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Oleo Saccharum

After my experiments with brewing ginger beer, I’m going to keep the drinks theme going here.

In my many hours of browsing food websites (I live in London – I spend a lot of time sitting in buses checking out blogs on my phone!), I recently came across a recipe for something called oleo saccharum. If you’re wondering what that means, then you share the exact same thought that popped into my head when I heard about it. It roughly means “sugary oil”. Sounds unappealing, but bear with me.

The idea is a way to extract an intensely flavoured syrup from citrus peel, and so it is perfect for mixing up drinks and cocktails. You simply take a bunch of citrus peel, trim off any bitter pith, then pop in a bag with some sugar. Seal the bag, rub the sugar into the peel to get things going, and let everything sit until the sugar dissolves and turns into a richly flavoured and very aromatic syrup.

Well, that’s the theory. And while most people seem to make oleo saccharum from citrus peel, there is no reason you can’t get a little creative. If it’s aromatic and could go in a drink, you can mix it with sugar and wait. If you’ve ever left strawberries to macerate in a little sugar in a bowl, you get that sweet, pure syrup after a while – well, that’s basically it! The key thing here is that there is no cooking involved, so you don’t risk the volatile aromatic elements of your ingredients being lost. Just mix your ingredients and allow time to do the rest.

So I had a go at making three types – a lime version as a nod to the traditional, plus ginger and rose. Three very different ingredients, resulting in three aromatic syrups.

oleosaccharum

Of the three, ginger was definitely the easiest and gives the best yield. I had a large, juicy bulb of ginger, so it was pretty evident that this was going to provide a lot of flavour. Peel it, slice it and chop it – don’t be tempted to grate it, as you’ll lose some of that all-important ginger juice. As there is a lot of moisture in there, the sugar really does a good job in sucking out all the ginger flavour, so you get a decent amount of syrup. As a bonus, the remaining ginger is sweet and perfect to add to a fruit salad or sprinkle on top of desserts, cakes etc.

gingeroleosaccharum

The version with lime was pretty successful. What you do need to accept is that you will need to add a lot of lime peel to get a decent amount of oleo saccharum, but after that, things happen pretty easily. Of the three versions, I think this is the one that benefits most from being put into the bag with the sugar, and having an extended period of, ahm, “caressing” to allow the rough sugar crystals to work their magic on the zest, extracting those precious aromatic oils.

The result was an intensly-perfumed syrup with a strong, fresh lime aroma and a little bitter twist, ever so slightly reminiscent of marmalade. I think this is a good option for a cocktail where you want something more sophisticated than just plan sour and a basic lime flavour – give an extra twist to a caiperinha, or make an old-fashioned with just whisky and orange oleo saccharum. If you’re keen to get a food yield, I would opt for oranges or lemons (easier to peel, and less dry) or go for the more exotic flavour of grapefruit.

limeoleosaccharum

Last but not least was the version made with rose. This really was a spur of the moment decision, but I am lucky enough to have some beautiful pink and red roses in the garden with a heavy scent. A few were just past their best, so I took the chance and tried it out.

Of the three, this was definitely the trickiest. I had imagined that the rose petals would contain sufficient water to make this a doddle, but it seems that there was not actually that much moisture in them. Rubbing the sugar and petals in the bag did seem to break them drown and draw out the colour and flavour, but it seemed very dry, so I had to add a few drops of filtered water to make sure the sugar went from a thick, sticky mass to a syrup. This was really a case of drop-by-drop.

Sadly, the result did not look like the pretty colour of the pink roses from my garden, rather it was a dirty reddish-brown hue. Not what I was looking for! Then then I remembered that you need to add lemon juice, and just one drop transformed this oleo saccharum to a soft pink. Perfect!

roseoleosaccharum

While a little more demanding to make, I think the flavour of the rose oleo saccharum was really quite remarkable. Rose extract or rose water can often be very flat and synthetic, to the point of being overpowering, but made this way, the flavour really does seem to have a light freshness to it. This is not simple and floral, but subtle, complex and with the slightest hint of plant (in a good way). I think could be quite exceptional in a glass of sparkling wine or as the basis for a rose sherbet, where the bubbles will bring those complex rose aromas to the surface to tickle your nose.

I hope you’ve found this interesting. I’m keen to try this approach with other ingredients – an easy way to make simply, fresh syrups from soft fruits, but don’t limit yourself. Make the ultimate mint syrup…cucumber syrup…lots of possibilities!

To make oleo saccharum:

The following are a guide only. If you find the mixture is not liquid enough and the sugar has not dissolved, add a little filtered water and leave to rest for another 30 minutes.

Ginger oleo saccharum

• 100g peeled ginger, finely shredded
• 150g white caster sugar

1. Mix well. Leave in a covered bowl or bag for 24 hours. Strain.

Lime oleo saccharum

• 6 large limes (as fresh as possible)
• 100g white caster sugar

1. Cut the peel from the limes in strips. Trim off any white pith.

2. Mix well. Leave in a covered bowl or bag for 24 hours. If there is any sugar left, add a little lime juice until dissolved. Strain.

