A Martini with Crushed Oyster Shell


I drifted into borough market the other day and found myself standing in front of a fishmonger’s counter staring at all the produce. I couldn’t leave empty handed and suddenly felt a craving for salty, briny oysters so I bought a handful.I’ve made a martini with oysters before (you can see the blog post here).

This time, though, I was inspired by a story I’d heard about a martini made with gin shaken up with crushed oyster shells.


There’s something anciently pleasing about oyster shells. We always have a pile of discarded ones in the garden by our kitchen door. It’s like a primordial mark of civility, like our Roman and prehistoric Hebridean forebears.

From a taste perspective, I like the ground, salty and metallic/chalky flavour.


So I got to work. I opened the oysters and ground one of the flat, detached shells with a pestle and mortar.

I poured some chilled gin into a jug with the pulverised shell and stirred I vigorously for about 30 seconds.


I then strained the gin and added it to vermouth in a glass to make a martini.

As with a classic martini, I had rubbed some lemon peel into the glass first as this little citrus touch goes nicely with the oyster flavour.


I then served the martini with the opened oysters on the side.

I liked the sharp, metallic taste that the process gave the martini, although I was really craving something saltier and ended up pouring some of the brine in as well.

In sum total, I would say that crushing the oyster shell was a bit of a faff and ultimately the best part of the flavour simply came from the oyster brine I added at the end.


So I concluded that’s unless you have a lot of time, I would keep it simple. If you’re craving an oyster-themed martini simply serve them on the side of a simple classic martini and pour in some of the brine to taste. You could even tip the whole body of one in for a striking (and tasty) aperitif.

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A Martini with Nori Seaweed

  

Our family is probably not alone in this matter: we adore crisps but recognise that they are evil.

  
To my American readers – I’m referring to what you call ‘chips’ or ‘potato chips’.  I could make some cliche comment about how you have abused our language but your people did invent the martini so I have to pay at least some deference to your culture. Nonetheless, I will continue to refer to these things as crisps in my blog and you cannot stop me.

  
Crunchy, tasty, yet body-bendingly unhealthy, these snacks pose a real threat to your life. They are so convenient to pick up at the shops. They can sit in a cupboard, just waiting for their moment to strike. An impromptu visit from a friend, a much-needed drink at the end of a long day, you find them welcomingly waiting to be tipped into a bowl and devoured. And with all their salt, flavouring and fat, they can taste amazing.

  
But they are so unhealthy. It’s almost always a case of “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.” They’re not exactly the sort of thing you would chuck in a smoothie.

So I’ve been looking for things to replace crisps as a martini accompaniment. Martinis themselves aren’t exactly an elixir of healthy living either but at least by cutting out the crisps you can minimise the comprehensive damage you could otherwise be doing to your body.

  
My brother, who is a body-builder and very good at nutrition (most of the time), brought back these snacks from the mainland.

Actually made in South Korea, they are originally a Japanese style of snack made from Nori seaweed.

  
Nori is specifically a type of algae, harvested, shredded, flattened and dried in a preparation technique reminiscent of papyrus but more closely based on Japanese paper production.

It is familiar to most people who have eaten sushi as it is used to wrap maki rolls among other things. It is also similar to a well-known (and highly tasty) dish in Wales – laver.

  
Indeed while seaweed today is usually regarded as a health food from Asia, it actually formed a very traditional part of coastal British diets for centuries. The Welsh have defended its value as a tasty source of nutrition over the years. I am writing this at home in the Hebrides where seaweed was once seen as a staple, especially during times of hardship and poor harvest on the land. As a crop, it is available all year round – so long as you are able to withstand the temperature of the sea.

Luckily it is making a bit of a comeback. Hebrideans are once again turning to our rich, clean waters for sustenance. It still isn’t common but it’s not unknown. 

Please excuse me while I shed a tear of pure joy.

Returning specifically to the history of Nori, I was struck by a fascinating story, involving a remarkable and surprising northern English lady who defied sexism in science and cross-cultural barriers to change the Japanese seaweed industry and our understanding of the food today.

  

Seaweed yields were falling in post-war Japan when Lancashire scientist Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker stepped in to provide her research on the lifecycle of algae. Armed with this knowledge, Japanese harvesters optimised their techniques to maximise the production process and the industry flourished. 

Every year on the 14th of April a ceremony is dedicated to Dr. Drew-Baker in Osaka. She is referred to as The Mother of the Sea in recognition of her work for the seaweed industry.

So back to martinis…

  
I served some of the nori sheets as a simple snack.

They were slightly large so I lay the slices on top of each other and used scissors to cut them into four pieces so they would fit into my mouth easily.

  
They also make an interesting, if slightly flamboyant garnish.

With salt and sesame oil they were very more-ish and made a nice accompaniment snack. Their slight fishy taste might not appeal to everyone but I am a committed fan of seafood and think it compliments a martini very well.

