More martini snacks and canapes

I’m just going to leave this here…

  

What could be easier than olives and cheese-stuffed peppers that you picked up at the shops on the way home? I particularly like the colour contrast of these two. Oh and the taste.

You can’t go wrong with the lemony-buttery taste of Nocellara olive flesh, while the soft creamy cheese paired very indulgently with the sweet piccante crunch of the pepper.

  
This one was also a little bit last minute. I threw together some Bombay mix, prosciutto and olives when a friend popped round unexpectedly. The Bombay mix didn’t really go with the other two, but it’s definitely very nice on its own.

  

Here are some nuts, arranged mindlessly while I stared into space sipping my first drink of the night. Salted pistachio nuts are my favourite, although some nice big fat macadamia nuts would go well with a martini too.

  
Simple, easy, light, savoury, Twiglets are an underrated canapé snack. They are the flavour and texture opposite of the martini. Where a martini is cold, smooth, heady, citrusy and ever so slightly sweet, these are light, crunchy, salty and savoury. They don’t look particularly elegant but the flavour contrast really works. They’re a guaranteed winner for marmite fans.

  
This one is a bit more fancy. Asparagus skewers, blini with taramasalata, maki rolls, sigeumchi-namul, crisps, a martini and candles…

  
A simple but slightly more edgy snack, here are some wasabi peas with a simple classic.

  
Extremely simple, but very tasty, here is some lightly pickled baby beetroot. I’m sure we could create some kind of pink-coloured beetroot Gibson Martini, perhaps similar to the Beet Up Vesper Martini at the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town bar in central London. 


Sea Aster is a seasonal coastal plant that flowers in the summer but is edible in the spring. Wash and eat raw or lightly boil for a minute or two. I got mine at a fish monger’s in Borough Market.


Mum bought these langoustines from Tobermory Main Street while I picked up the samphire on Oban pier on a trip back from London.


There’s a whole world of tapas-style ingredients and food types you could use. Above you can see chorizo, cold roast pork slices, feta cheese, olives, bread, houmous, oil  and duqqah.


You can turn the nibbles into your whole meal and really take your time with the martini. Above you can see crab open sandwiches, nuts, wood ear mushrooms, Korean-style spinach, roasted vegetables, seaweed, manchego cheese, Bombay mix, olives, bread, oil and houmous all to be slowly munched while you sip your cold gin.


Houmous is a relaxed martini accompaniment to have at home with informal company over a drink.


Here it is served with sliced pitta bread and a variety of mostly Mediterranean snacks.


My kind neighbour made me some lovely Middle Eastern sweets which I included in the meal.

The Arabic element of the food was especially good at soaking up some of the alcohol!


Dim sum was a surprisingly good – if slightly unconventional accompaniment.


Oysters are my favourite.


I also love creamy manchego cheese.


Finally though, the most classical martini snack will always remain the pitted green olive. If it’s all you have, you’ll be fine. And you won’t spoil your appetite for dinner.

The Sri Lankan Arrack Martini – the Serendipitini

  
I have been working on this concept for a long time. It’s not a true martini, but it aims to serve a similar purpose, especially for those in Sri Lanka, perhaps without access to gin or vermouth.

I resisted pressure to name it the Tamil Tiger Martini (it’s fiery, complex and deadly) as this would feel wholly inappropriate after Sri Lanka’s bitter internal tragedy. Instead I have opted for the Serendipitini.

Serendib was the old Arabic word for Sri Lanka. It means ‘lucky surprise’ and is where the word Serendipity comes from. Sri Lanka is full of lucky surprises, not least its alcoholic delights.

 
Having previously lived in Sri Lanka I developed a strong taste for their national spirit: Arrack.

  
The drink is very distinctive, but then so is its production method.

Very early in the morning, toddy-tappers climb up coconut trees in certain parts of Sri Lanka. They are there to harvest a very special type of sap.

