Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Drunk

Who would serve a jug or pitcher of martini at a party?

Oh wait, only Kim Philby, one of Britain’s most notorious traitors.

  
I’ve just read a book entitled “a spy among friends” by Ben MacIntyre. It was the first book I’ve read in a long time that I struggled to put down. It documents the story of Harold ‘Kim’ Philby as he worked his way into the inner sanctums of British intelligence.

He was considered trustworthy for decades because he was seen as a part of the British ‘establishment’ (he came from a reputable family, went to public school, and attended Cambridge University). 

In stark contrast, however, he was a member of the infamous Cambridge Spy Network who wreaked untold damage on Western Cold War activities.

  

Philby was recruited by Soviet agents shortly after he graduated and provided Moscow with extensive British and American secrets for many years. By the time he defected to the USSR in the 1960s it is estimated that hundreds, if not thousands of people had died because of his actions.

The pressures of intelligence work evidently led to heavy drinking amongst most agents (this might continue today – I am not fully aware, although I’ve been told that consumption is a lot lower than it used to be).

The pressures of being a mole in this already stressful environment evidently took a particularly high toll on Philby – as well as his long-suffering family: his mother and second wife both died alcoholics while he himself was regularly seen in an unconscious state of inebriation. 

Despite his own alcohol intake, however, he managed to survive to the age of 76. In the end, he died in Moscow in 1988, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, ending the ideological regime he had believed in so steadfastly; the way of governance he betrayed so much for.

While reading about his eventful life I noticed the reappearance of martinis on several occasions and made a note of each one. Sir Ian Fleming pops up in the stories here and there, of course famous for his creation of martini fan James Bond.

  
A personal favourite was the story involving the cocktail bar in World War Two Istanbul. The lady who ran the bar mixed up “volcanic martinis” for her British officer clientele, then sat back and listened while they drunkenly spilled our state secrets for her to pass on to the Nazis. In vino veritas indeed, or should that be in martinis veritas?

The noteworthy ‘pitchers’ of martini were recorded at cocktail and dinner parties held at the Philby household in Washington DC. Intense drunkenness ensued with sometimes shocking social results.

Such parties involved an even greater level of risk when Philby allowed for the mixing of British agents, American agents and British spies working for the Soviets. I think it’s a wonder he got away with being a spy for so long without letting slip during one of his drunken binges. Evidently his lips were sealed even when he was at his most intoxicated. Stalin would have been impressed.

  
During later cocktail parties at his home in Beirut he taught his young son how to mix up a “fierce” martini for the guests. Start ’em young I say. I was taught how to pour G&Ts and whiskies with water for the family when I was well below drinking age so I don’t think it’s the worst thing to happen. Indeed I enjoyed being allowed to socialise with the adults at that age. It was a privilege for the well-behaved.

  
Ultimately though, Kim Philby’s life appears to have been one of loneliness and an ultimate lack of fulfilment. No-one ever truly knew him. While sexually intimate with several women, he was never psychologically intimate enough with anyone to truly bond or connect with them.

While I use martinis to bond with others, he used them to lull his potential foes and numb the pains of his own personal transgressions.

In the end he died with few, if any friends. He had betrayed most of them for an ideology soon to fall apart. What a terrible use of martinis.

I’ll tell you what isn’t a waste though: this book! 

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A Martini with Hayman’s Gin

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while.

  
A very good friend and reader of this blog presented me with a bottle of this gin from Haymans. I instantly loved the branding and packaging. The colours, dark blue and gold, were positively regal.

So I put the bottle in the freezer and awaiting a visit from my friend so we could have a martini (or three… oops).

  

This is the Family Reserve edition, where the gin has been stored in Scotch whisky barrels for three weeks prior to bottling. This mellows the drink and apparently conforms to a traditional method popular in the nineteenth century. Bottles from this limited batch are individually numbered, adding to the exclusive feel of the brand.

  
I loved the detail on the neck of the bottle in particular; a little flourish of olde worlde meets sharp brand new, reminiscent of the barrel and bottling process perhaps.

  
The gin has a distinctive taste of liquorice. Not usually my favourite botanical (I’m a citrus and juniper traditionalist), it was very smooth and rich and I definitely enjoyed it. 

I made the martinis using my usual method – keep the gin in the freezer and mix with vermouth to taste as follows:

  • between 2tsp to 30ml vermouth
  • around 80-130ml gin

  

I served the martini with lemon peel garnish rather than olives as I wasn’t sure the latter pairing would work, although olives were served on the side and went very well. Black olives in particular could compliment the liquorice flavour of the gin.

