Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Fancy a blue ruin?

Bingo; Blue Ruin; Blue Tape; Daffy; Diddle; Drain; Frog’s Wine; Geneva; Heart’s Ease; Jackey; Lady Dacre’s Wine; Lightning; Max; Rag Water; Sky Blue; South Sea Mountain; Strip Me Naked; White Ribbon; White Tape; White Wool.

 Whatever am I talking about?

These are all 18th-century nicknames for gin. I’ve just found some sloes in the freezer picked last autumn and was hunting for a recipe – and inevitably got caught up with some Georgian history.

It is said that gin was invented around 1650 in the Netherlands by Dr Sylvuis. This man - who is also known as Franz de la Boé - was Professor of Medicine at Leyden, Holland. Originally, he intended this 'medicine' as a remedy for kidney disorders. He used neutral grain spirits flavoured with the oil of juniper. He called it 'genever' after the French term genièvre meaning juniper. By 1655 it was already being produced commercially and English soldiers serving in the area developed an affection for the spirit.

When William of Orange landed in England on 1688 to assume the throne, he arrived with ‘Madame Geneva’.

Over the 18th century, it replaced French brandy as a popular tipple, then became a virtual epidemic. Gin excesses damaged the economy – being a cheap form of escapism for it was simple and cheap to produce. Alarmed, the government tried to quash its presence, and taxed the liquor. However, as it was often made in back rooms and illicit stills, it was hard to impose. Worse, the Act defined gin as spirits to which juniper berries had been added. Roguish producers responded by not bothering with the juniper berries at all – and the resultant raw spirit was still consumed by the gallon, according to author Stephen Hart.

It was calculated that Londoners on average were allegedly drinking up to 14 gallons of gin a year, equivalent to 10 shots a day for every man, woman and child, reports The Guardian. Harsher taxes were imposed, resulting in gangs of  informers, mob riots and lynchings.

Hogarth captured the scenes in Gin Lane, from Beer Street and Gin Lane, urban desolation with gin-crazed Londoners, notably a woman who lets her child fall to its death and an emaciated ballad-seller; in the background is the tower of St George's Bloomsbury. The accompanying poem, printed on the bottom, reads:

Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught,
Makes human Race a Prey.
It enters by a deadly Draught
And steals our Life away.

Virtue and Truth, driv'n to Despair
Its Rage compells to fly,
But cherishes with hellish Care
Theft, Murder, Perjury.

Damned Cup! that on the Vitals preys
That liquid Fire contains,
Which Madness to the heart conveys,
And rolls it thro' the Veins.

In 1751, Josiah Tucker of Bristol calculated that the annual amount gin cost the economy was three million, nine hundred and ninety-seven thousand, six hundred and nineteen pounds, and eleven pence
halfpenny. While it is a wonderful example of spurious accuracy, the round sum of four million
pounds is still impressive.

Finally, the Government saw sense. The Gin Act of 1751 slashed the excise so the situation eased. By the end of the 1750s, Madame Geneva was positively respectable.

So, why sloe gin?

If you recall your school history, it goes back to the enclosure of the countryside in the 16th and 17th centuries, when tracts of open land were carved up into smaller fields. Blackthorn was the most common hedging plant, due to its vigorous growth and sharp thorns (to keep the stock and people out).

So, sloes became widespread and country folk, finding the sloe too bitter to eat, decided to soak it in alcohol and sugar; the drink of choice at the time being gin.

The practice was disparaged. A polemical poem on British ills from 1717 refers to beverages “... made at Home ... of Sugar, Sloes, and Grocer’s Trash” and sloe-juice and gin was described in scathing terms in 1838 as a mixture “which the inhabitants of London swallow for port”.

So, the sloes, no doubt, would have disguised foul concoctions made on the cheap. Sugar, too, was cheap, for the slave trade was at its height. It’s interesting to read that sugar consumption in Britain increased fivefold from 1710 to 1770 (according to Andy Hamilton).

Sloe gin had to wait until the beginning of the 20th century before it became respectable – and even in the US, where it’s hard to find a sloe bush, cocktails fanciers must rely on ready-made imports.

To make your own, you’ll need about 500g ripe sloes, 250g sugar, a litre of plain gin (or even vodka). Prick the berries with a needle, or freeze and crush. Pop into a jar with the sugar and the liquor. Frozen ones are much, much easier!

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Apricot Liqueur

Apricot liqueur is a bit of a treat but it is expensive for what it is. Even the most basic apricot brandy starts at around £12 a bottle. Here's a cheaper alternative that's simplicity itself.

Apricot Liqueur

One pack (about 200-300g) dried apricots
225g white sugar
500 ml vodka*

To make:
1. Boil the apricots in the sugar with 50-100 ml water to soften. You’ll need more if the apricots are tougher, less if they’re the squishy sort.
2. Combine all ingredients in a large Kilner jar. (I’ve used a wide-necked coffee jar in the past, and it worked fine!)
3. Seal it tight and leave it alone for three weeks.
4. Drain. Filter through a muslin bag for a clear liqueur. If you’re not fussed about cloudy cocktails (anything with fresh lemon or lime goes cloudy anyway), just pour through your finest sieve.
5. Create label. Fee free to copy either of the ones reproduced.

