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.