Sunday, September 15, 2019

Gin & It and early Molly Keane

I've been making Damson jelly today, which got slightly fraught. It boiled over once, and then despite repeated wrinkle tests didn't seem to be reaching a setting point, which was around the time that I started mixing Gin & Its (because multitasking). Eventually I potted the jelly anyway, judging by the way it's sticking to everything it touched it did reach setting point, even if it didn't want to wrinkle on the cold saucer provided for it.

I was grateful for the cocktail by then. The Gin and It is one of the great neglected classic cocktails, the It being short for Italian Vermouth. It's half and half gin and vermouth, an orange garnish or a drop of bitters being optional, stirred over ice and strained into a glass. Simple and delicious.

If you want a stronger, dryer, version use less vermouth (the Savoy Cocktail Book has a recipe for an Artillery cocktail which is 1/3rd vermouth 2/3rds gin which is great, I also like it about a 1/4 vermouth 3/4's gin - which probably also has its own name, I think of them all as Gin & It).

Today because I was using the slightly more bitter Dopo Teatro Vermouth I used the slightly sweeter than I'd normally go for Tanqueray Sevilla gin. This was last summers big success which I bought, quite liked, and then couldn't really work out what to do with, which is my perennial problem with flavoured gin.

For a gin and tonic I prefer a gin that's really heavy on the juniper, and dry. The slightly sweeter flavoured styles aren't sweet enough to treat like liqueurs and so tend to sit neglected at the back of the shelf but this is a combination that really worked. The orange character worked nicely with the vermouth, and overall the sweetness was just right. Orange flavoured gins go back a long way so it doesn't feel like I'm taking a liberty with the Gin & It either.

I can't remember where I first saw a Gin and It mentioned, it might have been in an Angela Thirkell book, but it could also have been in a Molly Keane. Her impoverished Anglo Irish aristocracy might have had definite views about flavoured gins, but this mix also has something of the stirrup cup about it so it feels like a good match for her earlier books where hunting is more likely to be discussed and there are pre war standards to be maintained.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Age of Scandal with Cocchi Dopo Teatro

Today has been one of those perfect September days caught somewhere between summer and autumn where the light has a particularly clear quality, the sky is especially blue, and the sun shines benignly. It persuaded us to go to Stowe landscape gardens where we saw a lot of eighteenth century follies.

We've been meaning to look at Stowe for a while now, and as it's only about an hour away I'm not sure why it took so long - it's well worth going to see, and perfect if you have a dog judging by the number we met. It was also once the home of T. H. White, who was a master there (Mistress Masham's Repose' uses Stowe and its gardens as a background, it's the only one of his books I've actually finished). Surprisingly the gift shop didn't sell any of his books.

The trip reminded me that I've got a battered copy of T. H. White's 'The Age of Scandal'. Written in 1950 it's a set of essays about Georgian scandals, which has never made it to the top of the book pile, but which I always think will be fun to read, albeit as a curiosity. It also looks like just the book to match with Cocchi's Dopo Teatro, a Vermouth I bought days before the redundancy news came, and which I've been a bit unwilling to open ever since (I'm fighting a tendency to hoard at the moment, I do not need to save Vermouth for a rainy day. If things get bad I'll be much better off with a cup of tea),

Anyway, I have opened the Dopo Teatro, named after the tradition in Turin to drink it chilled and garnished with lemon zest after a visit to the theatre - or so it says on the back of the bottle. It sounds like a delightful practice, it is an excellent vermouth. Velvety spice with an extra edge of bitterness from a double rose of quinine, but still with enough sweetness to balance it. The recipe is apparently a 19th century one.

Because bitter isn't entirely my thing I garnished my glass with a wheel of blood orange - it is my new favourite drink. There's enough bitterness in it to be the perfect companion to White's slightly waspish look at the eighteenth century, the sweet orange feels like a nod that way too. I always think of vermouth as having a distinctly antique flavour (in a very good way), and this one is no exception, the extra bitterness also recalls a negroni (if you like them this would be an amazing vermouth to use)  but again, one that's palatable to those like me who find Campari to bitter to really enjoy.

