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.

White Flannel Trousers

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I heard, the other day, of someone who doesn’t like strawberries. Not “could take them or leave them” or even “obviously they’re nice but I prefer raspberries”, you understand; actively dislikes them. Who knows what such a person might be capable of? I always preferred raspberries myself, as it happens. Easier to eat, which should count for something, and less likely, in my experience (which covers many of the PYOs and markets of East Kent) to disappoint than a strawberry, which, when bad (underripe, cold, et cetera) can serve more as a reminder of the essential purposelessness of life than as a berry, which, in fact, they are not. (Like everyone else, I have always assumed that strawberries are so-called because of the beds of straw they are coddled in; this is, apparently, also untrue). Still, if a bad strawberry has an upside it is that it reminds you that strawberries, when good, can be very good indeed; anyone who dislikes them is clearly under suspicion, but so is anyone who declares them their favourite fruit – at least past the age of eight. (Anyone who says their favourite fruit is tomato should be removed from your social circle).

People wax in all kinds of directions about the peach; there is something about stone fruit which inspires food writers to a sort of erotic prose-poetry, especially when it is dripping and ripe, with a barely-perceptible down fuzzing its clefts and its curves, but peaches in particular don’t do much for me. Sweet, yes, soft, yes, perfumed, sometimes… perhaps my taste for them has been ruined by peach-flavoured sweets, which are, more often than not, absolutely foul. Give me a greengage, with its taut skin snapping over its fleshy cells! Give me, actually, a cherry. Cherries are obviously the best fruit. They are bite-sized, with a stone small enough to suck and then spit out; they are red, as fruit should be (except greengages); they are delicious. There is a reason why things come with a cherry on top, and not, say, a nectarine. The best thing about cherries is that they can be sour. Dried sour cherries are a magnificent thing, good with lamb or chicken or pork or baked into a tart. I have never, I am sorry to say, had the pleasure of a fresh one, but it is only a matter of time, and besides, the potential for sourness inherent in even the sweetest of cherries (they need each other, you see; the sour ones pollinate the sweet ones) means that you can happily add your own. Anything with cherry in will benefit from a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar, or, indeed, a huge amount.

If you are in possession of a quantity of cherries and some good, preferably live vinegar, then you can (once you have eaten about half of the former) pit and crush the one and pour the other over it, leave to macerate overnight or for longer, then strain, mix with enough honey or other sugar to make it palatably sweet, and then dilute with sparkling or plain water; this is a shrub, and very tasty it is too. I have incorporated this ‘recipe’ as it were by stealth partly because the quantities I use are precisely that vague (although I could have easily made them up, and no-one would be any the wiser) but mainly because it is not the sort of thing you have to think about making, and set out your ingredients carefully; you just mix some nice things together, and then you have something different but also nice. Fill your kitchen with nice things, among them ripe cherries.