Sour & Bitter

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 I’ve recently been discovering the joys of putting things in barrels. If you put neutral grain spirit in a barrel and leave it for some time, you get whisky; it’s easy, really, despite all the mystery and romance piled around the subject. I suppose that’s the Celtic way. Now, neutral grain spirit isn’t very nice, while whisky, of course, is. It follows, then (I suppose), that if you put something nice in a barrel and leave it for some time, you get something better than whisky. To really test this theory, I guess I’d have to leave the something in the barrel for a good ten years; I don’t know about you, but I don’t really have the patience. However, putting things in smaller barrels sort-of speeds the ageing process, or at least some aspects of it (surface area, don’t you know); to cut a long story short, I’ve put a bottle of Morris Gin in a small oak barrel. It’s been in there for two months now, and is starting to get some colour and good whiskiness from the wood. I’m going to leave it a couple more months, I think. My next project is to barrel-age two litres of mixed Negroni; I can only imagine that this will be extremely delicious.

None of this is very useful unless you intend to fill your house with barrels. It reminded me, though, that flavours can leak from unlikely places, and that alcohol is very good at capturing them. If you read a recipe requiring you to macerate oak twigs in wine, you would be surprised, though that is essentially what happens when you age the stuff in barrels. I have, in fact, a recipe somewhere for an oak-branch aquavit; “this sounds disgusting”, I thought, before the penny dropped. I’ve never actually tried this sort of reverse barrel-ageing, though. Silly, really, when we’ve got an oak right outside the kitchen. One reason alcohol is such a good medium for capturing these flavours is that unlike, say, water, it is capable of dissolving flavours from fats and oils; this is the principle behind ‘washed’ spirits, which have become a thing recently. This basically involves mixing a fat with booze and leaving it for a few days, then skimming the fat off. Easy! The first I heard of it was with bacon-fat bourbon (tastes like bourbon with bacon in it) but I was reminded of the technique recently by the olive oil-washed gin in Sardine‘s dirty martini – a very fine aperitif cocktail. It so happened that at the same time I was looking for something to do with the cynar I had made. Cynar, if you’ve never had it, is an Italian bitter made chiefly of artichoke; it is truly, horrendously bitter – and I say this as a lover of Fernet Branca. Artichoke and olive oil, I thought – and so this drink was born. You may have heard it mentioned in passing on this Radio Four programme – I know the fig leaf wine was the star, but you can get the recipe there, so I thought I’d give you this.

ARTICHOKE SOUR

This takes ages and has several steps. Sorry!

CYNAR

about 20 artichoke leaves

a few angelica stalks

a bottle of vodka

Put everything in a jar and leave for at least a month, preferably two. Strain and bottle. Or buy some Cynar.

OLIVE OIL-WASHED GIN

a bottle of gin (I used Plymouth)

350g extra virgin olive oil

Whisk together in a big jar or bowl – something you can cover tightly. Leave for three days, whisking and re-covering every day, then put in the freezer overnight. Scoop off the solidified oil and strain the gin into a bottle.

SIMPLE SYRUP

equal weights of sugar and water

Boil together for five minutes, cool and bottle. Or buy some gomme.

LEMON JUICE

Juice some lemons. Or, yes, buy some pasteurised lemon juice in a squeezy lemon. You’ve got this far, though…

When you’d like to actually drink this, just mix equal quantities of everything. I assume you keep all of your booze in the freezer; if not, stir over ice. Enjoy! You’ve earned it.

the third part of the waters

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The Italian tradition of the aperitivo is having something of a moment right now. Essentially a sort of happy hour deal where you get free snacks with your drinks in the early evening, which range in quality from nuts and miniature pretzels to breads, cheese and charcuterie, or little made cicchetti, its status as a cultural institution seems to speak of something romantic in the Italian soul, or at least in the British apprehension of it. Free cheese with your beer down at the Eel & Hammer sounds dubious at best; transfer the essentials to some dingy bar in the Quartieri Spagnoli, and you have the start of something beautiful.

Much as I enjoy sitting in the street consuming spritzes and peanuts, I find the superficially similar but fundamentally different French tradition of the aperitif much more attractive, not least because it directly presages the consumption of food. It is hard (for me at least) to truly relax with your aperitivo. Enjoyed as it is in a bar or cafe, you know that you still have to rouse yourself to find your restaurant; you worry that the intense young man at the hotel reception, who appeared to be doing around fifty things at once, forgot to book your table. There’s many a slip between drinks and dinner.

When you sit down in the bistro or brasserie (I can never work out the difference), on the other hand, and are immediately offered an aperitif, your place is secure. You are at your table, you can see the menu and start planning your meal. The off-hand offer of a pre-dinner drink, often made without a list to choose from (you know there will be pastis, something odd like suzé, champagne cocktails), seems straightforwardly hospitable. You can relax and grow expansive over a little glass of something. This isn’t, of course, all that different from a cocktail at the bar; but you can’t have a proper conversation at the bar, it’s hard to relax when you know you are to be shunted off to your table any minute, and at any rate words are important; we are back at the Eel & Hammer eating pickled eggs and crisps.

The aperitif it is, then. We recently had a lovely meal at the Provencal-style London eatery Sardine, which began with a fine array of aperitif cocktails. Well-crafted, fun, and precise, they set the tone well for the meal to come; which is exactly as it should be. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on a range of aperitifs for the café, wanting to capture something of that hospitality, and at the same time showcase some of the odder things we grow and make. Following the French model, they are split into the pleasant and fruity (those window wines) and the vaguely medicinal, a reminder of the time when the aperitif would be the only thing to rouse a hunger in the soul of the bloated gourmand.

This recipe is definitely of the latter camp; it is also, since I am only going to give you the last stage of it, almost entirely useless.

WORMWOOD SHRUB

Serves one.

This needs to be both very cold and undiluted, so keep the components in the coldest part of the fridge; better yet, make up a lot and keep that very cold.

50ml homemade absinthe, made without brooklime (so not green)

50ml sweetened redcurrant vinegar

Mix well and sip slowly, enjoying the immediate hit of intoxication at the front of your brain.