Gin, jazz and teacups – The Langham’s Palace

24 Sep

A London gin palace of the 19th century.

In the early 19th century, gin palaces were all the rage. They sprouted up like mushrooms around London, pulling lovers of ‘mother’s ruin’ easily into their web and fascinating people with their use of gas lights both inside and outside of their buildings. They were known for being overly inviting, with riche interiors, and were – along with the huge numbers of beer houses – responsible for helping many on their way to drunkenness.

Fast forward nearly 200 years and one of London’s most luxurious hotels – The Langham – has resurrected that 1820s style by installing a Sipsmith ‘gin palace’ in the hotel’s Palm Court, an opulent ground-level tea room normally known for serving up teas and cakes.

The Langham’s version of a gin palace.

Now, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, patrons will be able to eschew petit fours and tea for hot jazz and G&Ts, concocted by Sipsmith’s master distiller, Jared Brown, and The Langham’s head mixologist Alex
Kratena.

The boy and I headed there on opening night to find out what it was all about.

Outside, throngs of teenage girls lined the pavement (an odd sight, indeed, until we realised a certain Canadian teen idol was stalking the floors). Once we’d realised they weren’t there to welcome us in, we headed into the grand, marble lobby and up into Palm Court. We could already hear the gentle reverberation of jazz as it drifted out the doorway and, once inside, we swiftly found a comfy chaired corner and coddled glasses of champagne to get the night going.

The room was dimly lit, with gold flecked walls picking up the sparkling lights from the oversized chandeliers. All around us, the well-heeled circulated the room with glasses of gin cocktails, while perfectly turned out waiters carried heavy looking, glass orbs filled with a bright orange liqueur that was being poured into tea cups. It seemed to be a cross between Victoriana and Alice in Wonderland.

After the first jazz set, we took a ‘turn about the room’ picking up some saucy, spicy ginger and lily cocktails on our way. Served in a leggy cocktail glass, this drink was sharp but satisfying, heating the taste buds with the gin and ginger combination, before ending with a wee sweet hint garnered from the lily cordial. It was delicious and if they had made cocktails like this in the early 19th century, I think there would have been even more turning towards the dark side of gin consumption.

With one cocktail down, we decided to have a rest in another lounging chair and opt for the teacup cocktail. Gin in a teacup – how could I resist?

This drink – called the Ginervistic – is made from a Dutch gin-style liqueur called Loyaal Zeer Oude, along with Sipsmith gin, lime and lemon juice, Champagne and The Langham syrup. It was mouth-puckeringly sharp – a bit too much for my taste. But, as the waves of sulty jazz rolled over us, and as I asked for a refill of my teacup, my taste buds became more accustomed to the bite of the drink.

When finally we decided to leave the cushy surroundings and head back into the chilling autumn air, it was with a sigh. The Langham does luxury like few others (maybe that’s why the Beibermeister – who the boy and I just missed apparently on our way to the loo – decides to rest his pop-fuelled self there). And the hotel’s gin palace is just as divine. Cocktails are of the higher-end London varietal (£15) but if you can spare the change, I recommend taking in the surroundings over just one cocktail and allowing yourself to be transported back to a bygone age. After all, it’s not everyday you’ll drink gin from Wedgwood china.

For more information on The Langham’s Gin Palace at Palm Court, visit: http://www.palm-court.co.uk/#/gin-palace/

Innis & Gunn get fruity

10 Sep

Fruit beer is one of those things that I’m just never sure about.

The first time I tried one of the better known brands – Früli – a few years ago, it was after continuous recommendations from some work colleagues that it was the best thing since our office had decided to let us drink at our desks after 3:30pm on a Friday (this is Europe after all!). But when I tried it at Dutch pub De Hems, I found its sweetness to be too overwhelming. I promptly purchased my favourite, heavier-duty Trappistes Rochefort 8 and continued on my merry drinking way.

So when I recently learned that craft brewery and bastions of cask-aged beer Innis & Gunn had decided to release its own fruit beer under the brand name Melville’s Craft Lager, I was intrigued though slightly skeptical.

Melville’s Raspberry Craft Lager

The lager is made from a standard base (British malt, hops, yeast and water) that is infused with cold pressed berry juice from juice producer Ella Drinks. The company has released a strawberry and raspberry flavour, both of which I have sampled, and both of which will now be permanently available in Tesco and in Scottish Sainsbury’s branches for around the £1.70 mark.

My preferred choice was the raspberry version. It’s a heady, thickly sweet drink but with elements of an almost treacle-like flavour and an instant rush of sharp raspberry to counter the sugary side. It’s quite a punchy drink for a fruit beer – it’s not watered down or too sickly, though it is definitely going to be too much for those that like their lagers drier. The flavour of Swedish Berries (a North American candy) was also present. I wanted to be sat on a lawn chair in the sun drinking this one.

Stawberry delight anyone?

The strawberry version took the sugar level further and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who would choose a starter over a sweet at dinner – those with a greater love of their savoury taste buds might revolt. It saves itself, however, from falling into the sugar syrup, tweenie drinks (WKD anyone?) by having a lovely, bitter twang right at the end which balances things out a bit better. Strawberry foams from pick n mix, or Haribo strawberry sours dominate.

Both are quality craft lagers, which one can tell have been flavoured with real fruit and not any sugar additives. While they’re sweet, they’re enjoyable.

It’s an interesting move for Innis & Gunn – with its following by lager aficionados (especially in Canada where it seems to be immensely popular) it seems somewhat strange to move into this other market. Equally, it will give the company a wider remit by targeting a very different demographic. And, as the bottle does not say ‘Innis & Gunn’ anywhere on the label many may not even realise the tie-in.

