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.



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.


‘Mushrooms Are Friends of Mine’

A great friend gave me a present this week – a copy of food writer M. F. K. Fisher’s 1968 book With Bold Knife and Fork. She’d spotted it in the window of a junk shop and knew I’d love it. The book fell open and my eyes fixed on the fabulous phrase ‘Mushrooms are friends of mine’.

At my first job interview to become a trainee journalist I was asked ‘Are you in love with words?’ It’s a question that was, and still is, impossible to answer. But I think there’s a case to say that the question ‘Are you friends with mushrooms?’ is even harder.

Mushroom and Chestnut Pies

These pies are spectacularly good and if left to go cold make the most perfect snack for a picnic – one of the great pleasures in life. I’d even go so far as to say that ‘picnics are friends of mine’.

4 large field mushrooms

Around 4 tablespoons olive oil

Small knob of butter

2 small red onions

1 clove garlic

2 sticks celery

1 leek

Handful fresh thyme leaves

12 cooked chestnuts (optional, or you could use walnuts, but these too are optional)

Half teaspoon ground cumin

Half teaspoon fennel seeds

I ball mozzarella

20g cheddar or other hard cheese such as gruyere

1 tablespoon creme fraiche

Puff pastry sheet

1 egg

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees C.

The idea of these pies is that the mushroom itself should form the base of the pie. The filling is both creamy and savoury, while the puff pastry on top is flaky and light.

With a pointed knife remove the stalks from the mushrooms, along with a frill of the gills. Chop finely and put to one side.

Finely chop the garlic and onions and fry them gently in the butter and olive oil, reserving a tablespoon of oil for later. Cook for five minutes until soft but not brown. Add the fennel seed and cumin and then the finely chopped celery and cook for a further five minutes. Add the finely chopped leek, the reserved chopped mushroom stalks, the crumbled chestnuts if using and the thyme leaves. Cook for another five minutes. Stir in the creme fraiche and season with salt and black pepper.

Put the remaining olive oil in the palm of your hand and smooth the bases of the mushrooms around your palm to coat them in oil. Place the mushrooms in a heatproof dish and heap the cooked mixture inside each one. Divide the two cheeses equally between the mushrooms and sprinkle over the top. Cook the mushrooms in the oven for fifteen minutes until the cheese is bubbling and melted. Cut the puff pastry sheet into circles the same size as each mushroom and place them on top. The mushrooms will vary in size – I found I needed to cut the pastry with a mug, a glass and a small measuring cup to get the circles to fit snugly. Brush beaten egg over the pastry. Replace the pastry-topped mushrooms in the oven and cook for a further fifteen minutes until the tops are golden and crisp. Allow to cool slightly and serve with a green salad.

What better friends could you have than mushrooms and someone who comes to the door bearing gifts?