It's also the perfect compliment to the season, cold enough to enjoy on a warm September afternoon, but all that velvety spice feels just right for the changing season, and to take me through the winter. This is probably the one vermouth I'd encourage anybody to track down and try. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Surfacing with The Adonis

It's the weekend, it's been a beautiful evening, and the sky is clear to enjoy the full moon. I've been dipping in and out of Kathleen Jamie's new collection 'Surfacing', and for the last little while have been amusing myself trying to find the perfect cocktail to go with it.

For me I think the perfect drink for this book might be a dry as a bone Manzanilla Sherry with its slight suggestion of salinity, or a peaty single malt with all the memories of time and place that they evoke in me. But I have vermouth to drink, and I don't have to get up early, so I've been looking at Sherry and vermouth cocktails.

The Adonis is a classic from the Savoy Cocktail Book which mixes 2 parts dry Sherry (Fino or Manzanilla) with red Vermouth, a dash of Angostura bitters and a strip of lemon peel stirred over ice and then strained into a coupe glass to drink.

It's a cocktail that mixes things that I like a lot on their own, but for some reason very dry Sherry doesn't work for me mixed with other things. I don't much care for The Adonis (I've tried making summer cups with Fino too, with equally little success) at the moment, though possibly with practice I could come to like it better.

Fortunately there's another option in the form of The Other Adonis (thanks to Jack Adair Bevan's A Spirited Guide to Vermouth again for this one) which uses Amontillado (still a dry Sherry, but nuttier and richer) and Lustau Blanco Spanish Vermouth, and orange bitters instead of Angostura.

I don't have any Lustau Blanco, so I've been improvising, but somewhere between these two recipes is a drink I do like. Amontillado or Oloroso, at least in my opinion, mix much better with other things (they both make an excellent base for a summer cup too). All versions are relatively low in alcohol (this is comparative, but at least I'm not concerned tomorrow will be a write off) and a reminder of the versatility of Sherry as well as vermouth.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

P. G. Wodehouse and the Perfect cocktail

There is a tow of P. G. Wodehouse books on a shelf that's eye level with my bed - they have little Martini glasses on the spines, a constant reminder that cocktails are something of a theme for Wodehouse (as are hangover cures). There is probably no writer better suited to being enjoyed with a cocktail and some form of Martini is as good a choice as any.

There are a lot of versions of the Martini, it's a drink that seems particularly susceptible to fashion. When the Savoy Cocktail Book was written - which is about the right time for vintage Wodehouse vermouth proportions were much higher.

The Perfect cocktail is a sort of Martini, and is worth making for a couple of reasons. It calls for equal parts of gin, French vermouth, and Italian (rosso) stirred well over ice and then strained into a glass.

The first good reason to make this is that there's a pernicious idea about how dry a Martini should be. I have no problem with people enjoying a good gin, or vodka, neat, but I don't consider that to be a Martini. Starting with a lot of vermouth is a good opportunity to dial back the machismo and find what the right ratio for you might actually be.

The second reason for making the 'Perfect' is that it's good practice for mixing more than one type of vermouth, which doesn't necessarily feel like an intuitive thing to do. Having taken care to buy good Vermouth the natural thing for me to do is to want it to speak for itself in a drink. Mixing two together feels like a lot of personality in one glass to me - I have to persuade myself to do it.

Having started with the Perfect, I know now that I like a Martini to have a good bit of vermouth in it - something between 1/3rd to a 1/4 of the drink. I also know that I'm still more comfortable using only one vermouth at a time but that I also appreciate the balance of flavours that using two gives. I'm also sure that both Bertie Wooster and Psmith would approve of the quest to get it right.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Madensky Square with Vermouth and Soda

I suppose if I was being strictly accurate the match here is blogging with a vermouth and mineral water - I'm drinking Belsazar's summer edition reisling based vermouth (quite sweet, tastes unexpectedly of pineapples, and was worth the trouble of tracking down online) with lots of San Pellegrino in it, and a sprig of Rosemary.

I have this week off and one of the jobs I'd set myself was to try and bring some sort of order to The Books. Something which is both a chore and a delight. A chore because there really isn't space for all The Books so it's mostly a case of shuffling things around from one heap to another, a delight because I always find loads of things I'd forgotten I had.

