Until a few months ago, I had no idea that the reddish-purple flowers decorating the overgrown park behind the post office were mallow. It was getting a dog, an energetic and eager black-and-white brittany (with a bit of setter) who takes me for walks, and her habit of tugging persistently at certain roots, that made me wonder. It’s malva (mallow), said one of my new dog-owner friends, before going on to explain that dogs generally love it and that it’s good for their stomachs. As well as being more interested in this digestive fact than all the facts I have ever been given about child nourishment put together, this meant I could now put a name to the hairy stems with lobed, crinkly leaves that go some way to distracting me from the upsetting amount of rubbish in the park.
Or, rather, went some way. As of yesterday, the overgrown park is no more. The low-lying grass and knee-high greenery have been cut, trimmed and clipped – not quite a skinhead, but almost – and the rubbish cleared. I have always loved parks in the middle of cities, green lungs in urban bodies that belong to everyone and no one, but never more than yesterday: cut, cleaned and sunny. In the midst of a red zone, it felt like a freer life.
But the dogs without their mallow?! It turns out that, in cutting back, the roots had been exposed and the dogs were in heaven, drunk from chewing on open-vein roots of mallow, then lounging around as if at an ancient Roman banquet. Why wasn’t I doing the same?
According to the Greek physician Diphilus of Siphnus, writing at the beginning of the third century BC, mallow nourishes and lubricates the windpipe, and is easily digested. Pliny, writing three centuries later, was even more enthusiastic, saying that anyone taking mucilaginous mallow daily would be free of all diseases. Jump 2,000 years to Robin Harford’s wonderful Eatweeds, in which he notes that common mallow has been used throughout history in food and medicine; its flowers as a sweet edible decoration, its roots as pomace, seeds or “nutlets” pickled, and its leaves used like salad or cooked like spinach. If you can’t get mallow, use spinach, as I did for this week’s recipe, my annual Easter savoury torta pie.
This olive-oil-and-wine pastry has dethroned ricotta pastry as my favourite, for now. I have no idea of the science behind wine, as opposed to water, in pastry, or maybe it is simply the knowledge that there is wine in there that makes the pastry more delicious, while the oil is the silky fat. Firm and functional, this is the sort of pastry you can trust to look after the dense filling of greens, potato, egg and cheese, while you travel somewhere. Hang on, we’re still not going anywhere, except maybe a picnic in a local park for a lounge in green lungs, with wine in your pastry, and more in your glass.
Spring vegetable and cheese tart
400g 0 or 00 flour
100ml white wine
100ml olive oil
1 generous pinch salt
300g seasonal greens – spinach, chard, asparagus, borage or mallow
150g fresh or frozen peas
200g cooked potato, diced
2 eggs, plus extra for brushing
150g ricotta or other soft cheese
1 big handful grated parmesan
Make the pastry by mixing the flour, wine, oil and salt, then knead into a soft, pliable dough. Shape the dough into a ball, cover with an upturned bowl and leave to rest for 30 minutes while you prepare the filling.
Wash and wilt the greens in a pan, then drain thoroughly and chop roughly. Boil the peas in salted water for a few minutes, then drain.
In a large bowl, mix the greens, peas, cooked potato, eggs, soft cheese and parmesan, taste and season with salt and lots of pepper. Set the oven to 190C (170C fan)/gas 5 and put in a flat baking tray to heat up.
Cut away a third of the dough and set aside for the lid. Roll the remaining two-thirds into a thin circle large enough to line a 24cm tart tin, then use to line the insides of the tin and overhang slightly. Tip in the filling, then roll the remaining dough into a ring that covers the pie, and lay on top. Bring the overlapping dough up and over, pinch together the two layers of dough, then pinch again all around the edge, to make sure it is sealed.
Paint with beaten egg, put on the heated tray and bake for 45-50 minutes, until the top is firm and golden and the base firm.