Martinis y tapas

  
Having spent an amazing weekend in Madrid I thought I would write about the drinking culture in the city and see what inspiration I could draw from a martini perspective.

  

Los Madrileños know how to have fun – without feeling guilty, without getting stressed and without getting post-apocalyptically drunk. If you feel like having a drink or having something to eat then do so. If you feel like having a nap then do so. The time of day is irrelevant. You shouldn’t feel bad for doing what your body is telling you to do. Eating, drinking and sleeping when you please might sound unhealthy but these people certainly don’t look unhealthy!

  
Another conclusion is that alcohol is much better when accompanied by food.

Tapas or pinchos/pintxos (pronounced peen-chose) are small bites of food that accompany your drink. The adage “eating’s cheating” has few followers in Madrid and I am a faithful convert to the city’s attitude towards eating with booze. I always serve nibbles with my martinis but maybe we should be serving food with all alcohol. It’s not the most radical concept – it’s common practise in many countries (Sri Lanka for example).

If you are unconvinced about eating with your drinks then perhaps I can persuade you with some examples of the sorts of things you could enjoy with your booze.

   

Here is a mind-blowingly tasty assortment of morcilla (a spanish variation of black pudding) with apple, balsamic vinegar glaze and fried potato straws, accompanied with octopus and whole grain mustard ice cream. Yes. Mustard ice cream. Yes.

  
However, if this is too fancy just order your drink (such as a caños of beer which isn’t as much as a full pint) with something as simple as a piece of bread with a topping. Drink, taste and relax. It’s not a race to finish your drink in order to buy the next round.

  

Fried calamari is common. Ham, cheese and olives also feature highly.

  

There are many expert voices on the subject of tapas so this amateur is not going to bluff you, but of the stories that surround its history I have a favourite. According to my friend, at a point in its history Spain was undergoing a drought and food production was low. The people resorted to drinking more alcohol to make up for their lost calories, but this led to widespread malaise and drunkenness. A troubled king, seeking a solution, ordered establishments to serve simple bread and toppings over the top of alcohol glasses (the word tapas comes from the Spanish verb tapar – to cover). When eaten this would soak up some of the alcohol, reduce drunkenness and help feed the population. A cultural trend was born. 

Like martinis, there are several competing stories surrounding the historical origins of tapas. Without a time machine to verify which version is accurate the only thing you can do is believe in your favourite.

 Whatever the true origins of tapas there have been an infinite multitude of variations since its creation. Tapas now even extends to airline food, as demonstrated above.

For me, the most important concept is that the sharing of tapas is very sociable.

  It can be fairly hands-on; you might be called upon to mash your own guacamole.

 
It can also be very simple. Above is a delicious dish of peppers fried with salt. 
So what can we take from this fine Spanish contribution to human culture to try and improve the martini experience?

Snacks, bites and nibbles are a very important part of a martini so tapas can provide a wealth of inspiration for anyone looking to serve theirs with some added Latin panache.

The main point, however, is about relaxing and sharing good flavours, drinks and conversation with friends, family, lovers etc.

  

If you can get that right then everything else should fall into place – ojala.

 
But as a word of warning, don’t drink so much you end up naked on the ground in Plaza de Colón in the middle of the day, although evidently if you do you won’t be the first…

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The Peruvian Tiger’s Milk Martini (con Leche de Tigre)

I was once accused of being “an evil agent” working for the Chilean government to sabotage the reputation of Peru…  a little unforeseen side effect of my unusual career in the murky world of intelligence. Nonetheless, despite the attempted slander I am a firm fan of Peruvian cuisine and drinking culture. I love Pisco and prefer a Pisco Sour over most other cocktails.

Seafood plays a big role in some of the more distinctive dishes originating in Peru. Acclaimed Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa seems to use a lot of Peruvian-inspired recipes and I’ve had one or two delightful dishes in some of the Latin American restaurants in south London. So I decided to have a go myself. I made a very simple ceviche using a fresh salmon fillet, cut into pieces and left submerged in a tub containing the juice of three lemons, a chopped onion, a handful of chopped coriander, a chopped chilli and a dash of Sriracha sauce for five hours. I was slightly nervous about it, imagining that I would create some sort of monstrous fish-stinking disaster. However, when I served the fish it smelt fresh and zesty with a lovely silken texture like sashimi. Obviously you don’t need to cook the fish so it’s pretty easy after you’ve assembled everything.