I use cheap schnapps (from Iceland, of all places). Plain gin or vodka is fine. I see on US websites that many mixologists from across the pond use the high-proof Everclear for this type of recipe. It’s not available in the UK, as far as I can tell. If you’re not sure, stick to gin or vodka.

As for bottles, I tend to collect them. Anything with an interesting shape will do. I remove the labels by soaking first in hot, soapy water and finishing off with white spirit. It's a strong smell but it dissolves the glue in no time.

The apricots are great with cream or ice-cream. If you make your own ice-cream, whiz them in a blender and stir through a vanilla yogurt-style ice-cream before the initial freezing. It goes a lovely pastel orange.

By Pamela Kelt

Friday, 14 April 2017

DIY Angostura Orange Bitters

Making your own bitters is a great way to extend your cocktail cabinet - on a budget. Here's a simplified version of an orange-style Angostura Bitters recipe. Allow three weeks, which sounds a lot, but it’s basically bunging stuff together and then leaving it for a weeks at a time.

Bitters were originally used as medicine to treat all manner of ailments, but usually relating to digestion. You can actually added a drop of Angostura bitters to soda or ginger ale to help settle an upset stomach? I haven’t but I’m assured it works.

What is fascinating is that bitters were usually taken by themselves. It took until the late 1700s for folks to add them to spirits, and hence the cocktail was born. Although they are strong, they are applied by the drop and should not make the drink ‘bitter’.

Your expert bitter merchant is aware of three components:

  • the bittering agent: gentian, quassia or even wormwood (famous as an ingredient in absinthe). These are a bit esoteric, but I plan to have a poke around
  • the flavour: it can be orange, as above, but you could consider, vanilla, lemongrass or ginger.
  • the solution: normally alcohol, vodka, gin, rum, whiskey or brandy (the last three are good for darker bitters, I understand).

500 ml alcohol - schnapps is fine
225g dried orange peel
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon cordiander seeds
walf teaspoon caraway or star anise
225g white sugar

  • Place the spices in a Kilner jar and cover with alcohol.
  • Seal the jar and let the mixture stand in a cool, dark place for three weeks, giving the jar a shake once a day, or when passing.
  • Strain the alcohol through a cheesecloth to separate the liquid from the dry ingredients.
(Some recipes get fussy here, and fiddle about with more liquid, squeezing and so on. I skipped it, and it worked fine.)

  • Place the sugar in a small pan over medium to high heat. Stirring, heat through until it becomes liquid and dark brown (caramelising). Don’t do this too quickly, or you’ll end up with toffee!
  • Remove from heat and allow to cool, but not too much, or it gets too sticky.
  • Add the melted sugar to the mixture. The sugar will solidify for a minute and look like a giant golden iceberg, but don’t panic! It will dissolve in a few hours.
  • Reseal the jar and allow the mix to sit for five days or so.
  • If you want a really clear liquid, strain again and pour into a bottle from which you can pour small amounts. I recycled a Grand Marnier bottle and made my own label.
These bitters can be stored for up to 12 months.

As for the orange peel, grab a regular orange, peel it and remove as much pith as you can. I use a grapefruit knife, in fact.

Cut the peel into ½-inch strips using scissors and lay them out on a cutting board so they can air dry for a few days (three is usually enough in a warm kitchen). If the oven’s on, you could place on a non-stick sheet and bake at 65 C. This takes up to four hours, so it’s up to you. Still, if you’re going to make a batch, it might be worth it, as you can store the peel in a sealed container. I haven’t tested how long it keeps, yet!

If you think this is fiddly, it really isn’t, once you get going. The jar looks fantastic in the cupboard as the spices infuse. And how about this for incentive? A 100ml of orange bitters will cost around £10, not including postage. Ouch.

Of course, different ingredients release their flavours at different speeds, but to keep things simple, the recipe above is fine.

I intend to experiment with having two mixes on the go for different ingredients to see if I can tell the difference. I like cooking, but this might be the limit. I shall report back.

Here are some photos of the caramelisation process. Such fun.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Yakov Special

An intriguing cocktail to mark the launch of Equinox, a Cold War thriller. It's the fourth and final part to a seasonal quartet I've been working on.

Yakov is the resourceful caretaker, a man with a past. One of his fortes was acquired behind enemy lines during the war. I shall say no more.

So, this is vodka-based martini-style concoction.

A measure of vodka
Juice of a fresh lime
Measure of dry martini
Half a teaspoon of a decent apricot conserve.

Muddle the ingredients with a mass of ice, and there you have it.

Na zdorovie.

I've just realised the photo looks like a shot of a Soviet rocket mid-flight. Appropriate.

PS There's a sneaky reference in the story. You'll be glad to know there's no phosphorus in this version.

By Pamela Kelt

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Midsummer Glen - the cocktail

On the eve of Midsummer, a most evocative moment, it seems the time to introduce the latest cocktail.

