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.