With love from lovage

I’ve been given a fab­ulous book — The Alice B.Toklas Cook­book, first pub­lished in 1954. Alice B. Tok­las, the lover of writer Ger­trude Stein, was an eccent­ric cook. But Ger­trude and Alice’s din­ner guests were the likes of Matisse and Picasso, so the ori­gin­al­ity stakes were high. When Picasso popped round for lunch, Alice decided he would like a ‘dec­or­ated fish’, cooked using a method her grand­mother swore by. She argued that a fish ‘hav­ing lived its life in water, once caught, should have no fur­ther con­tact with the ele­ment in which it had been born and raised.’

I was start­ing to like the sound of recipe — until I got to the final para­graph. Alice sug­gests cov­er­ing the fish with stripes of may­on­naise and tomato paste. Then, even worse, she goes hard-core kitsch and coats the mayonnaise-daubed fish in a fancy pat­tern of ‘sieved hard-boiled eggs, the whites and the yolks apart.’ Picasso appar­ently exclaimed at the fish’s beauty, but sug­ges­ted that its par­tic­u­lar aes­thetic made it more suit­able for Matisse than him. What kind of tricky friend must he have been to have for lunch?

Food for friends is the best kind of food there is. Mind you, much as I love my friends, hav­ing just cooked spin­ach and parmesan tart for sixty of them, I don’t feel like mak­ing pastry again for a while. Which is why I’ve just made a cour­gette and lovage tart, using not pastry but por­ridge oats. It’s so effort­less I could hap­pily make it for six hun­dred. What’s exquis­ite about this tart is the del­ic­ate fla­vour of cel­ery bequeathed by the lovage. I picked my lovage this morn­ing from a friend’s garden. So this is food for friends con­tain­ing food by friends. And it’s a mini work of art.

Cour­gette and Lovage Tart

2 cups por­ridge oats

120 g but­ter

6 rash­ers smoked streaky bacon

3 medium onions, chopped finely

2 medium cour­gettes, quartered length­ways and sliced finely

Plump hand­ful of lovage leaves

6 eggs

175 g mas­car­pone

Salt pep­per

100 g ched­dar cheese, grated

Salt, pep­per and a pinch of sugar

Pre­heat the oven to 175 degrees c.

Melt the but­ter and stir in the por­ridge oats. Once fully mixed, tip the oats into a ceramic tart dish about 25 to 30 cm in dia­meter. Squash the buttered oats firmly down into the dish with the back of a spoon until com­pletely flat and smooth. Bake in the oven for fif­teen minutes until the oats are slightly toasted in colour.

Snip the bacon into smallish squares and fry gently until crisp, but not brittle. Remove the bacon and fry the onions in the remain­ing oil, adding a slosh of olive oil to help them along. Add salt and a pinch of sugar to encour­age the onions to car­a­mel­ise. Once soft and golden, remove the onions and add a little more olive oil to the pan. Tip in the cour­gettes and sea­son. Cook quite briskly for a few minutes and then add the shred­ded lovage leaves. Stir for a minute or so until the leaves wilt. Remove from the heat. Tip first the bacon, then the onion and finally the cour­gettes and lovage leaves evenly onto the oat base.

Mix the eggs, mas­car­pone, ched­dar cheese and pep­per well and then pour over the bacon, onions and cour­gettes, mak­ing sure everything is well coated. Bake in the oven for twenty to twenty five minutes until golden.

This tart is won­der­ful for a pic­nic because once cool it has none of the petu­lant qual­it­ies of a pastry tart that crumbles the minute it’s packed into a hamper and emerges from the bas­ket as a bundle of sulky crumbs. And lovage is just so eager to please. Not only does it volun­teer to make the most deli­cious tart, it turns itself into a straw for your aper­itif for good­ness sakes.

Take the largest stalks from the plant, snip into reedy straws, and poke into glasses of eld­er­flower cor­dial and ice. As you sip your drink through the celery-flavoured stalk, you will find the cor­dial has been magic­ally trans­formed into the most del­ic­ate and exquis­ite cock­tail. If like me you have a smart friend who grows not just lovage, but white dianthus flowers, pop a blos­som into your glass to add an extra fla­vour of cucum­ber. Frothy white flowers and a liv­ing lovage straw — Picasso would love it.