10 hour bus ride, exhausted, hungry and looking for comfort. I found my salvation just blocks from my guesthouse at Pho Quyhn, one of Saigon’s many top-notch Pho restaurants. Soon a steaming bowl of broth was before me teasing my nostrils with its beefy aroma. Beside me a whole plate was piled high with fresh mint, cilantro and salad greens, ready to be added. It was a “hug from mom in a bowl” – warm, comforting and familiar.

The Sensuous
According to a traditional Vietnamese food proverb, “To eat you must first feast with your eyes.” It’s a statement that rings true for much of Saigon cuisine, says Vietnam food expert and “Indiana Jones of Gastronomy” Richard Sterling one day over lunch. Richard has volunteered his expertise to help me experience a totally different side of Saigon, one that will expose me to the riotous colors, textures and sounds that are just as important as taste to the enjoyment of Saigon cuisine.

We convene that night for a “seafood feed” at Quan Ba Chi, where we devour whole soft-shell crabs cooked in a sticky-sweet tamarind sauce. We grab at huge plates of pinkish-orange crustacean that yield their sweet meat with a satisfying CRACK and shower of juice. I’m overwhelmed by not just the delicious taste, but the sloppy tamarind goo and bits of crab shell that work their way between my fingers and onto my shirt. It’s a feast not only for my tastebuds, but for my eyes, ears and fingers as well.

The Social
Daily life in Saigon doesn’t happen at home. It’s best experienced out on the street. The neat line that divides public and private life in the West is blurred in Vietnam, a fact that is frequently on display here. Everything from shopping at food markets, to locksmiths carving keys, to barbers cutting hair happens on the pavement, open to view. It leads to an environment where a meal is something to be shared, discussed and displayed: eaten in the open at communal tables.

To get a taste of this communal atmosphere, I make my way towards Saigon’s District 3 to a Quan Nhau restaurant – open-air Vietnamese beer halls where locals gather each evening to trade gossip, drink beer and enjoy plenty of tasty treats. I sit down at a shared table at Lucky Quan, kick back a glass of Bia Hoi and some grilled mussels with garlic and within minutes I’m trading stories with the Saigon locals sitting next to me. In Saigon, food is clearly a conversation starter.

Traditional. Sensuous. Social. Saigon cuisine is all of these things and none of them. Ultimately in place that claims so many identities, travelers have an opportunity to pick what they want the city to be. Much like choosing from among the city’s dizzying range of delicious foods, it’s something you must experience and settle upon for yourself.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.