A new River Cottage handbook is, as far as I'm concerned, a cause for celebration. A new River Cottage handbook from John Wright is most certainly cause for a double celebration (he's brilliant). I've almost certainly mentioned this every time I've written about a River Cottage book but the thing I like most about the brand is the number of people involved in it - all of them clearly talented, passionate, individuals - it'a all very inspiring.
'Booze' is a subject dear to my heart, basically because it's also my job - at least selling it is and with that comes the expectation that I know what I'm talking about. Generally I do, though one of the really exciting things about wine is that there is always more to learn (sometimes it's irresistible just to make stuff up). Where I'm going with this is that I know a lot about the theory of making wine, beers, spirits, and cider but reading this makes me realise that's not quite the same as knowing how to actually make it.
My home made booze has been confined to infusions - I'm quite conservative in my drinking preferences so it's a definite yes to sloe or damson gin or vodka, general approval for blackberry whisky, and a marked ambivalence to the thing I think I made out of rhubarb which smelled like cabbage and ended up down the sink (I have learnt since then to label bottles). The sink also ended up claiming the virulent red poppy liquor I once bought and should claim the holly eau de vie that was really quite expensive (presumably not easy to make as holly is poisonous) and is - well lets just say probably an acquired taste.
All the ordinary safe infusions are in here along with useful information about fruit sugar and alcohol (one early experiment on my part with brandy and plums went badly wrong because I didn't use enough alcohol) and then Wright starts to explore the more colourful. Lulled by talk of pomegranate rum (Wright doesn't care for pomegranates in the ordinary way) he leads the reader through making their own absinthe (by infusion, not distillation - it's illegal to distil your own alcohol in the UK without a licence) and from there to the oldest drink in the world - vodka infused with amber, a romantic and beguiling idea. The good thing about infusions is that they're basically simple to make requiring only something to stick them in and somewhere suitable to mature them, and the base ingredients don't have to be the most expensive - even people in small flats can tackle this sort of thing.
Wine, cider, and beer production demand more equipment and space. If I had the space to make any of them it would be beer, mostly because it used to be one of those basic housewifely skills that any country based woman would have had a handle on. I don't have the space but I'm filling some embarrassing gaps in my knowledge from this book. The cider bit is fascinating too, we have a lovely local supplier for cider (Rob of the Bottle Kicking Cider Company) who has shown me around his cider making operation (all done in the shed at the bottom of his garden) it started as a hobby and has turned into a business which is something else I find inspiring (also it's good cider, as well as drinking it I like to cook with it - it's great with mussels and pheasants). This is another romantic and beguiling idea - that you can start with the knowledge in a book like this and end up living the good life.
Regardless of intention to infuse ferment or brew this book is also a damn good read. John Wright is an engaging writer, he has a wonderful talent for relating funny anecdotes along with all the technical detail. His instructions are clear and thorough - another thing I really like about the River Cottage Handbooks is how well they explain not just how to do things but why you have to do them, it makes all the difference. This book will be bed time reading for quite some time to come, it will also likely form the basis of my Christmas shopping - everyone's getting a copy!