At the end of each summer, when I was growing up in Yugoslavia, my family gathered together to spend days preserving food; food that would help us pass the winter, food that would remind us of the summer and the warmth of the sun. We would cook jams, pickle vegetables, and bottle grape juice. My mum had a big family, I had four aunts and one uncle, and we would all meet in my grandmother’s backyard where my uncle would light a wood fire and my aunts and my mum would cook ajvar, jam, and later on, grape juice. I would run around with the rest of the kids, taste the food the adults were cooking, and help with simple chores.
Ever since, the end of the summer always wakes in me a nostalgic feeling and a longing to spend time with family around, cooking, talking, eating, and having fun. After the war in my country, my family is spread all over the world and the friends who live nearby me, in Lisbon, are as dear as my family elsewhere.
Longing to recreate those memories with this new family, I decide to prepare a picnic of preserved food for my friends. Even if these aren’t foods we’ll wait to enjoy until winter, they still respect the slow process of preservation to distill the best flavor from simple ingredients.
Since salt is essential for food preservation, I visit a flor de sal producer near my home, where the salt is still extracted manually from the river. This naturally made salt is traditionally produced through evaporation by the sun and air. Holding the grains of this flaky white salt, still slightly damp, in my fingertips, I decide to cure salmon, heightening its ocean flavor. I add fresh ginger and dry leaves of black tea to the salt, a simple cure to perfume the fish. Two days later, the result of my patience pays out. Thinly sliced, the tender, salty salmon flesh pairs perfectly with fresh herbed labneh — a simple cheese made by straining tangy goat yogurt — and homemade bread.
In my opinion beach picnics should be simple, based on finger foods, things you can take with you on a walk or easily enjoy sitting on the sand for a talk with friend. For that reason I decide to add empanadas and chia pudding to the menu. Both are perfect for occasion ― handheld and prepared entirely ahead of time.
Since my friend Joana is coming, I make her favorite, a berry and apple tart with crumble. It’s filled with summer fruits that caramelize under the crumble. The taste reminds me of the jam my aunts used to prepare during our family gatherings.
All the food is almost ready as my friends begin to arrive. They help pack everything up and we drive to the nearby beach. We are eager to stretch our blankets out on the sand, unpack, and dive in.
It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon. We arrive before the sunset and find the vast beach almost empty. The waves are strong and the only sound we can hear is them breaking along the shoreline. The light passes from strong to very soft, almost pink. The sand is still hot. My friend’s dog, Skype, bounds through the sand with my daughter, Hana, both incredibly happy.
We choose a spot between the dunes, spread out linen towels, and then set out the food on top of them. The incredible orange color of the salmon flesh is so vivid in the sunlight. Joana passes me a slice of bread with fresh labneh and salmon on top, and I fill a glass with lemonade. Everybody knows fennel in all its glory is my thing so they tease me about finding a way to fit fennel into lemonade. We laugh about it.
With the ocean in front of us, feeling the sand between our fingers, we are free, away from the city and its confusion, together with those we love and care about. We speak, play, laugh, run, feel salty air on our skin, and absorb all the sunshine we can. We enjoy the simple food, lingering together until late in the evening, when chilly late summer air begins to bite our cheeks.
Even though our lives nowadays are busy and chaotic we need to gather those we care about and celebrate. A simple picnic gives us occasion to celebrate our friendship and love, the air that surrounds us, the saltwater, and the sand. For me, a late summer picnic nourishes my new family, the most important thing that one could possible preserve, the thing that will continue to nourish us into the winter.
Photos by Sanda Pagaimo