Rose oleo saccharum

• 4 red roses
• 50g caster sugar
• filtered water
• 1-2 drops lemon juice

1. Pick the petals from the roses. Check for bugs, rinse gentle and pat dry with a very clean cloth.

2. Place petals and sugar into a plastic bag. Squeeze out the air and rub the sugar into the petals. Leave the rest for 24 hours.

3. Check the oleo saccharum. If not sufficiently syrup-like, add a few drops of water.

4. Add a few drops of lemon juice and swirl until the syrup changes from murky to bright pink.

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Drink More Gin!

Last autumn I got into making a few of my own fruit liqueurs. Flavours of the season like quince, damson, sloe and spiced pear. Each of them was delicious and well worth the patience required to let them sit and quietly do their thing down in the cellar. Nothing quite as magical as pouring a little glass, and setting down to watch a festive film on the sofa next to the Christmas tree.

However, my autumnal shenanigans left me playing things fairly safely, as I had stuck to familiar fruity flavours. Of course, I had also made a batch of cinnamon-infused vodka, which packed quite a punch, even when served ice-cold, and this got me thinking about making something that was based on herbs and spices. And this quickly led me to the idea of trying to make my own gin.

Now, before anyone gets the idea that I might set fire to my own house or that they should call the police, I’m not actually planning to start running a home distillery under the stairs! No, the recommended approach for those of a gin-like persuasion and sufficiently bonkers to have a go at this at home is to take some decent-ish vodka, and then add various botanicals to allow their flavour to infuse into the alcohol. Given that most of the ingredients you use are fairly strong flavours, the whole thing is done in about three days. What you will get at the end is something that doesn’t look like the clear gin that you are probably used to, but it certainly has the flavours and aromas you might expect. The difference is due to the way commercial gins are produced, allowing the spirit to distil through the botanticals, taking the flavours as it goes and resulting in a clear spirit. My method will give you  bit more of an amber colour, but that probably means it has traces of vitamins in there too.

Now, if you’re going to make gin, the one non-negotiable ingredient in there is juniper berries. These have a wonderfully fruity and almonst pine-like aroma, very resinous, which when you smell them has that specific gin-like aroma. If I were being very ambitious, I would be harvesting these myself, as they grow wild in Scotland. Well, maybe next time, but I had to make do with dried berries from Wholefoods. The bushes tend not to grow wild in the streets of London. Do not be misled by the name London Gin!

Beyond the juniper, you’ve pretty much got complete freedom about what you want to add, and it is at this point that you might just want to raid your spice drawer or cabinet to see what you can get your hands on. The key thing to think about is what are the two or three key notes that you want to come out in terms of flavour, and then major on those, with other ingredients acting more as background flavours, to be hinted at rather than standing centre stage.

As supporting stars, I oped for cardamom, which is just about my favourite spice, with a fresh lemon-like aroma that I thought would enhance the juniper. In addition to that, I added some orange peel (rather than the more obvious lemon or lime) and a blade of star anise. This last spice in particular is very, very powerful. It adds an exotic sweet spicy note, but it really is easy to get this wrong. I added this on day two, and by day three (the last day of infusing) it was already quite noticeable.

GinBotanicals1

After that, free rein beckons. I also added a teaspoon of coriander seeds to add a little more citrus. I also did just as I suggest you do, raiding the spice drawer to add a pinch of the more aromatic items in there – red peppercorns, nigella seeds and caraway.

I also drew some inspiration from a Spanish gin that I enjoyed in Barcelona last year, which was infused with rosemary. That seemed like a good idea to try here. I also went for some thyme and lavender leaves. It was just like picking tea, I plucked only the fresh new leaves from the tips of each plant. Each of these could, on its own, be very powerful, and I did not want much more than a hint of their respective flavours.

Now, I mentioned already that I added a blade of star anise on day two. I also added a small piece of cinnamon at the same time. Both of these are sweet, woody spices, and I thought they would help to balance the fresher flavours that I already had in the gin. I make all of this sound like science, but of course, it really was all just guesswork.

GinBotanicals2

It is important to take all this merely as inspiration, and not to feel limited by what I’ve suggested. I enjoy Hendriks, a Scottish gin flavoured with cucumber and rose petals, as well as a recent discovery called Ophir, which strong notes of cardamom and black peppercorn (note to readers – talk to bartenders, they will introduce you to new things!). Whatever herbs and spices you enjoy, chances are someone makes a gin with it.

What is important is to think about what you’ve got to hand as well as what is in season. I’ve also got a blackcurrant sage bush in the garden, which could be interesting for next time? If I get back to this in summer, I can always add a few rose petals, a few violets, and perhaps a little lemon thyme…balanced with pepper, caraway and aniseed?