Anyway I’m rambling. Here it is, served with the marinade in a shot glass. This is known as Leche de Tigre (Tiger’s milk) and is drunk as a shot. Apparently it’s an aphrodisiac; I found it refreshing and spicy.

So obviously I turned it into a martini. I couldn’t find anyone online who had done this before so here is my recipe:

1 measure of vermouth

1 measure of Leche de Tigre

4 measures of gin or vodka

Pour and stir. I served it without a garnish. It went down very well: I like a spicy martini but this one also had a really heady citrus kick to it as well. I really wasn’t sure whether or not any of this would work, the ceviche or the martini but I’m pleased to report that it was both very easy and tasty!

So, dear Peru, I’m not an evil agent of the Chilean government trying to bring you down. I’m very fond of your cuisine. Salud!

The Laura Santtini Umami Martini

Laura Santtini is a London-based chef with a recipe book that changed the way I looked at food. She describes herself as the genetic equivalent of a Molotov cocktail: half Italian, quarter Persian, pinch of Sephardic and then an English-Irish mix. Her recipe book is full of things you can prepare in a matter of minutes (ie before your friends get to your home via the tube after work) yet you can present them with a simplistic yet explosive flair that says “oh it’s just something I threw together before you got here” but looks and tastes like restaurant quality cuisine.

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Laura Santtini’s book “Flash Cooking” gave me the confidence to entertain guests at home. Which has had a profound impact on this blog, because it means I can give people martinis, then serve them dinner when they are no longer able to use their legs to walk to a restaurant. Well done Laura, and thank you.

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Ms. Santtini has also produced a very fine condiment: Taste 5 Umami Paste. I usually rub it on food items to marinade them, although one of my friends likes to just eat the stuff for the flavour itself. Praise indeed.

Having previously added Worcestershire Sauce to a martini for a taste of salty umami I thought I might try the same with the Taste 5 Umami paste, not least as an experiment that my aforementioned friend might like. I took a pea-sized globule of the paste and muddled it into a measure of vermouth, then topped it up with gin and stirred.

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I didn’t use a garnish this time round but I could suggest the following as good pairings for the umami flavour:

A twist of lemon
An olive stuffed with garlic
An olive stuffed with anchovy (for double, nay triple umami)
A sprig of Rosemary
Watercress
A slice of cucumber

Disclaimer: the following photograph contains no martini.

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Be sure to rub the sauce on some meat or fish to marinade before you fry it.

An early Christmas present of olives

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me…

…Nine million olives and an EU fishing quota’s worth of anchovies.

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When it comes to serving olives with martinis I have two favourites:

Nocellara olives, which I describe here or Manzanillas, especially ones which have been stuffed with anchovies and tinned in brine.

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I would never normally order anchovies but the first time I ate these olives I didn’t know what was in them. I was so taken by the taste that I asked what was in them and was highly surprised. If you don’t think you’re an anchovy fan I would recommend giving these olives a go nonetheless.

I first had them in Duke’s Bar in London but I have since found them stocked in supermarkets all over the place so hopefully you won’t have too much difficulty finding them.

I have bought a large supply to take home for Christmas (you can’t get them where my family live).

The festive season is an ideal time for martinis as you’ve got your family as company. It’s either the perfect time to get together and talk, or it’s the only time you ever see them and you’ll feel it necessary to get very drunk.

Merry Christmas!

(Several days later and we have barely dented this stockpile…)

Paesan Restaurant, Farringdon, London, 4/5

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Cucina povera means ‘poor/poverty kitchen’, and this restaurant specialises in traditional Italian ‘peasant food’. If I was reviewing food and service this place would get full marks. So when I have to mark them down for very small (but crucial) martini points it makes me feel bad. I even added a subjective point to this rating – because they make their own in-house olive-infused gin. They had run out when I got there, which was obviously devastating, and I only found out about it following detailed gin enquiries via one of their lovely, helpful employees. This gin is not on the menu and it’s made by their in-house ‘witch’ (La Strega) – their words, not mine. Furthermore, the olive gin is kept in the fridge, so at least it would be nice and cool for a martini.

All this restaurant needs to do for maximum points is keep the gin and martini glasses in the freezer. I would also recommend changing the music. It was a little too loud (does that make me sound old?) and wasn’t ideal for a martini, although the overall vibe was still a cool one, and of course the main stay of this place is food. My life might revolve around martinis but I concede that it is not the same for everyone else.

