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How to plan the ultimate Melbourne Cup Day picnic
You’ll be off to the races – figuratively speaking – with our guide to planning the ultimate Cup Day picnic.
There’ll be no crowds cheering from the finish line when the race that stops a nation crowns a winner at Flemington this year.
But while Victorians might be swapping the Birdcage for the backyard, we’re still looking forward to a little horsing around on the 3 November public holiday.
Sure, there won’t be any Fashions on the Field, but you can still have a field day laying out an appropriately distanced picnic rug at your favourite park, and celebrating with up to 10 of your nearest and dearest.
So, for those planning a picnic for Cup Day weekend, we asked RACV Royal Pines executive chef Glenn Bacon and pop-up picnic planner Alexandra Grant, founder of The Posh Palais, for their expert tips on how to host a Flemington-worthy garden party. Plus, Glenn shares his ultimate chicken sandwich recipe, which is sure to have you chomping at the bit.
And while you’re getting into that spring carnival spirit, remember to keep it COVID-safe by masking up, maintaining a 1.5 metre social distance and sanitising your hands.
How to put on the ultimate Melbourne Cup Day soiree
Location, location, location
Choosing the ultimate soiree spot is hard, especially when, if you’re from Melbourne, you have to keep it to within 25 kilometres of your home. Fortunately Victorians are spoiled for choice when it comes to picnic-perfect locations. You’ll want to choose somewhere that has plenty of flat, grassy areas to lay a rug or set up a picnic table, Alex says, as well as toilets and shaded or covered spots in case the weather takes a rainy turn. “You also want to pick a spot that is not so far from the car that you have to lug everything through the park,” she says. When laying out your blanket, remember to abide by social-distancing requirements and allow enough space between picnic parties.
Check the weather
Once you’ve chosen your picnic location, Alex says it’s always a good idea to check the weather forecast. “I look two days out and that’s when we make a decision about whether we postpone or go ahead with a sheltered location,” she says. Cup Day is notoriously unpredictable on the weather front so, if it’s not looking good, Alex says try to be flexible with the time. “It might be raining in the morning but beautiful and sunny in the afternoon.”
In the bag
Packing for a picnic doesn’t require a magic Mary Poppins-style bag of bottomless goodies, but there are a few key items that will make things easier on the day. If you’re going for the classic, rug-on-the-ground-style picnic, Alex says a couple of beach chairs or cushions will up the comfort factor. COVID precautions put paid to shared grazing platters or cheese boards but you can still dial up the luxe factor by investing in some stylish picnic plates - paper or reusable - for each guest. If you’re offering finger food, remember to pack some little side plates. A thermos with hot water for tea or coffee is also a neat idea and, if you’re feeling a bit fancy, portable coffee makers – such as a Nanopress or plunger – will up the picnic ante. But Alex warns not to overdo the packing. “You want to take the least amount of stuff possible as you’ll have to carry everything in and out,” she says. “Also, use the biggest bag you have so you can pack everything in the one place and don’t have to make multiple trips back to the car.”
Don’t pack under pressure
Avoid race-day dilemmas by packing the night before so you’re less likely to forget essential picnic wares. Keep fresh food in the fridge till it's time to leave, but Alex recommends packing the car with non-perishables well ahead of time. “People often forget simple things like napkins, garbage bags, bug spray and – particularly these days – hand sanitiser so make sure they’re already in the bag.” And get organised by putting ice in the freezer and making sure your dressings or dipping sauces are in leak-proof containers.
Prep what you can at home
Few things in life are more annoying than trying to chop carrots with a plastic knife. To make your picnic as fuss-free as possible, get as much of the food prepped beforehand as you can, Alex advises. “Make what you can at home,” she says. “Then all you have to do is assemble once you get to the park.”
Make it bite-size
Nailing picnic food needn’t be difficult, Alex says. “Have things you can eat with your hands,” she says. “And aim for foods that aren’t messy to eat, like sandwiches or Vietnamese rice paper rolls.” RACV’s Glenn Bacon, executive chef at Royal Pines Resort, says ideal Flemington-inspired spring carnival fare includes salmon blinis (which can easily be prepped in advance), zucchini slice (baked in individual patty pans), little cupcakes, scones, smoked salmon pinwheels and, of course, the spring carnival staple, chicken sandwiches. Glenn uses a sprinkle of wattle seeds to give his a deliciously Aussie twist and says the secret to the perfect sandwich is in mastering the poach. Check out his guide to making the perfect chicken sandwich, where he shares his go-to receipe. When you're planning a picnic menu, Glenn also suggests including a mix of sweet and savoury options and, if you’re picnicking with people outside your immediate household, consider making up individual snack boxes to ensure everyone stays COVID-safe.
Turn up the fun
Amp up the Cup Day festival vibes with a portable speaker and a picnic-appropriate playlist, and don’t forget to tune into SEN for live race calls. You could also pack some fun garden games – such as bocce or Finska – to keep race-day revellers entertained.
Look the part
If you’ve been living in your activewear for the past seven months, Cup Day is the ultimate excuse to get out of your trackies and glam it up. Whether it’s a lockdown splurge purchase you’ve been waiting for the right occasion to wear, or a fresh haircut you can’t wait to flaunt, getting dressed up will help you get into the Spring Carnival spirit.
Presentation is key
A waterproof, machine-washable picnic rug means you won’t have to worry about soggy bottoms or grass stains on the day. “Some people prefer blankets over a traditional picnic rug,” Alex says. “If you’re doing this, make sure you take a liner – such as a plastic table cover or a drop sheet – to sit underneath so you stay nice and dry.” Once the rug is down, arrange cushions or beach chairs on the outer area of the rug – 1.5 metres apart – then set up your scrumptious spread in the middle.
Make it sturdy
When it comes to picnic perfection, balancing your plates, platters or champagne glasses on uneven grass is always precarious. But don’t fret if you don’t have a portable picnic table, Alex says. Everything from your esky lid to an empty crate or even an old shipping pallet will work. “Always have something elevated to put the food on,” she says. “It’s easy to kick dirt around on a picnic rug so this keeps your food off the ground and also creates a flat surface to put your wine glass on.” Throw a cute cloth or some brown paper over the top to give it a more Flemington vibe.
Don’t forget your mask
You might be eating and drinking, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to wear a face mask. In between sips or bites, remember to keep your mask pulled up to ensure your own health and safety, as well as that of fellow park-goers.
Clean up after yourself
Don’t forget to bring along some boxes or garbage bags for your rubbish and, if public bins are full, take it home with you. If you’re not using your best china or glassware on the day, instead of plastic cups and cutlery, opt for eco-friendly picnic supplies such as compostable plates, napkins and other serving ware.