If you cut the flowers in a certain way they produce a light, sweet liquid which the British colloquially referred to as ‘toddy’. With its high sugar content this liquid starts to ferment almost immediately and has become alcoholic by breakfast time.

It can be drunk straight from the bottle, although you might have to scrape ants off the top layer – I’m afraid I’m not kidding.

  
It is totally organic, fresh and tastes heavenly. However, given its cheapness, some Sri Lankans might not approve of foreigners consuming it, depending on who you talk to. It is sometimes seen as a poor-mans drink (because it literally grows on trees) so you might be expected to try something more refined (i.e. produced in a brewery or distillery). However, you must persist and obtain some! It’s a delight to drink at the beach after breakfast. Spend the morning happily sipping it in the sun. However, note that the liquid will start to ferment to unhealthy levels by about 11am. If you drink it after this time, or consume any of the sediment that builds up in your bottle, you could end up with an upset stomach. You should also avoid sealing any containers which carry toddy. As it ferments, the pressure can build up and the container can burst. Don’t shake the liquid either!
So that’s toddy, the wonder drink that has been gifted to mankind.

But what if you don’t want to drink in the morning?

Large quantities of the liquid are extracted each morning and allowed to ferment naturally. This liquid is then distilled to create Arrack.

The beverage has been compared to whisky or rum in flavouring. It can be fiery, but with strong notes of caramel to mellow out the flavour.
During my time in Sri Lanka we would mix it with coca cola, ginger beer (very refreshing), fresh lime juice (with limes gathered from the garden) or we would drink it neat (sometimes referred to as ‘raw’ on the island). Trendy cocktail bars in Colombo (and even London) often pair it with a range of flavours such as mango juice or cinnamon.

However, I always felt that these flavours masked the arrack. I like to channel Marcel Proust; the aroma sniffed from a bottle alone is enough to transport me back to the lush green Hill Country or the transcendent beaches of Trimcomalee.

As such, I wanted to create a drink that enhanced the rich, syrupy arrack character rather than smothering it in a pot pouri other flavours. I also wanted to create a drink that contained elements of the classic martini, such as temperature and powerful subtlety. 

A cold drink is extremely welcome after a hot day in Sri Lanka so I keep the arrack in the freezer for a day before serving. If it’s good quality it shouldn’t freeze solid.

I also wanted to embrace the martini concept of simplicity so I decided to pair the arrack with only one other flavour.

A classic gin martini is very much enhanced by the citrus flavouring of lemon oil, squeezed from a strip of peel. Arrack is also enhanced by citrus so I decided to play around with the concept of lime-cello. This is essentially limoncello but made with limes instead.

  
Limes, known in Sinhala as ‘dehi’ are widely available and consumed in Sri Lanka. A Sri Lankan garden can often resemble an overgrown forest from a distance, but upon closer inspection you will find that most contain a veritable cacophony of consumable fruits. If you can harvest your own for this recipe I’m sure it will taste much better.
  

  • Wash and zest 6 limes
  • Put the peel in a jar and add 400ml vodka

  

  • Seal the jar and leave it to infuse for 3 weeks
  • Give it a shake every couple of days

  

  • Strain the vodka and discard the zest (squeeze it out as much as you can first)
  • Dissolve 4 tablespoons of sugar in 100ml freshly boiled water
  • Not all of it will dissolve but don’t worry. Once the mixture has cooled down give it a shake  and add it to the infused vodka.
  • That’s it. It’s very easy, you just have to wait a few weeks for it to infuse.
  • Like the arrack, I like to keep it in the freezer for at least 24 hours before serving.
  • When it’s time to pour, take a strip of lime peel and squeeze it into a chilled martini glass, then rub it around the glass to transfer as much of the citrus oil as possible.
  • Add the lime-cello to taste (around 40ml) then top up with arrack (around 110ml)
  • Stir well using the lime peel (which you can then use as a garnish).
  • Serve

Be warned, it’s slightly bitter and very strong. Nonetheless, it’s definitely a nice way to end a day of working in Colombo, going on Safari in the country’s many beautiful nature reserves, hiking around the country’s rich architectural heritage or just spending the day at the beach.