  
Other nibble dishes that could go well with this martini include asparagus, cheeses of all shapes and sizes, seafood (including the classic martini accompaniment oysters) and strongly seasoned meat, cured, fried or grilled, particularly if it incorporates liquorice or anise-type botanicals.

Because of its distinctive flavour a martini made wth this gin works well as an aperitif to build ones appetite (especially if you are a liquorice fan) but could also break martini tradition and be served as a digestif as well.

Just don’t overdo it! The rule exists for a reason, it doesn’t matter how nice the gin is.

And nice it is. You can see the full range from the traditional family distillers here.

Asparagus skewers to accompany a martini

  
This is dead easy.

  
Asparagus is tasty and a bit of a luxury so it naturally pairs well with a martini. I love its distinctive flavour, visual appeal and most of all, its satisfying fresh and crunchy texture.

  
My brother and I were having a martini before dinner, but after we had drunk the first one we really just wanted to have another one and postpone the food. Not to miss out on our nutrition (you can’t live on gin and olives…) I decided to take the vegetables we were going to eat and martini-fy them.

  

Inspired by this Izakaya-style spring onion recipe I cut each asparagus spear into three pieces and threaded them onto some bamboo skewers.

   
I added them to boiling water and cooked them for 4.5 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt a knob of butter in a frying pan with about half a tablespoon of soy sauce, half a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a pinch of pepper. You could also add a splash of mirin or sweet vermouth. 

  
I then removed the skewers from the water and shook them to discard any excess. I added them to the frying pan with the sauce and simmered them for about 30 seconds, tossing the skewers to coat them in the sauce.

  
Serve and pour over the excess sauce.

  
Reward yourself with another martini, which you can make while the asparagus is boiling and the butter is melting.

The French call the asparagus tips “points d’amour”. Apparently Madame de Pompadour was a fan.

 

She’s also at the top of my list of people I’d like to have a martini with so I hope she would approve of the recipe.
  
Humans have been consuming asparagus for thousands of years. 

Harvesting the plant has been depicted in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Romans even had a phrase “quicker than you can prepare asparagus” which serves as a reminder of how rapidly you can create this dish.

  
It’s also been described as an aphrodisiac in the past.

I’m not sure about the science behind that one so I’d recommend sticking to oysters.

  
But let’s be honest, if you’re sharing a martini with your amour you might not need an aphrodisiac at all.

Drink for Victory! Canapés made from leftover food

Yes, I hate waste, and so should you.


Winston Churchill would hopefully approve of these snacks to accompany a martini, and so would the war office.


It’s basically a dead easy way to turn leftovers into a tasty snack.


You will need some Bamboo skewers


And some cold leftovers, maybe from a roast dinner you made the day before. Essentially you can use pretty much anything that can be safely reheated. Potatoes are ideal. I’ve also used some mushrooms in this instance.

Slice up the goods into bite-sized pieces.

Remember that in many East Asian cuisines, particularly Japanese, a lot of attention goes into preparing food that is already bite-sized, so that the diner can eat one-handed and/or using chopsticks without having to cut things up on their own plate.

This is particularly useful for martini drinking because you will need your other hand free to hold on to your glass.

When you’re ready, thread the pieces onto the skewers.


Add some sort of glaze or flavouring.


Here I used an ancient soy glaze, also referred to in culinary circles as marmite. You can purchase it in specialist food shops such as Asda, Lidl. Vegemite or Bovril can also be used.

In fact, you could pretty much use anything here. Plum sauce, barbecue sauce, honey with salt and pepper, Umami Paste etc etc

Put the skewers in a pan and roast them on a high heat for about 20 minutes, or until fully heated and hopefully crunchy.


Serve with a martini and make Churchill proud! You’ve also done that little bit extra for sustainability.

In addition, I even tried making a tapas-inspired equivalent. The above consists of some of the skewers plus some other bits and pieces I found in the fridge, re-hashed into something new.

I took cold leftover chicken, mixed it with yogurt, mustard, lemon zest, a splash of vinegar, salt and pepper and spread it over bread. I even… oh my god this sounds horrendous… spread leftover cold vegetarian lasagne over bread. I then toasted both of these things and Lo! they were not terrible. I served it with a potato and lettuce salad and the whole thing actually fed three people as a full dinner and nobody died or complained. One doesn’t like to blow one’s own trumpet but Mum said they were nice.

So there you go. Enjoy Winston!

Bar Arabica, Borough Market, 2/5

A relatively pleasant martini was let down by bad service and poor value for money.

 

It wouldn’t take much to perfect their martini but some of the fundamentally poor elements of the restaurant will be more difficult to rectify.

