Picnic in the Fourth Dimension

There’s a plant that explodes into life in Oxford’s Uni­ver­sity Parks each year that, for me, sounds the klaxon for spring. It far out­strips me in size and its shock of yel­low, sprout­ing branches, shoot­ing wildly from a car­pet of blue flowers, is so joy­ously absurd that every­one stops to stare.

Its start­ling col­ours and eccent­ric shape always remind me of the work of Joan Miro. ‘For me, an object is alive’, the Span­ish artist once said. ‘I see a tree, I get a shock, as if it were some­thing breath­ing, talk­ing. A tree too is some­thing human…’ Miro would have liked this crazy hair-cut of a plant. I feel sure it would have helped him with his work on the appar­ently impossible notion of four-dimensional art, since it’s a plant with just too much life, too much exuber­ance to be trapped by only three dimensions.

Being some­thing of a picnic-obsessive, the flower­ing of what I think of as the ‘Miro plant’ is my sig­nal for meals out­side (although winter often brings good pic­nic oppor­tun­it­ies too, for the thick-coat owner). I have a long rep­er­toire of pic­nic recipes by now. But I’ve just devised this new one, in cel­eb­ra­tion of the Miro plant’s arrival.

CHICKPEA FLATBREADS WITH CHESTNUT MUSHROOMS, SMOKED MOZZARELLA AND TRUFFLE OIL

Serves 4

For the flatbreads

  • 130g chick­pea or gram flour
  • 280ml water
  • 1/2 tea­spoon salt
  • 1 1/2 table­spoons olive oil

For the topping

  • 500g chest­nut mush­rooms, sliced
  • 2 cloves gar­lic, crushed
  • Hand­ful fresh thyme leaves
  • Splash of olive oil
  • Knob of butter
  • Season­ing
  • Trickle of truffle oil
  • 1 ball of smoked moz­zarella (plain moz­zarella is good too, if you’re stuck)

Make the flat­bread bat­ter by whisk­ing all the ingredi­ents together and allow­ing to rest for at least two hours, or overnight if your prefer, covered. The mix­ture will make six flat­breads — two left over for the sug­ges­tion at the bot­tom of this recipe.

Heat a small, non stick fry­ing pan/skillet on the hob until hot. Ladle in a spoon­ful of bat­ter — about 1/6th of your mix­ture and enough to coat the pan — and cook on a high heat for 2 minutes, until the bot­tom of the flat­bread has browned nicely. Flip it over with a spat­ula and cook the other side for a fur­ther one to two minutes. Repeat until you’ve used up all the bat­ter. Stack up the flat­breads and turn to the mushrooms.

Melt the but­ter with the olive oil in a large fry­ing pan over a medium heat. Add the mush­rooms, gar­lic, thyme and season­ing and cook until the mush­rooms are softly golden. Remove from the heat.

When ready to assemble your flat­breads, pre­heat your grill. Slice the smoked moz­zarella and divide between the four flat­breads. Divide the mush­rooms evenly too and pile on top of the moz­zarella — you can do this neatly or cas­u­ally, whichever method suits your patience and your aes­thet­ics. Place the breads on a grill pan and grill until the moz­zarella has become mol­ten. Remove from the heat and trickle over a little truffle oil. Either eat them in the warmth of your kit­chen, or fold them over and wrap them up ready for your picnic.

You will have two flat­breads left over — these are good spread with hum­ous. They’re also deli­cious if you dip pieces into a little olive oil and then dab them into a mix­ture of crushed pista­chios, cumin, sumac and salt.

Joan Miro was both invent­ive and revolu­tion­ary. He once said of his art that ‘the more local some­thing is, the more it is uni­ver­sal’. The man who brought us sear­ingly vivid litho­graphs, tapestries, paint­ings and sculp­tures also, as it turned out, devised the most per­fect man­tra for eat­ing too. Local equals uni­ver­sal. Brilliant.

When Colours Run Riot

There was a phase in the 1970s when interior design ran riot. I remem­ber my grandpa announ­cing proudly that he’d dec­or­ated the walls of his small front room with four wildly dif­fer­ent wall­pa­pers and picked out the wood­work in egg-yolk yellow.

I thought of my grandpa as I walked around David Hockney’s new exhib­i­tion A Big­ger Pic­ture at the Royal Academy in Lon­don. The exhib­i­tion is vast and over­whelm­ing and throbs with wild col­ours and pat­terns. It’s gen­er­ous, showy and utterly inde­pend­ent in spirit and yet it’s metic­u­lous and some­how dogged too — qual­it­ies that pretty much sum up my grandpa.

Walk­ing through Oxford’s Uni­ver­sity Parks later that day, I felt some­how let down that the winter branches didn’t have the vibrancy of David Hockney’s trees.

But turn­ing 180 degrees so that the sun was shin­ing on the trunks, the col­ours jumped into life. I got a whole new per­spect­ive. And if that’s not a meta­phor for life, I don’t know what is.

Muted, restrained food is the last thing I wanted after the Hock­ney tidal wave. I craved the idea of eat­ing a riot of col­our. When in that mood and at this time of year, there’s really only one choice — full throttle, lip-staining, finger-smearing, red and yel­low beet­roots. I found a bag of just such a thing for half price at Whole­foods, along with a sil­ver foil hick­ory smoker from Fin­land for £2.29.

I have a dis­astrous record at home-smoking. The last time I tried we had to evac­u­ate the house. But I figured I’d be safe in the hands of the Finns. If you want a really strong smokey fla­vour, this bag will dis­ap­point you. But for a del­ic­ate hint of smoke, without the need for a full evac­u­ation plan, this bag works fine.

SMOKED RED AND GOLDEN BEETROOT WITH GOAT’S CURD AND SMOKED GARLIC

Serves 4

  • 2 red and 2 golden beetroot
  • 4 small red onions
  • Salad leaves
  • Goat’s curd
  • 1 head garlic
  • 2 table­spoons bal­samic vinegar
  • Bunch thyme
  • 2 table­spoons olive oil
  • Black­berry vin­egar — I bought mine from Womers­ley Foods
  • 1 dis­pos­able foil smoker — bought from Whole­foods for £2.29

Wash the beet­root, but don’t bother to peel them. Slice into rounds about 1.5 to 2 cm thick. Peel the onions but leave whole. Toss the beet­root, onions, whole head of gar­lic and thyme in the olive oil and bal­samic vin­egar, sea­son and place in a single layer inside the foil smoker. Seal the foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 250 degrees C. After 15 minutes turn the heat down to 190 degrees C. Cook for a fur­ther 45 minutes. Remove the pack­age from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes before cut­ting open the foil. Peel the beet­root and slice into thin­nish circles.

Make a salad dress­ing from a little olive oil, black­berry vin­egar and season­ing and dress the salad leaves. Pile the beet­root, onions and scoops of goat’s curd over the leaves and trickle over a little of the bal­samic and olive oil from the smoker. After its hour of bak­ing, the gar­lic will be rich, sweet and unc­tu­ous — per­fect when spread on a little sour­dough bread.

I ate my riot­ous salad and bread with beet­root soup that I made by bak­ing beet­roots and apples for an hour and blend­ing with veget­able stock and a little grated fresh horseradish.

apple on a plate

My grandpa was wild with his col­our schemes but excep­tion­ally timid in his tastes. He would have hated this recipe. But he would have loved the ideas that lie behind it, and that’s good enough for me.