Mums Limoncello from the Last Milennium

We were clearing up the house after taking down all the Christmas decorations and we came across this mysterious bottle.


Okay okay… I say “mysterious” but actually, as soon as I saw it I knew exactly what it was.

Sometime in the last few years mum made some limoncello with vodka and lemon rind then left it to season. Obviously we forgot about it and it even managed to accompany us undetected through a house-move. I’m not quite sure how this happened but there you go.


So obviously I wanted to (a) taste it and (b) use it in martini form somehow.


A few years back a man in Beirut told me he liked to add a teaspoon or two of limoncello to his martinis to give them a nice, citrusy note.

So that’s what I did.


I chucked the limoncello into the freezer for a few hours, although note that some limoncellos might freeze. Mum’s was suitably alcoholic that it did not.


Add one teaspoon to a normal martini (the standard recipe is here) and stir it with your piece of lemon peel. Serve.


It adds a nice lemon aftertaste but is a little sweet, so consider using less vermouth than normal if you want to try this out.


It’s also worth noting that this makes an excellent substitute if you find yourself without any fresh lemons. Remember – these are crucial for making a standard martini (unless you’re having it dirty or you’ve got a very good or distinctive gin to taste). A teaspoon of limoncello might be a nicer to impart a lemon flavour than using a dab of lemon oil which I sometimes resort to.


The limoncello also goes very nicely added to a gin and tonic (with a 50:50 gin:limoncello ratio).


So act now: buy some limoncello, make your own, or give your house a spring clean. You never know what alcoholic delights might be gathering dust in a corner.


If you’re moving house be especially sure to check for rogue bottles. You wouldn’t want the next occupants to enjoy it at your expense.

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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.

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! 

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.

Worcestershire Sauce Martini

Yes you read that correctly.

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This is another slight variation on a classic martini. Just before you pour the martini, smudge a small amount of Worcestershire sauce into the glass.

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It adds a slightly savoury tinge to the drink which works quite well, especially if you’re looking to whet the appetite for a meal. Below is a suggestion:

Marinade a good steak at room temperature in Worcestershire sauce for several hours. Drink the martini just before you cook it as a complimentary aperitif. I owe thanks to a certain Beirut resident for the instructions.

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Alternatively, cook the steak before pouring the martini, slice it thinly then serve it as an accompaniment. I made a honey and mustard yoghurt sauce (mix 1 tablespoon of yoghurt, 1 teaspoon of Wholegain mustard, 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon of runny honey and a splash of white wine vinegar) to go with this one and sprinkled over some black sesame seeds.

Packing martini glasses for international travel

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Martinis are an international drink, but transporting martini glasses in your hold luggage on an international flight can be difficult. Nonetheless, I will not go without a martini or two on my holidays so I had to work out a plan.

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Wrap each glass in bubble wrap.

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If possible, keep the original box that you bought the glasses in.

Place the wrapped glasses in the box.

Surround them in the box with soft things (clean socks for example).

Pack the box tightly and seal with Sellotape.

Pack in the middle of your luggage surrounded by firm, solid items.

Then prepare for your flight.

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My friend kindly gave me a bottle of gin (under 100ml) and a plastic see-through bag to take through airport security.

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Stock up on holiday supplies in duty free.

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No prizes for guessing what I go for.

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It’s fairly simple.

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Enjoy your flight (I ordered a gin and tonic with olives and topped up the gin with the extra bottle my friend gave me – it’s definitely a good choice if you’re a bad flier).

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When you arrive, hopefully this won’t have happened.

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You know what to do next.

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Enjoy your trip!

The man from the Alphabet Agencies

While attending an ‘event’ in a certain Middle Eastern city, I was introduced to a charming gentleman from, shall we say, one of the ‘Alphabet Agencies’.

While our discussion covered subjects including politics, diplomacy and turmoil in the region, it settled upon the subject of martinis, of which we are both fond.

When one works in the business of ‘international affairs’, a strong martini is sometimes the only thing that will soothe your mind at the end of the day. I also mentioned earlier the inextricable link between martinis and a certain specialist in the field.

The gentleman gave me his variation on the classic version of a martini: add a teaspoon of limoncello.

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Made in Southern Italy (or your own home) by infusing clear spirit (such as vodka) with lemon peel (and adding sugar), limoncello is a popular drink in my household already (my mother makes the best).

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I have also written earlier about the importance of lemons to a martini.

The marriage of the two makes for a delightful variation on the classic.