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.


  • 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.


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.

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.