You might have noticed that I’ve got yet another new header. It’s all about HM The Queen, and the regal theme is a not-very-subtle hint that the next few posts are all going to be about the Diamond Jubilee! And it’s not just me that’s going for it – shops are brimming over with Union Flag bunting, crown-themes cakes and treats and the nation is getting giddy about the prospect of four days of festivities next month.
So how to kick off this series? I thought about this for a while, and decided to start with this recipe for home-made cola. Now, I realise that “regal cola” is not perhaps one of the most obvious things to begin with, but I can assure you that there it a little method to my madness. Allow me to explain.
First of all, home-made drinks suggest summer and fun. This is all the most important as the weather has been lousy. London has been in a technical drought. I say technical because we have had below-average rainfall for around two years. However, you should never underestimate the capacity for the Great British Weather to surprise, and we’ve just emerged from three months of pouring rain and soggy feet. Today, for the first time in a while, it has been proper summer weather. The air is warm, the skies a crystal-clear blue and we’ve had lots and lots of sunshine!
Anyway, while we were in the dark, cold, days of the phoney summer, I decided to make some retro summer drinks to bring a little sunshine into our lives. Last year I made a lot of lemonade and this time I have decided to turn my hand to cola. I’m not a frequent cola drinker, as we tended not to drink soft drinks when I was younger. I’m pretty sure that as kids we used to ask for them, but they were rarely in the house and as such I’ve never really developed a taste for them. Pleasant on a warm day, but I just don’t get those folk that drink eight to ten cans per day. Having said that, when I do drink certain well-known brands of cola, I have tried – like many others have done – to identify the flavours in there. I appreciate that this is at trade secret, and I don’t think that anyone in Atlanta will be losing much sleep, but I think that I’ve variously picked up hints of cinnamon, citrus and vanilla in there. There were obviously others, but I wasn’t really able to identify them.
So imagine my surprise when I finally stumbled upon this recipe for home-made cola. It’s essentially a combination of citrus, spices, sugar, vanilla and (for some reason) dried lavender. As I looked through the list, each of the flavours set of a little bell in my head – yes, there could be nutmeg in cola. Ginger notes, for sure. Lemon, lime, orange? All possible. Given that I had most of the ingredients lurking in the spice cabinet or my fruit bowl, I decided to cast caution to the wind and mix up a batch. I also though that it would be a fun addition to the local street party that is being held in the ‘hood for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It’s home-made, so has that pleasing retro touch, and I think appearing with a batch of syrup I made myself will go down very well in free-thinking Stoke Newington, where many folk will be keen to cock a snook at The Real Thing. Me? I’m just very curious.
What I do love is the sheer range of things that go into this mixture. Each ingredient on its own is aromatic and something that I like, so I was intrigued how they would affect each other. Indeed, some of these flavours were very strong, and often overpower other flavours, so it was interesting to know just what they would taste like together, and whether the total would be greater than the sum of its parts.
And this all brings me to the second reason that I think makes this a fitting recipe to begin with. Yes, home-made drinks suggest summer street parties, but this particular recipe involves a lot of ingredients that recall many of the Queen’s realms. For HM The Queen is not just monarch of the UK, but also 15 other realms (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, and Saint Kitts and Nevis). I reckon that the various ingredients in this recipe cover off rather a few of her realms, so it’s actually something of a celebration of the flavours of the world. The aromas you have while making it from scratch (anise, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, citrus) are so much more rewarding that just pulling the tab on a can.
In making this recipe, I did make a couple of tweaks. Firstly, I did not have any caramel colouring, so I used 50/50 white and light brown sugar, and used some of the white sugar to make a little caramel. It provided a reddish-brown shade to the syrup, but I think the colouring is essential if want the resulting drink to be dark brown. Otherwise, make do with a pale yellow. The taste is still there, but I guess it depends how much you like to eat (or drink) with your eyes.
I also skipped the citric acid. I’m not entirely sure what this does (but I suspect it helps preserve the syrup), so I just used lemon juice. It’s easy, it’s natural and it saves trekking round the shops looking for a novelty ingredient.
With the syrup made and cooled, it was time to take the taste test. First, I made it up using still water and served it on ice. It was a pleasant enough drink, but there was something missing. It was a sweet spiced-citrus drink, but I had a vague niggle in the back of my mind. I think it was the fact that it tasted like cola, and it seemed to have gone flat. No fizz. So to remedy that, taste test number two involved soda water. Now this was where the flavour magic happened. It was a cola. It tasted like cola. Amazing! So it was literally the fizz that gave this drink its fizz!
And finally…to give it that proper Jubilee look, I served up the first soda-based batch in souvenir ERII glasses that I picked up in a Brussels vintage shop. Look pretty good, don’t they?
All in all, I spent about an hour minutes making this syrup, but really, it was just prep work, let it simmer, strain and let the sugar dissolve, so very much a taste that you can dip in and out of. I have ended up with about a pint (500ml) of syrup, which should make for about five pints (2.5 litres) of cola…which is probably just about enough for a street part over the Jubilee weekend! And now…I’ve made up a jug and I’m sneaking to sit in the sunshine and read the day’s papers. Cheers!
To make cola syrup:
• 500ml water
• Zest of 2 oranges
• Zest of 1 lime
• Zest of 1 lemon
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/8 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
• 1 section star anise, crushed
• 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
• 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
• 4cm piece vanilla pod, split
• 1/4 teaspoon citric acid or 1 tablespoon lemon juice
• 250g white sugar
• 200g brown sugar
Put the water and all ingredients except the sugars into a saucepan. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.
In the meantime, make some caramel to add a bit of colour – put three tablespoons of the white sugar in a small saucepan. Heat gently until the caramel is a deep golden colour (but does not smell acrid!). Pour onto the rest of the sugar – this will stop the caramel cooking any more, and it will also set to make it easy to handle.
Once the spice mixture is done, remove from the heat, and pour the liquid through a cheesecloth into the sugar mixture. You can give the cloth a good squeeze to get all the flavour out, but you might want to hang it from a cupboard handle to drip into the sugar and allow the spice mixture to cool.
Stir the sugar from time to time, until it has all dissolved. It might take a while for the hardened caramel to properly dissolve, but it will happen.
The syrup can be stored for 2-3 days in the fridge in a clean jar.
Worth making? This is an amazingly easy recipe, and it really is surprising how you get a genuine cola flavour from a bunch of very un-cola like ingredients.