In terms of selecting arrack I usually drank Very Special mark in Sri Lanka but i would generally get just what I could get my hands on.

A very good friend from Colombo brought me back some Ceylon Arrack. In a beautiful bottle and probably the most commonly seen in a cocktail bar I would describe the arrack as light, smooth and pure – a really refined taste and certainly the best one I’ve encountered for an Arrack-Virgin. Otherwise you may find some of the others to be a bit more viscous and/or fiery.
  
Note that in Sri Lankan drinking culture it’s almost sacrilegious to drink without eating something at the same time. There is an array of bites you could serve with this. Devilled prawns or cuttlefish spring to mind, or a simple bite mix    (usually referred to internationally as Bombay Mix).

  

It may not be Kandy, but this is as close as I will get to the island of Serendipity. Otherwise try Sekara in Victoria for authentic Sinhalese cooking, and a range of restaurants in Tooting and Croydon for good Tamil food.

Non-alcoholic rose and lemon drop martini

Yes, yes, non-alcoholic. I can’t drink all the time you know.

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After serving martinis, you might, as I do, find your fridge to be full of bald lemons, shaved of their peel but still bursting with juice. You can use them for all sorts of things, like cooking, putting them in hot water to drink in the morning, making ice cubes, or, as I have done today, juicing them and adding them to a cordial drink to make a refreshing, sweet and sour non-alcoholic beverage.

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Rooh Afza is a sweet, rose-flavoured syrupy cordial to dilute with water and drink, preferably on a hot day. It comes from Pakistan, a country I have never visited but where some of my family used to live (before partition in the old days of the British Raj).

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To counteract it’s strong sweetness I added the juice of a lemon to 35ml and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Stir well then place in the freezer for around 45 minutes. Pour into a chilled martini glass and top up with chilled tonic water. Garnish with a piece of lemon peel.

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You can also leave it in the freezer a little bit longer in individual shot glasses to make a miniature sorbet.

There you go, a non-alcoholic post on my otherwise gin-soaked blog. Pakistan Zindabad!

Dishoom could pack a punch: 3.5/5

‘Dishoom’ is a traditional Bollywood onomatopoeic word (like ‘Kapow!’) used to express the noise of someone getting punched or slapped in an old film or comic book.

In London, Dishoom is a Shoreditch eatery inspired by Mumbai cafe culture. It is easily identified by the queue outside its doors most evenings.

Once again, from a martini perspective this good bar/restaurant loses points for its simple failure to keep its gin and glasses in the freezer.

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Otherwise, however, it gets points for its evocative, eccentric decor, attentive service and excellent array of food. Martinis probably aren’t their priority, but if they wanted to hit the full 5/5 rating I would recommend that they focus on the temperature of the drink, whilst serving them with a small selection of some of their fantastic nibbles (such as their delicious battered okra). Maybe they could try out the Raitini as well.

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Recycled cardboard menus, vintage posters and some other quirky features made it an interesting experience to dine there. I would normally refuse to queue for half an hour to enter a restaurant but at Dishoom they serve you warm masala chai while you wait, which is a nice touch, especially in winter.

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The actual cocktail making was also very impressive. I locked eyes with a Sri Lankan inspired Arrack-based drink on the menu (the Toddy Tapper) and asked which brand of Arrack they were using. The barman didn’t know but got out the bottle for me to read the label. I didn’t recognise the brand either. It looked very modern, whereas most of the (many) bottles of Arrack I’ve drunk in my lifetime have had very old-fashioned labels.

Anyway, the barman set fire to some alcohol and fennel seeds in a glass to release the flavour before adding them to my drink. This was visually impressive as you can see from the above photograph taken by my friend. Of course, we also ordered a martini to try.

The food was tasty, the service good and fast (after the queueing at least) and the atmosphere was pleasant. I would definitely recommend giving it a try, but be sure to wear enough warm clothing to queue outside.