PIne nut and herb tart with a yeasted crust

Herb and pine nut tart

Herb and pine nut tart

Lately, at our Dickensian flea market, there’s been a man with a table full of books about ancient Egypt. He’s got books on history, on art, on myth, on language. It’s a full collection, somebody’s entire library. I wonder how it all ended up here. I imagine a Tintin character, a scholar with a long white beard and round glasses, an Egyptologist, who gives it all up, sells all his books,  and goes on an   adventurous journey down the Nile. I bought a beautiful book called The Literature of Ancient Egypt. I will freely admit to you that I didn’t even know such a thing existed. Of course I knew about the myths and the gods, but I didn’t know there were stories and poems, that we could still read lengthy narratives from all those years ago. And how strange and beautiful they are! They alternate between the completely human and recognizable and the fantastically bizarre. There’s a ghost story that isn’t spooky at all because “death for a deceased Egyptian who had undergone the rites ofbeatification was an extension of life…and rapport between the living and the dead was by no means always a gloomy affair.” There’s The Shipwrecked Sailor, which is a story within a story within a story, one of them told by a golden snake.

And the love poems are crazy, intimate and yearning. In a context I only remotely understand, maybe there’s a sense that the people who describe themselves as belonging to another actually belong to the other as property, but if you’ve ever been in love you know how it feels to belong with someone, and in this context, these speak to me. Listen to this love poem:

The voice of the turtledove speaks out. It says:
day breaks, which way are you going?
Lay off, little bird,
must you so scold me?

I found my lover on his bed and my heart was sweet to excess.

We said:

I shall never be far away from you
while my hand is in your hand,
and I shall stroll with you in every favorite place.

He set me first of the girls
and he does not break my heart.

and this one…

A dense growth is in it,
in the midst of which we become ennobled

I am your best girl:
I belong to you like an acre of land
which I have planted
with flowers and every sweet-smelling grass.

Pleasant is the channel through it
which your hand dug outdoor refreshing ourselves with the breeze,
a happy place for walking
with your hand in my hand.

My body is excited, my heart joyful,
at our traveling together.

Many of the passages dole out advice, mostly to sons, some from fathers who are already dead. My favorite is The Maxims of Ptahhotpe. He’s not yet dead, but he’s aging, which he describes in a Sappho-worthy passage.

    The Eyes are dim, the ears are deaf, strength is perishing because of my lassitude, the mouth is silent and cannot speak, the mind has come to an end and cannot remember yesterday, the bones suffer all over, good is become evil, all taste has gone…

His advice is sometimes strange and sexist (how to deal with the women you own), but sometimes beautifully generous and still very pertinent today. He says not to judge anyone by their position, and not to be arrogant because of your knowledge, but to confer with the ignorant man as with the learned, for “Good speech is more hidden than malachite, yet it is found in the possession of women slaves at the millstones.” Anybody is worth speaking to, if you give them the chance to speak! He says that you shouldn’t pay any attention to a man who is speaking ill of others, you should be silent because he ” will be dubbed an ignoramus when your self-control has matched his prolixity.” And he says “Do not inspire terror in men…for no terror of man has ever been effective…plan to live in peace, and what men give will come of its own accord.” And most mysterious and most lovely, “Follow your desire as long as you live and do not perform more than is ordered, do not lessen the time of following desire, for the wasting of time is an abomination to the spirit; do not use up the daytime more than is necessary for the maintenance of your household.”

It’s so strange to read words from an almost incomprehensible time ago, when it’s hard to imagine how people lived, and find truth in them that still resonates today. I’m not always the biggest fan of human beings in general, but sometimes in the bright round mystery of our history, we’re remarkable and beautiful and persistently true.

We have so many herbs growing in our garden! I love this time of year. I love the bright taste of all of the herbs mingled together with something milder like eggs or cheese or potatoes. This turned out really good, I think. I used chervil and tarragon, which are both lovely and lemony and anise-y, plus basil and thyme, and sage and rosemary, and a little oregano. You can use whatever you have. I think the idea is to use strong flavors you might not usually combine, but which work well together because they’re all growing together at the same time. Very simple tart, in many ways, so it compliments the complexity of the herbs. You could play around endlessly with this!

Here’s a song by Oum Kalthoum. Another thing I don’t understand completely, but find beautiful.

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Tart with grilled mushrooms, potatoes and herbs