Today that was a couple of Eva Ibbotson books I bought a couple of summers ago because they seemed just the thing for lazy, hot day, reading. Despite plenty of hot days I never got round to them, but 'Madensky Square' is now much nearer the top of the pile. 

Using soda or mineral water as a mixer in alcoholic drinks is something I came to relatively late - but it's a very good idea. Gin Ricky's were the gateway, followed by a revisitation of whisky and soda, and now with vermouth. 

The drink I currently have in hand has got just enough vermouth in it to add flavour and a little bit of body - it alcohol content can only be a few percent. That flavour is complex enough to be thoroughly grown up, but it's also distinctly summery and frivolous. It's certainly not boozy enough to distract from reading or to make you think dinner can't come soon enough to soak up the alcohol. 

Tonic water is a great way to go too, but it has a lot of sugar in it, I like the lighter feel of soda water, and the way that it lets the flavour of the Belsazar come through. If I was using tonic in the same ratio it would swamp the vermouth. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Gin and Murder, A Rob Roy, and thoughts in cocktail parties

There are a couple of reasons why I'm pairing a whisky based cocktail with 'Gin and Murder', the first being that gin feels in bad taste being the drink of choice of a central character who is an alcoholic. The second is that I consider the Rob Roy and its cousin (the Manhatten) a brilliant cocktail party option, and this book more or less opens with a cocktail party.

Originally published in 1959, 'Gin and Murder' is well worth seeking out. Josephine Puillein Thompson is better known for children's books, but this one is very definitely for adults. It gives a brilliant description of the 1950's county/horsey set, as well as the damage that alcoholism does in a portrayal that's both brutal and sympathetic. It's more usual to see excessive drinking glamourised, so this portrayal is important in a bit of lightish crime fiction. It's also an intriguing mystery - so wins on all counts.

The Rob Roy is half and half scotch whisky, Italian (red) Vermouth, and a dash of Angostura bitters shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass. Get a good vermouth (cocchi or cinzano 1757 rosso are my current favourites) and a decent blended whisky. I like Grouse for this, but keep meaning to try it with something a bit smokier like Johnnie Walker Black Label. Whatever you choose, with so few ingredients they need to be good.

Which brings me, possibly not for the first time, to some observations about hosting a cocktail party. I have known houses with purpose built bars in them (my grandfather had one complete with a sink and fridge - it really was a bar. We thought it was tacky, and it was, but I kind of see the point of it now that both he and it are long gone) but it's not common. You could make what you liked, as you wanted it, and had somewhere to clean equipment as you went along whilst still being part of the party.

Without that luxury one option is to make batches of cocktails beforehand and keep them in the freezer - perfectly sensible and a lot of the classics (like a Rob Roy, or any sort of Martini for example) are perfect for this. There's some specific suggestions in 'A Spirited History of Vermouth' along with some bar tenders tips as well.

Whenever you make the drinks though, the key is to limit the choice - otherwise all your measures, shakers, stirrers etc need washing between each drink which is a massive nuisance. Another advantage of limiting the options is that you're less likely to end up with a lot of sticky, bottles half filled with things likely to deteriorate horribly before you get round to using them again, and it's easier to control the costs.

I've seen a lot of people blow hundreds of pounds chucking a whole bars worth of spirits in a shopping trolley over the years, and whilst I'm not complaining about the spend I really do think less is more. Pick something to build your drinks around - in this case a good Rosso Vermouth, choose no more than a couple of options, make them well, and minimise the work you create for yourself.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Casino Royale with a Vesper

When it comes to Bond I prefer the films to the books. I'm not sure if the films are still the events they used to be, but I have early memories of being taken to the cinema to see Roger Moore era Bond (he's still my favourite) and how much we loved the special effects.

The only one of the books I managed to get all the way through was Casino Royale, but I do find Fleming's descriptions of food and drinks interesting, and the Vesper (which fortunately for me is in Casino Royale) still gets people to buy Lillet Blanc. Unfortunately it's Kinna Lillet that Bond specifies, which is no longer made, Lillet Blanc isn't as bitter so isn't the ideal substitute.