  
Nestled under a railway arch in Borough Market, I had high hopes for this Levantine restaurant. However, the service wasn’t particularly attentive, the portions were small and the martini didn’t do it for me.

  
I was looking forward to a tasty za’tar man’oushe, even though I have regularly been warned that you just can’t get good Lebanese food in London. Sadly it didn’t match my Beiruti experiences. It was a little dry and lacking in fresh ingredients.

  
Other portions were small and not cheap, although we did like boregi (essentially the same as börek – a spinach and feta pastry) which was crunchy and satisfying.

  
The atmosphere was pleasant, with the rumble of trains and nice lighting, but some of our dishes were forgotten. Indeed we felt somewhat forgotten on occasion.

When I asked about the gin used in their martini I was told it was a home-made compound gin, but the waiter couldn’t tell me anymore about it.

  
It arrived chilled but not especially cold, in a coupe glass, with a strip of lemon peel. As always, I feel the need to urge London restaurants serving martinis to keep their gin and glasses (martini glasses, not coupe glasses!) in the freezer.

However, this martini was redeemed by its particular lemon flavour – it was especially citrusy which I like. The gin did not seem especially dry, which was perhaps a blessing considering its temperature, but all in all it wasn’t unpleasant.

 
So what to do? Larger portions would be nice. If you’ve ever eaten in the Middle East you will realise that it’s rare to leave a meal without feeling utterly stuffed and potentially in pain from your host’s kind and generous hospitality. This was not the feeling I had at this Levantine restaurant.  More generous portions and attentive service would be in order. Then keep the homemade gin in the freezer and serve it in a proper martini glass.

The Skylon Bar, London 4.5/5

If you’re in London, treat yourself. It’s not that expensive and you’re guaranteed a good quality cocktail in an excellent setting. 

 

This is a lovely bar in a wonderful, all-welcoming part of London. The brutalist Southbank Centre with its grand but minimalist polished concrete slabs enjoys a wonderfully soft form of acoustics. The diverse array of visitors range from pondering thespians to the philosophical homeless, their intriguing conversations all muffled into soporific unintelligible whispering by the imposing edifice of the building itself. It’s an ocean of calm just a few steps from the virulent masses thronging the banks of the River Thames. Wander around the building and you might stumble across a cultural performance by Zulu warriors or perhaps a fierce debate on the topic of lesbian poetry from the 1980s. Whatever you find, you will likely leave feeling a strange, deep connection with your fellow humans.

Anyway, one of the things situated in this strange, post-war monument to what communist Britain might have aspired to be, is a peculiarly yet perfectly juxtaposed bar and restaurant, very firmly on the free-market capitalist side of the fence.

  
The Skylon itself, after which this bar/restaurant was named, was a stylised metal structure erected during the Festival of Britain, a nationwide event held in 1951 commemorating science, art and architecture in an attempt to lift the national mood in the gloomy post-war years. With a very unstable economy, the loss of vast swathes of the British Empire and extensive, enduring human and infrastructural damage suffered during the war times were still very tough in the country.

  
As illustrated in John Ritchie Addison’s photograph above, the Skylon piece cut quite a striking image over the southern banks of the Thames. It was one of many features of art and design erected for the festival but its image remains one of the most enduring.

Nonetheless, it was seen as too costly for the government to bear. The re-elected prime minister Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two about martinis, also reportedly hated it as a socialist symbol erected by the Labour government which had defeated him in the post-war election.

So naturally he had it torn down and sold for scrap.

  

Oh Winston.

However, while he may have hated the Skylon sculpture, I hope he would approve of the martini served in the nearby restaurant which has taken its name.

Apart from sometimes getting busy (for evident reasons) the only other downside of the bar was the fact that their diverse and highly creative cocktail menu didn’t actually have a classic martini option on it. I would recommend they include one in future as the one they actually served me was almost perfect.

 
I apologised for asking the waitress for an item not on the menu but she asked her manageress and returned to ask whether I would prefer mine made with gin or vodka, and if I would prefer it classical or dirty.

Excellent, I though, and ordered a classic martini (with gin, obviously).

It arrived in a small, but perfectly formed and indeed very elegant martini glass. Lemon peel had been squeezed into the glass and the lemon garnish was artistically cut and fastened onto the rim. I don’t think either the glass or the gin had been kept in the freezer but effort had clearly been put in to chilling both before serving.

  
I also took a moment to admire my friend’s choice of cocktail – the Jamaican Fury. Beautiful and creative, the smoke swirling in the bottle smelt simply of cigarettes, but when decanted into a glass it added a rich, savoury aroma to the otherwise sweet and powerful cocktail.

