Wagner’s Crab

Food and wine pairing is achingly fashionable at the moment. I’m afraid my knowledge about which wine to pair with what food doesn’t extend beyond when to drink Chablis and why Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t work with rhubarb crumble. I am, however, very good at food and performance pairing.  In case you haven’t come across it, food and performance pairing is the art of what to eat after a trip to the theatre. To give you an idea:

The Cherry Orchard – bitter cherry clafoutis and a litre of vodka.

Death of a Salesman – hotdog with a friend who feels a failure.

Waiting for Godot – a picnic of chicken and raw carrots while waiting for an acquaintance who never turns up.

Titus Andronicus – nothing for a week.

I now know what to eat after a Wagner opera. Having just seen Wagner for the first time in the form of the English National Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman, I’m proudly in the post-Wagnerian phase of my life. Orla Boylan‘s interpretation of tragic Senta – intense, introverted and slightly obsessive – is mesmerising. She’s a magnificent soprano who combines touching sensitivity with a deep, visceral power.

At dinner after the performance, there was something on the restaurant menu that seemed perfect to follow such high and intense drama – crab. Not a prissy crab, dressed and piled softly back into the shell from whence it had come and piped with mayonnaise stripes. But an armour-plated Wagnerian crab that looked as though it had just clattered into the restaurant, clambered onto the table and said “Ok – I dare you.” With crackers and probes, snippers and forks, it was a war of attrition to see who would win – the crab or me.

Orla is the best soprano to have at the dinner table. Not only does she sing so beautifully that you want to weep, as a teenager she had a holiday job boiling, cracking and dressing the crabs that her dad caught in pots. After the soaring performance of The Flying Dutchman, there was the impressive drama of watching Orla do battle with the crab, hoiking out morsels of meat that the rest of us failed to find.

I watched The Flying Dutchman with a very clever friend who grows things almost as well as Orla sings things. My friend’s magnificent garden is crammed with herbs that would make even a fish-finger fan want to cook.

Aniseed-flavoured sweet cicely overflows in flouncy, lacy heaps, along with drifts of lovage, clouds of wild flowers, perky rhubarb and things I’ve never heard of.

So, in honour of the magnificent Orla Boylan – as well as The Flying Dutchman and my friend’s glorious garden – here is Wagnerian Crab Salad with Sweet Cicely and Wild Flowers along with a glass of Sweet Cicely and Cucumber Cocktail. The crab isn’t the macho monster that I did battle with after the opera. But just as you can’t watch a Wagner opera every day of the week, you can’t fight a crab every day either.

SWEET CICELY AND CUCUMBER COCKTAIL WITH A LOVAGE STRAW

  • 1 part Limoncino
  • 1 part gin
  • 5 parts lemonade
  • Juice of half a lime
  • Quarter of a cucumber, peeled
  • Ice cubes
  • A handful of sweet cicely tender stems, to taste
  • Sweet cicely leaves to decorate
  • Lovage stalks, trimmed to make straws

Combine all the ingredients, apart from the decorative leaves and lovage stalks, in a food processor. Puree to a liquid and pour into a glass. You can strain the liquid if you prefer. The stems of lovage are hollow and make perfect straws. They add the most delicious flavour of perfumed celery to any drink. Garnish the cocktail with sweet cicely leaves and add a lovage straw.

WAGNERIAN CRAB SALAD WITH SWEET CICELY, WILD FLOWERS AND AVOCADO

Serves 2

  • 100g white crab meat
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 dessert spoon creme fraiche
  • A few chives plus the flowers
  • A few sweet cicely stems and leaves, chopped finely
  • Zest of 1 lemon plus a squirt of lemon juice
  • Seasoning
  • Viola flowers or any other edible flowers

Slice the avocado and divide between two plates. Combine the crab, creme fraiche, lemon juice and zest, seasoning, chopped chives and sweet cicely stems. Pile on top of the avocado and decorate with chive flowers and sweet cicely flowers.

Eat and drink the above after any Wagner opera. They go together perfectly.

A feast for Karen Blixen

There are many reasons to admire the writer Karen Blixen and Babette’s Feast is one of them. Her story of a french woman who creates a magnificent dinner on which she lavishes her entire fortune is one I’ve always loved. The two elderly sisters for whom Babette cooks are aghast to learn that she has spent everything she has and will be impoverished for the rest of her life. Her sanguine reply is that ‘an artist is never poor’.

Early this morning I found another reason to admire Karen Blixen. Reading a slightly whimsical but magical book called Writers’ Houses, I discovered that ‘Karen liked to combine old roses with cabbage leaves, or blossoms from her garden with wild herbs gathered in the forest behind the house. On days when she received guests, she rose at five in the morning to go out and gather flowers while they were still moist with dew.’

What? I’m all for making my dinner guests feel cherished, but get up at five in the morning so the flowers for the table still have dew on them? I’m sorry, but you have to be joking. I admit though that I was so impressed by her exacting aesthetic sense that I nipped outside and gathered some rosemary flowers for lunch. It was already 7.30 in the morning, which is practically mid afternoon by Karen Blixen’s standards – but look, they have dew!

Herb flowers are the finest part of the plant. They hold within them a whisper of the flavour of the stems from which they came; a delicate, fragrant memory of their more upfront, bossy, herby relatives. Karen Blixen liked to include herb flowers in bouquets. I like to include mine on my plate.

Pea, Rosemary Flower and Crab Risotto

Serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 knobs butter

1 large onion

2 garlic cloves

350g risotto rice

1 large glass dry white wine

1 litre vegetable stock

200g frozen peas

100g fresh white crab meat

Handful rosemary flowers – chive flowers are good too

Melt one knob of butter with the olive oil over a medium heat and gently cook the chopped onion and garlic until soft but not brown. Add the rice and a little salt and stir until coated and glossy. Pour in the white wine and stir until fully absorbed by the rice. Meanwhile heat the stock in a neighbouring pan and once the wine has been absorbed, ladle a little hot stock onto the rice and stir. As soon as the stock is absorbed, add more, stirring all the while. If you run out of stock, add a little boiling water. Once the rice is cooked and creamy which will take about twenty minutes, add the uncooked and still frozen peas and stir them through for just a couple of minutes. Don’t overcook them because the last thing you want are khaki-coloured peas. Stir in the second knob of butter, check the seasoning, put the lid on the pan and take off the heat. Divide between four warm bowls, sprinkle with rosemary flowers and top with the white crab meat.

Pea, rosemary flower and crab risotto is, to my mind, the perfect lunch. I like to think the creator of Babette’s Feast would have enjoyed it too, dew or no dew.