Hands up, I did not know this before I read 'A Spirited Guide to Vermouth', but at least I do now know that Cocchi Americano (the white one that I need to order online, not the pink one that I can buy in Waitrose*) is considered a reasonably accurate substitute.

There are a few other things that have changed since Fleming wrote Casino Royale - he specifies Gordon's Gin which has dropped its abv. Because the Vesper is shaken, not stirred, you get more dilution, so the change in abv matters a bit. If you can get Gordon's export strength great, if you can't a lot of people recommend Tanqueray, or you could look for a stronger vodka. Bond tells the barman that a grain vodka is better than the potato vodka he's used, so Smirnoff Blue Label would be perfect.

Vodka is another tricky beast, roughly speaking grain vodka will be crisper, potato based vodkas are creamier in the mouth. Fruit based vodkas (Chase do one made from apples, Ciroc is made with grapes as examples) retain a subtle but distinctive hint of their origins. The differences are more noticibly when you taste the products side by side. Personally as long as the abv is at least 40% I'm more or less happy with any mid range brand for cocktail making.

So - a Vesper is a mix of gin, vodka, and Cocchi Americano shaken over ice, and garnished with a strip of lemon. Bond specified 3 parts gin, 1 part vodka, 1/2 a part Kinna Lillet. The Wikipedia entry on the Vesper is worth a read.

*The recipes I've looked up, including Bevan's version in A Spirited Guide assume you know that Cocchi do more than one Americano, and that you will need the one that doesn't have nationwide distribution. I'm not convinced that this is obvious, but I'm pleased to know there is a good substitute for Kinna Lillet out there when I want it.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

High Spirits with Corrected Coffee

It's 8.30pm, pitch black outside, cold enough that I've got an extra blanket on my bed, it's meant to rain tomorrow, and the met office app has updated its cover picture to an autumnal scene. It's time to put the kettle on and pull some ghost stories off the shelf.

I found Robertson Davies 'High Spirits' in a charity shop a year or two ago, came home all excited because I love Davies, and never got round to reading it. I could go as far as to say I'd forgotten all about it (otherwise I would have joined in with the recent Robertson Davies reading week) but it fell on my foot when I pulled out some of the British Library tales of the weird collections earlier looking for just the right book for a Corrected Coffee.

'High Spirits' which promises to mix parody with true scariness and features one story with a haunted bust of Charles Dickens sounds perfect to me, and I'll also put in a word for the Gothic Tales of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, or any of Edith Wharton's ghost stories, or E. F. Benson's (because I'm now remembering just how very good he is too).

A corrected coffee (caffè corretto in Italy, carajillo in Spain) would not traditionally be made with vermouth. Grappa, sambucca, brandy, whisky, or anisette would all be more usual but coffee gets on well with all sorts of alcohol. Jack Bevan's suggestion of using a full bodied, sweet, vermouth (he suggests something like Cocchi Vermouth de Torino - which is my current favourite - or Sacred English Spiced Vermouth, which I really want to try) is a winner.

The recipe is simple - a double espresso topped up with vermouth, but there's a lot of fun to be had matching the characteristics of your preferred, or current, beans with your vermouth if you want to take it seriously. You could also pour this over ice cream to make an affogato.

I love a slightly boozy coffee, with the emphasis on slightly, the point of it is to feel self indulgent rather than tipsy. It's a signal that you're settled for the evening as well as being a thoroughly grown up pleasure. This is aromatic, rich, and about as dark as the night outside, so it really is my perfect gothic ghost story companion.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Rebellious Spirits with Ersatz Vermouth

Ruth Ball's 'Rebellious Spirits: The Illicit History of Booze in Britain' (looking at a major online retailer it seems that the subtitle of the paperback is slightly different) is what set me off on thinking about ways to match booze with books. What Ruth does in it is explore the less legitimate history of drinking in Britain along with recipes for drinks which recreate something of the flavour and atmosphere of whatever bit of history she's discussing.

I had almost forgotten how good it was when I picked it up to read about early winemaking. I knew there were recipes for the sort of sweetened, spiced, wines that the Romans drank, and wanted to compare them to vermouth as we know it.

