Picnic Pros Share Tips for Outdoor Eating and Drinking

Despite the biblical amount of rain we've received lately, things are finally starting to feel like spring in Chicago. And with spring comes picnics, as there is nothing more idyllic on a sunny spring day than a picnic basket chock full of snacks and wine. But what to stock? In time for full-blown picnic season, and with April 22 being National Picnic Day, I checked in with some of Chicago's best sources for picnic tips: Lisa Santos from Southport Grocery & Cafe, Lisa Futterman from Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine, and Craig Perman from Perman Wine Selections.

(Shelves runneth over at Southport Grocery & Cafe. Photo: Southport Grocery & Cafe)

Remember that sense of awe Belle expressed when she entered the library in Beauty and the Beast? Southport Grocery & Cafe elicits a similar reaction from patrons shopping for culinary provisions. The store, owned by Lisa Santos, has been a reliable source for unique ingredients, snacks, beverages, and lots more for years. Its shelves and cases are stocked with wares just begging to be stuffed into pantries, mouths, and picnic baskets. To create the perfect picnic basket, Santos suggests heading to the deli case to grab some hummus and marinated olives (don't forget the housemade crostini). The beer-shallot mustard and smoked onion marmalade are so zingy and delicious, you'll want to eat them by the spoonful, so make sure not to picnic with anyone too judgy. Wackerpop from Terry's Toffee (think popcorn on crack) and mocha stout nuts from Mama's Nuts are excellent locally made snackage. The wine shelf and cooler is stocked with great wines under $30, and Santos recommends varietals from Illinois Sparkling Co. for some great local wines. For other beverage options, Santos says Quince & Apple tart cherry grenadine and rhubarb hops are great additions to sparkling water. For sweets, Southport's sugar cookies are not to be missed, but Santos also shouts out Raaka chocolate bars (the bourbon cask-aged chocolate bar won a 2013 Good Food Award). Bring a cooler and ice so you'll be equipped to tote some of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams. Of course, fresh sandwiches and salads are always available at Southport as well, and God bless your willpower if you are able to visit Southport without picking up some of their famous cupcakes.

(Picnic provisions at Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine. Photo: Pastoral)

As we all know, nothing is more picnic perfect than cheese. In Chicago, the source for cheese is Lisa Futterman, cheesemonger extraordinaire at Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine. Her picks for picnic cheeses tend towards the self-contained, oozy varieties, such as Affidelice or Epoisses. She also recommends a French Camembert, since they come in their own wooden containers, making it easy to scoop out and smear on a baguette. And since Pastoral is such a prime picnic destination, they actually offer a special picnic menu, featuring picnic provisions for two. Selections include cheese plates, bread, accompaniments, and cookies. Check out the picnic menu here.

Wine is essential drinking on a picnic, and leave it to Craig Perman to provide the perfect picnic wine. His shop is personable and thorough, stocked exclusively with selections he feels strongly about. And his quintessential picnic wine? The 2012 Avinyo "Vi d' Agulla" Petillant. Per Perman, nothing says spring and summer like this wine, which he calls one of the most refreshing wines on the planet (whoa). Avinyo is one of the top purveyors of artisanal Cava, produced by the Esteve Nadal family in Catalonia. It's made from 80% Petit Grain Muscat and 20% Macabeu, with a secondary fermentation that gives it a refreshing effervescence. Perman notes its melon, white peach, and floral aromas, along with its bright citrus flavors. "If ever there was a wine for a picnic or pool party, this would be it," he proclaims.