This offering marks the latest mini-book, not quite a novella, Midsummer Glen, free to download. It's a parable of the paranormal, set in June 1939. This was a time when anything might have happened.

From the first few paragraphs, you'll see that the theme is, basically, hedgerows, hence elderflower. Well, that's one ingredient.

Midsummer Martini

3 measures gin
3 measures grapefruit juice
2 measures sweet vermouth
dash elderflower cordial
dash grapefruit bitters
dash lime juice
slice of lemon or lime to serve
lots of ice

Assemble. Add ice and shake. 

I have to admit, grapefruit bitters sound a bit fancy. They can be purchased, but I like grapefruit, so I make my own. But lots of lovely grapefruit juice will do the trick. If anyone wants the bitters recipe, just ask.

On a health note, if you're taking tablets to lower your blood pressure, just check that you're allowed this. I've been on the tabs for some time and it was only recently that someone alerted me to the fact that grapefruit basically anaesthetises the tablets. I now do grapefruit at least 12 hours after the blood pressure tabs. Or is that 12 hours before?

Worth checking.


Friday, 20 March 2015

A toast to orchids

There were too many cross-pollinating ideas in this article not to mention it ...

Apparently, there’s a new cocktail experience, the Gin Garden, at Kew Gardens Orchid House.

Coinciding with the “alluring orchids” festival, the Gin Garden offers four, two at each bar, one “hot”, one “cold”, all made with a certain famous gin associated with the capital.

The citrus comment us a blend of gin, triple sec, dry orange liqueur, shaken with pressed pineapple juice, sweetened with vanilla syrup, served over crushed ice – scented with orange, pink grapefruit and lemon grass.

The ‘hot’ option is a Hooker Hot Cup, inspired by the Hooker Orchid. Gin is mixed with gold needle tea, pressed blood orange, lemon juice, sweetened with Bhutanese spice infused with honey, rhubarb syrup served warm and finished with a flame of toasted winter spices.

I’m, er, hooked.

Find out more here

PS The Lost Orchid is on Amazon in print and digital.

Here's the latest review if you're a fan of botanical mysteries.  

Friday, 3 October 2014

True Haven

To mark the launch of True Haven, a Regency-inspired fantasy adventure, it's time to dream up a Georgian-style cocktail.  

Of course, gin is the base (see Fancy a blue ruin?), so I felt that pineapple had to be the main fruit ingredient.

I recently visited Guy's Cliffe walled garden that is being restored, and I heard from the project botany supremo Barry Meatyard that pineapples were often just handed round - and not even eaten. Intrigued, I looked up more. Well!

Recipe first – then history.

Measure of gin
Two measures of pineapple juice
Dash of lime juice
Measure of dry vermouth
Twist of lime peel
Ice cubes

Shake over ice. I used cubes of frozen juice, as I tend not to get through a whole carton of pineapple juice.

For a drier version, use grapefruit juice and possible sweet white vermouth.

Back to the fascinating history of this exotic produce. Ships brought in preserved pineapples from Caribbean islands as expensive sweetmeats – pineapple chunks candied, glazed and packed in sugar. It seems that the actual whole fruit was even more costly and difficult to obtain. Wooden ship travel in the tropics was hot, humid and slow, and cargoes rotted before they could be landed.

Only the speediest ships and most fortuitous weather conditions could deliver ripe, wholesome pineapples to the confectionery shops of cities far away.

It was de rigueur to grace your dining table with a fresh pineapple, but as they were so hard to acquire, confectioners sometimes rented them to households by the day. Later, the same fruit was sold to other, more affluent clients who actually ate it.

This period was all about appearances. In larger, well-to-do homes, the dining room doors were kept closed to heighten suspense about what was on the other side. At the appointed moment, and with the maximum amount of pomp and drama, the doors were flung open to reveal the evening’s main event.

So, this odd fruit came to symbolise the hospitality of the social event itself; the image of the pineapple coming to express the sense of welcome, good cheer, human warmth and family affection.

Later, architects, artisans and craftsmen took it one. The wealthy would commission stone carvings, stating the hospitality (and wealth, no doubt) of a mansion with carved pineapples on its main gate posts.

Travel round any Georgian property, and you’ll find copper and brass pineapples in weather vanes; sculpted pineapples into door lintels; stencilled pineapples on walls and canvas mats; pineapple motifs woven into tablecloths, napkins, carpets and draperies; and cast pineapples into metal hot plates.

Such whimsical pineapple shapes led the way in food creations and general table decorations throughout the 1700 and 1800s. Pineapple-shaped cakes, pineapple-shaped gelatine moulds, candies pressed out like small pineapples, pineapples moulded of gum and sugar, pineapples made of creamed ice, biscuits cut like pineapples and pineapple shapes created by arrangements of other fruits. There were also ceramic bowls formed like pineapples, fruit and sweet trays incorporating pineapple designs, and pineapple pitchers, cups and even candelabras.

Come Christmas, I might have some fun freezing the outer casing and popping in a candle ... Why not? I can be as crazy as the Georgians.


PS Watch out for the non-alcoholic pineapple drink and a brief history of scurvy.