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.

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