However, these nori sheets in particular have quite a high fat content so they might not be a million miles better than crisps after all. It might be worth using ordinary sushi nori sheets instead. Cut one or two into bite sized pieces before serving.

Nonetheless, I like these little bites and will be nibbling on them again.

Hazelnut snacks

  
Hazelnuts have been consumed by humans for thousands of years.

I am currently on the Island of Mull in the Hebrides. On the nearby island of Colonsay evidence suggests that local residents were consuming large amounts of the nut in 7000BC.

The Hebrides can often feel very far from civilisation so the fact that people living here enjoyed this tasty snack several millennia before the Babylonian Empire existed blows my mind just a little bit.

Anyway, while we Hebrideans might have harvested the nut from our trees back then, the undisputed champion of hazelnut production today is Turkey, which produced 660,000 tonnes of the nut in 2012.

  
That weight equates to this massive vessel if it were fully loaded. The Seawise Giant is the largest man-made mobile object ever built by the way. That’s a lot of hazelnuts.

  
Anyway, enough of that. I’m craving a martini.

  
If you have some hazelnuts to spare and you fancy a tasty treat, put some in a heatproof dish.

  
Drizzle them in a little oil, sprinkle over some salt and maybe some pepper and/or herbs, then roast them in a pre-heated oven for about 10-15 minutes, depending on the heat. Essentially you want to toast them, not burn them. If they seem slightly soft when you remove them from the oven they will probably harden to a nice crunchy texture as they cool.

  
You could serve them like that as a snack. Once they’re cooler they make a luxurious, warm, salty, crunchy and slightly fatty accompaniment to an ice cold martini.

  

Alternatively, you could go one step further and make something from across the Mediterranean from Turkey: Egyptian Duqqah.

  
Grind it down, season it.

  
Then serve it with bread, good quality oil and maybe some balsamic vinegar.

Dip the bread in the oil then coat it in the duqqah with one hand while you sip your martini with the other.

This is simple and delicious. You can also mix the duqqah with other ingredients such as pepper, ground chickpeas and other ground nuts if you like.

Omnomnom!

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.

The Botanist Gin

Which martini would you drink in the event of a zombie apocalypse?

Bear with me as I explain the link…

  

I have mentioned before that I come from the Hebrides. I was therefore very keen to taste this gin, crafted on the island of Islay.

  
In the event of some kind of apocalypse or worldwide catastrophe (zombies etc), I always thought that my natural instinct would be to scramble back home to the islands to try and survive.

In the event that we managed to cling on to our existence in this beautiful island chain on the fringe of European civilisation I imagine that once the banalities of food production, healthcare and general society had been arranged our community would very quickly address the problem of what we would drink at the end of the day (it’s a cultural thing).  With a global collapse of logistics we would no longer be able to import drinks and ingredients from afar and would subsequently have to craft our own alcohol locally.

The most obvious drink for us to concoct in this part of the world would be whisky, but for die-hard gin lovers perhaps we would attempt to distil a clear spirit and flavour it with local botanicals – including juniper.

That is exactly what the craftsmen at the Bruichladdich whisky distillery have done with the Botanist gin.

It is flavoured with 31 botanicals, 22 of which are hand-picked locally, and slow-distilled to create a distinctive flavour.

  
My personal favourite addition is gorse-bush flowers, very evocative of a  childhood spent in the outdoors up here.

In this clip you can hear the gorse bush seed pods popping in the (rare) August sun.

Other favoured botanical additions include thyme, birch and bog myrtle, while one of the junipers used in the production is also grown on the island.

The gin is distilled in a ‘Lomond still’ – a rare item traditionally used to make whisky. 

  
Perhaps it is for this reason that I found the gin to be somewhat fiery in flavour. My favourite whisky is the smokey Laphroaig, also from Islay. Maybe it’s the local water that does it…

(Note that the above whisky is a Glen Moray – a Speyside malt).

  

Naturally, the post-apocalyptic Hebridean diet would include a significant proportion of seafood (unless the apocalypse included some sort of radioactive fallout). As such I wanted to pair this gin with some locally-sourced fruit du mer. Luckily when I made this martini we had langoustines to hand at home (as you do) but there are loads of other potential seafood variations. Please see  the Langoustini and Loch Ness Monstini for further martini inspiration.

The gin also goes well in a gin and tonic. For further guidance please see here.

  

Perhaps you could serve the G&T with some herbs sourced locally from the Hebridean garden, such as in this case, with some Rosemary from out the back door.

  

In a land where summer only seems to last a day you certainly want to make sure that your choice of refreshment is a good one.

The Espresso Martini

Make me something that wakes me up and then f#*€s me up.”  

 I’ve wanted to make this one for a long time but given its chemical stimulant potency I found myself putting it off until a suitable situation arose.

The origin of most cocktails is blurry (a testament to their effectiveness) but it is believed that the espresso martini was created in a bar in London when a model entered the premises and asked the bartender to make her a drink in the manner quoted at the top of this post. Class in a glass? Perhaps not. But the drink has quickly earned its place in the cocktail hall of fame, which is quite a feat considering how relatively young the drink is in comparison to some of its competitors.