  
Moments later we were served a bowl of Japanese rice snacks for free. This may sound very simple, possibly even gimmicky, but it’s a vanishingly rare phenomenon in British drinking establishments and adds so much to the martini drinking experience.

Skylon gets 4.5 out of 5 for its martini. It was cold, lemony, in a martini glass, served with nibbles, with an additional selection of good food available on the menu, while the service was friendly and attentive and the setting was relaxed, ambient and stylish (and in one of my favourite buildings in London). For £12.50 I also thought the drink was very good value for money, certainly by London standards and in such a central, prominent venue. I would recommend booking in advance though as it will get crowded.

  
Otherwise, a victorious crowd pleaser. Well done Skylon, long may you reign over the banks of the Thames – but please put the classic martini back on your menu for good.

The Stinging Nettle Martini

  
This is how to take the natural sting out of a nettle leaf and replace it with the more subtle but no less painful sting of vodka.


Does it ever feel like nettles are taking over your garden… and your LIFE?

 

If so, don’t panic! Alcohol will come to your rescue.

  
Apparently the Romans imported nettles (Urtica dioica) to the British Isles so that they could make tea.

 

This may have been what prompted the Iceni rebellion of AD61. Queen Boudicca (above) was possibly a very keen gardener and didn’t approve of the new Roman weed.

Today we rarely drink nettle tea. It is certainly not unheard. Mostly though we just battle through thickets of the plant when they spring up in the garden. I’m sure we all have painful childhood memories of nettle stings as well. Thanks Caesar…

Nonetheless, stinging nettles definitely have health benefits and a distinctive taste so we might as well use them while they’re here.

Furthermore, a farming neighbour told me that nettles only grow in good quality soil. If you’ve got them in your garden then you can take it as a sign that you’ve got some excellent topsoil at least.

Otherwise, follow this easy recipe to make a spritely alcoholic infusion from the pesky plant.

You will need:

  • A large container for liquid
  • A large pot
  • A sealable jar that can contain at least 1/2 a litre of liquid
  • Garden gloves
  • A bag or basket
  • Sugar
  • 1/2 a litre of clear alcohol (vodka would work)
  • An infestation of nettles (try not to collect them from a roadside, dog-walking area or somewhere that chemicals may have been sprayed)

You will basically harvest young nettle leaves then soak, simmer and infuse them in alcohol with sugar to create a flavoured drink to add to your martini.

  

Put on some gloves and pick the young leaves of a nettle plant. Collect them in a bag or basket. Check that there aren’t any growths, insects or dirt on the leaves (check the undersides). Discard any stems.

The leaves shouldn’t be more than about 3 inches wide and should be plucked from the upper stem of the plant. Go for the freshest, greenest ones.

Ideally the plant should be harvested in spring before it flowers or produces seed but younger plants can be harvested later if they are fresh. If you are in the West Coast of Scotland harvest them a couple of weeks before the midgies emerge for the best results.

  
Picking the leaves reminded me of the time I lived on a tea estate in central Sri Lanka. I remember beautiful, smiley but hardy Tamil women in brightly coloured saris picking young tea leaves at a rate of knots. I am sorry to say I was much slower than them at this job.
 
Once you have enough leaves to fill a 2 litre jug, put them in it, pour over some warm water, stir and leave to soak for about 10-15 minutes.

  

You can see their tiny little needles of burning pain here. The next process should (hopefully!) neutralise them.

Drain the leaves and add them to a pan of hot water over a medium heat. Stir them for about a minute. Do not bring the water quite to the boil but it should be hot.

Drain the leaves and add to a sealable jar. Add vodka until it covers the leaves. For every 1/2 litre of vodka you pour in, add 3 tablespoons of sugar. Prick the nettle leaves with a fork. Also use the fork to stir the mixture until at least some of the sugar has dissolved.  

 Seal the jar, give it a good shake and leave it to infuse in a cool, dark place. Shake it vigorously every now and then over the course of around 5 days.

Strain the liquid through a sieve. Pick out some of the more attractive nettle leaves to use as a garnish. Squeeze the rest of the leaves to get out the last of their alcohol then discard them.

 
You can serve the infusion straight up as a shot or a digestif as above. The flavour is enhanced with a little squeeze of lemon juice; it also helps to keep the glass in the freezer in advance so it’s nice and chilly when you serve it.

  


You can also serve the nettle infusion it with ice, tonic and a squeeze of lemon.

 
Or you can add 30ml to a classic martini to replace the equivalent volume of gin or vodka. Garnish with a nettle leaf and serve, perhaps in the garden – if the midgies don’t get you. 

 
The dog certainly seems to approve.