Whatever combination of botanicals you use, there is one way to get a rough idea of the aroma you can expect. Put everything into a bowl, then crush lightly. This should release some of the essential oils, and you’ll get a very vague sense of what you can expect. If something is dominating, then remove it, or add more of what you feel you are missing.

botanicals

Making home-made gin is a dooddle. I put everything (other than the cinnamon and star anise) into a bottle of vodka. After one day, that familiar aroma of gin was there, and the vodka has taken on a light amber hue. On day four (72 hours steeping) I strained the mixture, poured a shot into a glass with ice and a slice of cucumber, and topped it up with tonic to make what I hoped would taste not unlike a G&T. So how was it?

gin

Well…really quite fantastic. The flavours are much more pronounced than in distilled gins, and I could pick out the various flavours that I used, but the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The best way to describe this is as something that is very different from the gin that you are used to, not a replacement, but nice as an addition to the drinks cabinet. It is not as crisp, but you get more of the individual flavour components while drinking. I found that my particular gin was only so-so with lemon, nice with orange zest, but it really came to life with a slice of cucumber. Perhaps it was the fact that there was quite a lot of juniper and warm spice in there that meant it was complemented by the cool freshness of cucumber. All in all – I think I’ve had a success with this one!

To infuse your own gin (makes 750ml):

• 750ml good basic vodka
• 3 tablespoons juniper berries
• 1 teaspoon cardamom pods
• 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
• 1 sprig lavender leaves (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh rosemary (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh thyme (tips only)
• pinch red peppercorns
• pinch caraway seeds
• pinch nigella seeds
• 2 strips orange peel, shredded
• 1 blade star anise
• 1/2cm piece cinnamon

1. Lightly crush the seeds and bruise the leaves. Put everything in the vodka bottle, apart from the cinnamon and star anise. Leave to infuse in a dark place for two days, shaking from time to time.

2. Add the star anise and cinnamon. Shake well, and leave in a dark place for another 24 hours, shaking from time to time.

3. Once the mixture is ready, strain to remove the seeds and herbs. If you prefer, pass through a filter.

4. Enjoy on ice with tonic and a slice of cucumber.

Worth making? Yes! This is super-easy and the flavours are really fantastic.

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Diamond Jubilee: Regal Cola

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.

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On Location: Alvar Bar (Birmingham)

Oh my – rather a lot of posts by me from bars and restaurants recently! Well, here’s another. This is a quick post about a nice little place I popped into during a flying visit to Birmingham last week – the Alvar Bar in the Hotel La Tour.

It’s fair to say the city has changed a lot over recent years. One of the most striking new buildings is posh department store Selfridges, which is housed in a smooth, undulating building that looks part-mirror, part-sequins thanks to lots of metal panels.

I found myself in the Midlands for an all-day training event, and feeling surprisingly enthused, I was resolved to use the free hour I had before my train back south to have a cheeky drink somewhere nice. On my way up that morning, I’d put out some feelers via Twitter to see what was suggested, and the answer came back to check out the new bar at the new Hotel La Tour, a recent opening in Birmingham.

So I had a little peek online. The hotel’s Aalto restaurant is run by a chef that trained under Marcus Wareing, so it’s something of a sister (or cousin/long-lost-friend?) of the Gilbert Scott just next to where I work in London. Coincidence? I don’t think so! I took it as a sign that I should go there, and it’s fair to say that I spent quite a lot of the day thinking about perusing a fancy cocktail list. Priorities and all that…

The style is very sleek – as the building is new, it’s on the scale that I’m not really used to in central London. It’s light, bright and I loved the way you enter the bar – via a spiral staircase around a large light sculpture that takes you up from the hotel – it had the vague air of the sort of thing you might expect to see Fred and Ginger tap dancing down in Top Hat, as if reinterpreted by a Nordic designer in thick-rimmed fashionable glasses. Nice way to make a grand entrance!

I had in my mind that I would order a Negroni (still current favourite on the apero front) but the cocktail list had some rather innovative creations.

I toyed with the “Chamberlain” (made with rum, Somerset apple cider, brandy, lemon and mint) named in honour of the Birmingham political dynasty, but in the end I was swayed to go for the “Grand Junction” (Plymouth Gin, Dubonnet, grapefruit, lemon and champagne), named in honour of the first railway in the city. I was waiting for a train, so it seemed rather fitting. It’s also a rather nice cocktail for the Diamond Jubilee – the gin, the Dubonnet, the champagne…and on balance, very nice it was too. The Dubonnet gives a vibrant pink hue, sweetness and spiced/herbal notes, the gin adds substance, the champagne adds a little sparkle and the citrus fruits add a sour twist to keep the drink fresh. I’d probably have had a second if I had not only a rather tight ten minutes to get form the bar to the station…

So…would I go back? Well, clearly it’s not the sort of place I’ll be passing on a regular basis as I’m not in this part of the world too often, but if I’m back in Birmingham, I can definitely imagine popping back.

Alvar, Hotel La Tour, Albert Street, Birmingham. Tel: 0121 718 8000.

LondonEats locations map here.

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