  
Very simple, an espresso martini combines coffee liqueur, vodka and fresh espresso, all chilled and served in an appropriate glass.

  

As a liqueur I used Kahlúa. Created in the mountains of Veracruz, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, the drink combines arabica beans with sugar cane to create a rich, sweet liqueur. There are several other coffee liqueurs out there but this I would say is the standard. The etymology of the word Kahlúa comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language, meaning ‘the house of the Acolhua people’. The Hispanisisation of the word can be found in the name San Juan de Ulùa, known in my family as being the location of a very difficult naval conflict between the Spanish navy and a fleet commanded by one of my ancestors. Symbolic indeed. The magnitude of the maritime battle was matched only by the hangover I experienced upon drinking too many of these drinks. Let that be a lesson to you all.

Kahlúa also contains rum. You might like to add a dash of dark rum to an espresso martini to give it even more of a kick and flavour. I would recommend a darker rum for this.

  
The family favourite is Wood’s Rum – not least because of its naval associations.

For me, the basic trick of the espresso martini is to balance the sweetness of the liqueur with the savoury coffee and neutral-but-strong vodka. Too much liqueur and you overpower the coffee and find yourself with a sickly-sweet drink. Not enough liqueur and the drink becomes overpowering to the palate.

I normally like my martinis stirred and not shaken but with this drink you need to shake it like a Polaroid picture – well enough to produce a healthy froth. I also recommend that you keep the vodka and the martini glass in the freezer so that it’s all nice and cold.

  

There – a nice and frosty martini glass. I’ve seen these served in coupe glasses as well which works nicely too. 

When to drink them

The alcohol-caffeine combination of an espresso martini would not make a good aperitif and certainly wouldn’t be suitable as a night cap. I would therefore recommend it after a meal, but ahead of a late night.

  

The opportunity for me to drink one recently presented itself whilst I took part in our local Highland Games. The day sees traditional pipe band music, dancing and fitness competitions, such as tossing the caber, throwing the hammer, kilt races and other fun pursuits, not to mention a healthy amount of alcohol consumption. What else would you expect when a horde of Hebrideans get together – some travelling from other islands, the mainland and even abroad to catch up with family and friends for the annual event.

Anyway I volunteered to help behind the bar (it’s obviously my spiritual home) during the daytime. After a day of serving booze but not drinking any, followed by a quick meal at home, it was time for me to prepare for the night of festivities ahead. There is usually much drinking and merriment in local pubs, followed by a traditional ceilidh dance in the town hall so I was going to need some stamina, or at the very least, stamina’s distant relatives: booze and caffeine.

  

Using my Mum’s trusty coffee machine I made myself an espresso.

  

Taking a vintage silver-plated cocktail shaker, I added about 4 ice cubes and poured over the coffee. If you don’t have a cocktail shaker you can do this with a large jar. It works almost as well.

  • Add 20ml coffee liqueur (or to taste – more for a sweeter drink, less for a stronger, more bitter punch-in-the-face type imbibement.
  • Add 120ml chilled vodka.

Shake it all up very vigorously. The harder you shake, the thicker the foam (la crema) you will get on top of the drink. A nice, firm foam is more attractive to look at, adds a textural smoothness to the drink and is perfect for a nice garnish or coffee beans.

Pour the drink into the glass. If you used a jar to shake it up, try to hold back the ice cubes.

  
If you don’t have a good foam it will look a bit like this. The texture isn’t so nice and it doesn’t look anywhere near as attractive.

  
It should look thick, rich and creamy on top, with a dark dangerous looking underside. Garnish with some coffee beans.

  

I took them out from the top of mum’s machine. I like to use three pointing out from the middle of the glass, with the seam of the bean facing upwards.
  

And serve!

But be warned, normally there is a two martini rule. For this drink, however, I would recommend that you only have one on a night out. Anymore and you will be drunk and wide awake until dawn. Although perhaps that’s your goal. In which case go right ahead, but you have been warned!

  

A Martini with Samphire

  
This is a very simple variation on the classic martini. The only thing I have changed is the garnish.

  
Marsh Samphire is one of my favourite foods. Harvested in the summer months from coastal rocky areas it is comparable to asparagus, but with a saltier and less pungent aftertaste. It’s very simple to prepare but it’s fleshy, crunchy freshness makes for a lovely seasonal martini accompaniment.

  
Grab it while it’s in season (it can turn a little bit woody later on). You can usually find it in fish mongers in July/August. For this martini accompaniment, I returned to my trusty fish dealer – Watt’s on the pier in Oban.

  
Boil it in lightly salted water for around 2 minutes.

  
Drain it.

  
Add some butter and pepper to taste.

  
Serve it as a light bite on its own, as a starter or as part of a full meal.

  
And it makes a nice garnish for a Classic Martini.