A Bombay Martini


I was picking up some supplies in the supermarket when this gin caught my eye. Bombay London Dry Gin: more muted in appearance than its bright blue Sapphire  sister, it has a simple, almost stringently-coloured branding.

I am not a fan of floral or overly botanical gins in my martini so I though that this one with only 8 botanicals (to Sapphire’s 10) might provide a basic, clean, high street option so I took it home and chucked it in the freezer to find out.


A day later when the gin was thoroughly chilled, I made a simple martini, garnished with lemon peel and accompanied by the obvious snack of Bombay Mix.


The gin was less citrusy and floral than Bombay Sapphire. I love citrus notes, but I prefer them firstly in the aroma of the drink, ideally from the lemon peel I’ve just squeezed into it, then finally as a slow melting aftertaste which follows what I prefer to be a strong, leading juniper flavour. The Bombay Dry leads with juniper which was a nice surprise. It was overall less citrusy than I like, but this gives you the option of squeezing extra lemon peel into the drink if you want it, or leaving it out if you don’t. I know several martini fans who prefer less lemon in their martini so this one would make a good option. Otherwise, the botanicals were understated, much like the branding of the bottle.


There was a heat in the aftertaste of the gin which I don’t particularly welcome, especially in a martini which should be ice cold and ideally smooth. It reminded me somewhat of the warmth of the Botanist gin, a sensation which I think is more suited to a whisky than a gin. Nonetheless, for a high street brand I thought it was good value for money with a suitable clean and juniper taste.


As chance would have it my flatmate brought back a bottle of Bombay Sapphire the very next day. Absolutely perfect for a bare-faced comparison test. As you can see, the branding is far more exuberant. The blue-coloured glass is iconic, while the black and gold detail is positively regal, enhanced not least by the image of HM Queen Victoria.


I threw it in the freezer next to the Bombay Dry and whipped up another quick classic the next day.


Bombay Sapphire is lovely for a gin and tonic, especially for people who are otherwise put off by the strong juniper taste of standard gins. It has a smooth taste with complex spicy notes that dominate, followed by an almost sweet citrus aftertaste.


As expected, for me, Bombay Sapphire is not my gin of choice because I expect a strong, leading juniper flavour in my martini. It bolsters the almost surgical cleanliness of the drink while adding a sharp freshness evocative of a cold, winter pine forest.


However, the bold and admirable botanicals of the Bombay Sapphire were nonetheless pleasant and interesting. I love coriander and cardamom and while they might dominate my coveted martinis they were more like a temporary house guest. It’s a slight inconvenience and not as quiet as normal but it’s interesting to catch up. Furthermore, if gin isn’t normally your thing, or if you’re not especially keen on juniper, give this one a try in a gin and tonic or a martini. It has been described as a ‘gateway gin’ luring innocents into the sophisticated but Hogarthian danger of the gin world so for that I must salute it!


In summary, Bombay Dry is largely juniper, with a slight heat in the aftertaste, but good value for money. Bombay Sapphire is sweet and spicy and a good choice if you’re new to gin or not overly keen on juniper.

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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.

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.

The mango martini



Growing up on an island off the west coast of Scotland, I don’t think I even saw a mango until I was a fully grown adult living on the mainland. However they almost immediately became my favourite fruit. I love their sweetness combined with a zesty taste that reminds me of the smell of pine needles.

This pine flavour might be one of the reasons this fruit it goes well with gin. I think it compliments the juniper which also has notes of pine (Christ that sounds pretentious). Anyway, for the sake of objectivity I tried eating a mango cube followed by chewing a juniper berry and the two seemed to go well together.



In order to make a mango martini get yourself a tin of mango slices in syrup.



Pour the syrup into a glass and place it in the freezer for around 45 minutes to cool down.



Take a fresh mango and slice off an end, cutting it as close to the stone as possible. Use a blunt knife to cut the flesh of the cut side into cross-crossed squares but be sure not to cut through the skin of the fruit.



You can then invert the sliced piece which makes it easier to cut out little cubes of the flesh.

You’ll be left with a piece of skin that by law you must chew and suck while your guests aren’t watching. Don’t let any of that succulent flesh go to waste!



When it’s time to pour add a measure of vermouth (to taste), then fill up the rest of the glass approximately half and half with gin/vodka and the mango syrup.



Garnish with a slice of mango and serve with some of the pieces of mango as an accompaniment.



I also had my first breakfast on the balcony this year the next morning. A cup of tea with mango pieces and a small sprinkling of pepper – an unusual combination I first tried during my time in Sri Lanka. I’m not sure why it works but it does!

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!

The Mangoosteeni

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Mangoosteen are an unusual looking tropical fruit with a thick, purple skin and soft, sweet white flesh, similar in taste to a lychee.

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In order to make a martini out of them, I followed a very simple formula similar to a Lychee Martini.

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Take a tin of mangoosteen (you can find them in specialist Asian supermarkets), then make the martini as follows (you can alter it to taste):

1 dash sweet vermouth
3 measures of gin or vodka
3 measures of mangoosteen syrup
Mangoosteen pieces on a toothpick to garnish

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It’s sweet and not as strong as a full martini.

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Did I mention I love mangoosteens?

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You could even have them as an accompaniment to a normal martini.

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.