Otherwise, I would recommend that you try this place as the food is lovely and the service was extremely attentive.

Sometimes you get the impression that just about everyone who works in a restaurant is also friends with one another. There was a nice vibe in this place. The staff were smiley, helpful, knowledgeable as regards the menu and genuinely helpful. They even recommended good bars for us to go to in the area after normal closing hours – because that was where they went as colleagues after work. I take that as a good sign.

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To eat, I had truffle fries and spicy garlic mussels, which were delicious. We were also served really tasty antipasti at the beginning, It was the first time I had ever tried caperberries. They were tangy and crunchy and made a very good garnish for my martini. I may seek them out in future at Borough Market for when I serve martinis at home.
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And back to the martinis… Aside from the sad news that they had run out of olive gin, they served me a classic martini with dry vermouth. It was garnished with a Noccelara olive (my favourite) on a clear shard-like plastic toothpick (also used by Dukes Bar and the Savoy Hotel). I would describe the drink as a little bit too dry, although I sipped it very slowly, which ultimately was a good thing given the length of the night.

I have said many times that I prefer a martini with a dash of sweet vermouth, and apparently I am in the minority, but I don’t mind being in the minority. I’ve had plenty of practise at this. However, from a bar/restaurant perspective, what is important is that the server should ask whether or not the customer would prefer the martini dry or sweet. Also, as I said before, the gin and the glasses should be kept in the freezer. And finally, I would recommend a squeeze of lemon peel into the glass – in addition to the tasty olive – or at least the option of it.

Otherwise, I had a great night, with lovely food and wonderful company celebrating the birthday of a very close friend of mine from Sri Lanka. Bohuma istuti!

This post is self-indulgent

Nibbles
I don’t actually like the word ‘nibbles’. It sounds frightfully bourgeois. Nonetheless, it’s nice to have something to eat to accompany a martini, especially if it’s been a long day and you’re waiting for dinner. Here are some past examples.

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The root of all evil: carbs, fat and cheese flavouring, deep-fried.

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Langoustine with roe.

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Olives, of course.

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Nuts.

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You can’t go wrong with nuts.

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Even radishes.

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Grilled lobster for special occasions.

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This is some seared beef I made with a creamy sauce.

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More seared beef, with cucumber and a wasabi-yoghurt dressing.

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Crisps: more evil.

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Dad’s koi carp from the pond? No I’m just kidding. They’re practically my siblings.

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Grilled salmon skin with a sweet soy glaze.

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More olives, Nocellara this time.

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Bombay mix, peanuts and frozen blueberries.

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Wasabi peas.

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Mangoostine.

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It’s an unusual looking tropical fruit with sweet, white flesh.

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Look how cute they look.

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Croustades with lumpfish roe and dill.

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Sashimi with daikon relish and pickled ginger.

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Rolled spinach with miso and sesame sauce.

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Dry and desirable: like my character, but not like my liver.

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Pate and chives on oatcakes, with lots of olives.

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Japanese ‘izakaya’ styled spring onions.

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Whatever you serve, it should compliment the martini.

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But don’t get so drunk you forget about the real food cooking in the oven.

Bites

Martinis should ideally be served with snacks to compliment the strong, icy flavour of the drink.

Olives are always a winner, and there are so many varieties to enjoy. Nuts are also good, as the saltiness goes so well with the martini. I like salted pistachios in their shells most of all. Japanese seaweed snacks work very well. Bombay mix is a classic. Miniature rice cracker snacks with lots of chemical flavours, additives and MSG also usually do the trick, but natural food is so much more refreshing. Inspired by Polish drinking culture I often like to serve sliced gherkins as a tasty accompaniment. You can’t go wrong with good quality crisps, but go easy on them for your waistline.

Small bites that you might otherwise serve as a starter work well if you’re feeling fancy. I like to keep the martini ceremony simple and relaxed but if you want to make an impression you could serve all manner of home prepared dishes, such as grilled skewers, sushi, sashimi (any fresh seafood actually), blinis etc. To be honest, it’s still a big experiment for me. As I said, I like it to be simple so I can relax and actually enjoy the drink, but you should be able to try out all sorts of things. It will also likely depend on your expected company, which is another key element of the perfect martini.

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