The link is not as strong as I would like, the Roman version being altogether sweeter, and not much more than a way to make rough, acidic, wine palatable. Those might be the roots of vermouth (in that it's spiced), but they're deep roots. Vermouth as we know it derives its name from wormwood which until really very recently had to be an ingredient - bitterness has always been an element in its make up.

The chapter that deals with the Second World War gave me something else to think about though. It's easy enough to find recipes to make your own vermouth. There are plenty online, and I've come across a couple in my own Cookbook/drinks book collection. Jack Adair Bevan gives thorough instructions along with a lengthy recipe in 'A Spirited Guide to Vermouth'.

Making your own might make sense if you're planning a largish event (or if it's something you want to do) but it's quite an investment in time, effort, and ingredients. I have a lengthy wish list of vermouth's made by professionals to try before I get to wanting to make my own.

On the other hand in a worst case Brexit scenario, Ruth Ball's recipe for a wartime substitute for dry vermouth (essential for a Martini) might be useful. The original came from the memoirs of Dr John Lewis who had been a doctor on occupied Jersey. He had access to tincture of quinine and tincture of gentian. Neither are easy to find now, so Ruth's version uses 1 tbsp of tonic syrup*, 1/2 tsp Angostura bitters (which contains a reasonable amount of gentian) 1/4 of a bay leaf, and 500ml of dry cider. Mix everything together in a bottle (a screw cap wine bottle would do, probably sterilise it first) leave it for 3 days, strain well before returning to the bottle, and hope for the best.

Even if the cider concoction doesn't sound tempting, 'Rebellious Spirits' is a brilliant book - funny and informative - it's definitely worth reading.

*Tonic syrup is reasonably easy to find and is worth a try. It is incredibly bitter despite a hefty amount of sugar in it. The one time I used it to make a hot version of a gin and tonic I had to add even more sugar to the mix before I could get customers to embrace it. It was fun to play with, but it's made me think twice about tonic water as my mixer of choice.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Futurist Cookbook with an Americano Shandy

I first heard about Filipino Tommaso Marinetti's 'The Futurist Cookbook' as a History of Art undergraduate when the idea of an Italian artist dissing pasta seemed every bit as anarchic and amusing as Marinetti could have hoped for. At the time I might have been known to drink to much extra dry Martini (at room temperature as well, god help me, until one night I drank far to much of it and didn't touch Vermouth again until I'd become a proper grown up) which was probably also in the right general spirit.

Despite some intention at the time I never did read 'The Futurist Cookbook' (and had to remind myself what Italian futurism looked like) so when I found a smart Penguin modern classics copy of the cookbook in a second hand shop recently I was very pleased. It's a curious book, first published in 1932 when Marinetti's nationalism would maybe have seemed less troubling it sets out to be deliberately provocative.

I've found it's best dipped in and out of, a little Marinetti goes a long way, but in small doses it's startling, poetic, whimsical, and very much in love with the promise of modernity and the idea of velocity. It also mentions vermouth (along with a whole host of other Italian wines and liqueurs) quite a bit and is definitely a book best enjoyed with a drink of some sort in hand.

I wanted a drink that sounded suitably iconoclastic to suggest to go with it and the Americano Shandy* fits the bill. Roughly speaking an Americano is produced in the same way as vermouth, but has more bitter components. It's name derives from the French, amer (bitter). This drink is also a sort of cousin to the Negroni.

It's probably time to confess again that I still don't like Campari, or the Americano family and I'm not sure I ever will, so I haven't tried this. If you do like a negroni though, or Campari generally, it's got to be worth a try. These quantities serve 2.

Take 25ml of Campari and 25ml of red vermouth, split between 2 glasses, add ice, and top up with 330ml of lager. Stir carefully to mix (there's advice on this in the Sipsmith book - they suggest using a bar spoon and lifting it up and down a couple of times to preserve the fizz) and there you have it.

*I found the recipe in 'A Spirited Guide to Vermouth', it's by Kate Hawkings, author of 'Aperitif: A Spirited Guide to the Drinks, History and Culture of the Aperitif