Tart with grilled mushrooms, potatoes, and herbs

Tart with grilled mushrooms, potatoes, and herbs

This week, the Guardian UK had this bit of advice from a teacher to any and all parents. “Your kids are not your mates. Something I’m starting to hear with worrying frequency within the primary school setting is ‘my daughter’s my best friend.’ Often, this rings alarm bells. Your kids aren’t your mates. You’re their parent, and your responsibility is to provide them with guidance and boundaries, not to drag them into your own disputes. Your nine-year-old doesn’t need to know about your bitter feud with his friend’s mother, or which dad you’ve got the hots for at the school gate.” Well, I’m sorry, Guardian UK, you’re still my best newspaper friend forever, but I think this advice twists the issue and gets it wrong. First of all, the real problem is that a parent is telling anyone about their bitter feud with his friend’s mother or about which dad they have the hots for. Or that they have a bitter feud with their kid’s best friend’s mother in the first place. Some things are best kept to yourself! Secondly, this is such a strange definition of friendship! A friend is not necessarily someone you complain to or to enlist in your feuds. (Unless we’re all in some tawdry reality show and I’m blissfully unaware of it!) For me a friend is somebody who you enjoy spending time with, who you’re comfortable with, who you enjoy talking to, who you’ll take care of when they’re sick or down or need help with anything, and who you know will take care of you, too. And why am I bothering to get all huffy about a random article from the Guardian? I suppose it’s because just last week I was thinking happily about what good friends my boys have become for me. It’s one of my greatest pleasures in life, thinking about what good people and good friends they’re becoming. Walking with them, talking with them, cooking with them, reading with them, playing frisbee or basketball or some strange hybrid game that Malcolm invented that involves playing basketball with a frisbee while walking like a penguin. Even playing video games, which I do so badly that Malcolm laughs the whole time, is a good way to spend an afternoon. All of these are a joy to me, and more so every day. Of course I know that I’m the parent, I make the most basic rules, I tell them when it’s time to stop playing penguin ball and come and do some homework. I make them eat (at least some) of their dinner, I tell them when it’s time to go to bed. Or rather David and I do, because he’s a friend, too, and we’re all in this together. And of course I don’t expect them to take me to the doctor when I’m sick, or make me toast or decide what medicine I should take, like I do for them. But I do think it’s crushingly sweet that when I don’t feel well they bring me water, or try to be more quiet so that I can rest. And I think it’s important for them to feel needed, to feel as though they can help take care of somebody that they love. I think it’s important for them to know that we enjoy talking to them, that conversations with them are as entertaining and enlightening as with anyone else I know. From when he was very little, Isaac has said, “You’re fun to be with.” And I think it’s important for them to know that they’re fun to be with, too. The Guardian’s preachy teacher warned that being friends with your children might lead to social alienation for them later in life, but I believe the opposite. I believe they’re learning how to be a friend, and how good it feels to have a friend, how good it is to care. Or so I dearly hope!

Tart with grilled mushrooms, potatoes and fresh herbs

Tart with grilled mushrooms, potatoes and fresh herbs

Here’s another of my world famous pizza-like tarts. It has a yeasted crust with olive oil in it, which, let’s face it, is a pizza crust. But it also has an egg and cheese custard in the middle, which makes it like a big flat quiche. This one began as a way to use up leftover grilled portobellos and some cooked tiny potatoes. I decided to use them as toppings here. I also used smoked gouda, to accentuate the smokiness of the grilled mushrooms. And we have such an exciting variety of herbs in our garden, and I used them all!! I love a big medley of herbs together, with all of the unexpected and delightful flavors. Some herbs I think of as better cooked…sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano. And others I like best fresh and raw–basil, tarragon, cilantro. So I mixed some in with the custard and baked them into the tart, and others I scattered on top at the end.

Here’s The White Stripes with We’re Going to be Friends.

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Spring herbs & greens tart


A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot–
The veriest school
Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not–
Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign;
‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.
-Thomas Edward Brown

I used to love this poem, when I was little. I know … it’s overblown, it’s stilted, it’s very Victorian, but I thought it was great. I learned recently that the poem spawned a word, “godwottery.” Godwattery refers to a) gardening in an elaborate and affected style, or, b) affected use of archaic language. I love that! I love the word, I love the idea, and the gentle teasing quality of the whole arrangement.

My parents gave me a small part of the yard to make a garden in. I used to plan it furiously. I had a little garden book. I drew pictures, I researched seeds. I visited the Cloisters in New York. I read overwrought victorian poetry about gardens. I was never quite as good at actually planting the garden, though, or weeding it, or taking care of it. I did make a nice little space, for a while. Where we live now, we have a tiny yard, and an even tinier space set aside for a garden. We grew tomatoes for a few years, but we’re giving the soil a break, and this year we’re planting herbs and small greens. I’m thrilled! I’ve always loved a tangled combination of greens and herbs in any food. Not carefully planned out, but all thrown wildly together, so you get a small taste of each, and it forms a beautiful, complicated whole. I love the way this works year round. In winter you have kale and spinach, winter savory and rosemary. In summer chard, more spinach, basil and thyme. In fall, small, bitter greens, sorrel and sage. In the spring – you have a big jumble of small spicy sassy plants. Chervil and tarragon, tiny beet greens, arugula, lovage, summer savory. (I was never the most organized farmer – this is more my bright idea about how things might fit togehter! The names are a pretty part of the plan!)

I love recipes that combine a wild mix of herbs and greens. Soup meagre, or small salads that combine a few herbs and greens. You can mix them with butter, or toss them with pasta or mashed potatoes. Or bake them into a tart! Which is what I did! I combined baby arugula, baby spinach, basil, summer savory, tarragon, chervil, parsley, bull’s blood beet leaves, lovage, and chives. Most of these things we’re growing; some I bought. It doesn’t matter! It all tastes good! You can use whatever you like – whatever you can find. The only other flavoring I used was a clove of roasted garlic. And the crust has some ground pecans – a nice nutty combination with the herbs. I think it turned out very nice – every bite has a new combination of flavors. It’s possible to distinguish one or two, now and again, or just to enjoy them as they come.

Here’s footage of Louis Armstrong with Royal Garden Blues
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