And although I won’t reach for them as a staple beer, I enjoyed the raspberry enough to keep a bottle or two around for when I’m looking for something a bit sweeter than my normal bitters and ales. Which, given my normal dislike of fruit beer, says a lot.

Wok and Wolling!

25 Aug

The question of what a person wants for his or her birthday is always a tricky one.

So when the boy asked me what might hit the mark, I threw it back to his court, not wanting to be put in the driver’s seat. My only suggestion: something different that we can both learn from.

And on my birthday day, that’s exactly what I found wrapped up for me. A class for two to learn to make dim sum at the aptly named, School of Wok in Covent Garden – the boy done good!

The school is a new addition to Chandos Place, having been set up in late June by Jeremy Pang. He began cooking after deciding to change his career path in 2009 and retrain as a chef. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu and doing extended visits to Hong Kong (where his family originates), Jeremy set up a mobile cooking school which rented space from places like Ping Pong to teach corporate guests to make dim sum and stir fry.

Jeremy shows us how to get woking…

It’s not necessarily surprising that Jeremy would be drawn to this arena – his father’s family immigrated to England in the ’60s and started up some of the first restaurants in London’s Chinatown, while his mother’s family started up the well known Ho’s bakery in Manchester. Cooking – it seems – is definitely in his blood.

Much of his inspiration comes from what he learned growing up around restaurants and in the kitchen with his family and he has an exuberance that’s hard to miss. He’s also very informal and welcoming, which made us feel relaxed as soon as we entered the school on a hot summer evening.

The cooking menu for the night included glutinous rice in lotus leaves, crisp prawn and tofu rolls, Jiaozi and BBQ spare ribs. I’d barely eaten anything all day in preparation, a fact I was very glad of later.

We were joined by two other couples – a perfect class size really – and Jeremy began by taking us through the staple ingredients that are present in flavouring much Cantonese cuisine: soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, sesame oil and ketchup.

“The British left two things behind in Hong Kong and one of these was ketchup,” he clarified.

We then got to marinating some mighty and meaty shortribs in a combination of those ingredients plus other

The boy works up the courage to woll some dumplings!

delicious things like garlic, ginger and hoi sin sauce before moving quickly onto learning about lotus leaves.

Standing around the chunky wooden chopping station, dressed in our very cool School of Wok aprons, we learned to separate and work with this delicate, pungent leaf. Glutinous rice had already been soaking for two hours in cold water, and was then mixed with salt, pepper and garlic oil to be steamed for 20 minutes. We then mixed our meats (chicken thighs and chinese sausage) with rehydrated black mushrooms and a rich marinade before it was whisked away to be cooked on the grill. When both the rice and meat were done, it was laid out on small squares of the lotus leaf and wrapped to be steamed for another 20 minutes.

As a reward for completing our first two dishes, Jeremy dished out the wine – as we learned, to up our courage to make homemade jiazi (or as the Japanese term them, gyoza). These dumplings are easy to devour down but don’t be fooled into thinking they’re easy to construct.

Filled with pork, prawns, coriander, garlic and ginger (among other aromatic ingredients) these are some of my favourite dumplings. I soon learned, they do not love me.

The dough is made from two simple ingredients: flour and water. After mixing and folding, it’s kneaded for five minutes until elastic. We learned to do them fully from scratch, which included taking small balls, squashing them into a circular fashion, and using a two-hand technique whereby you turn the circle with your left hand while using a small amount of pressure on a little rolling pin to roll the edges with your right hand. It is mystifyingly difficult – or, at least for me it was. The boy won praises from Jeremy for his perfect-edged dough circles, while I just puzzled him. I think I made one that looked right out of the 30 I tried over an hour long period.

These small circles of dough are then filled with the meat, before being folded over and pinched together into a half-moon shape, fried and steamed. They were delicious, but all the wine in the world couldn’t have made me confident enough to get them right!

Just some of our delicious creations.

We also added beancurd rolls to our list of accomplishments that evening – these are filled with mashed prawn and bamboo shoots before being deep fried. Delicious!

When finally we got to sit, we’d been cooking for a full-on three and a half hours. While the class is only meant to last for three hours, it was clear Jeremy cared more about getting us to learn the full extent of cooking than to rush us out the door.

Over more glasses of wine, the group sat down to a very big, and very well deserved, meal. I’ll never look at dim sum quite the same but I will look forward to trying all of these at home again.

I can’t recommend Jeremy’s classes enough – it was a great way to pass an evening. And if you’re on the hunt for a birthday present to please, this is definitely one to consider.

For more information on the School of Wok, its classes and upcoming events, visit: http://www.schoolofwok.co.uk

Blessed Beer in B.C.

19 Aug

Whenever I head back to British Columbia to see my family, I pick up as many random bottles of beer off of the shelf of the local liquor store as possible.

The west coast of North America has a long history of craft brewing – it’s been producing the good stuff for a couple of decades, long before the ‘trend’ took off elsewhere.

As such, it’s a proper treat to get to try a whole load when I visit my family. While not all of the bottles I try are from the west coast (such as Coney Island, seen below) I am always enthralled by the brilliant labels and innovative names that are given to these beers.

So I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite label designs, names and bottles of beer and ale that I found on my most recent trip. And hopefully get you salivating to try some if you’re lucky enough to live in North America or near a beer shop here in the UK where they’re stocked.

Total Eclipse of the Hop – that’s right. They did that! Bam!

A spooky, spicy offering from Schmaltz Brewing Company in New York

A game of frogger would surely go well with this offering from Langley, B.C. brewery, Dead Frog.

A spicy, rich, yeasty ale from Driftwood Brewery in Victoria.

This is one to drink with dim sum, such is the strength of the jasmine flavour in this beer from Seattle brewery Elysian.

Summery honey is the name of the game in this special release from Hoyne Brewery

Best not to mess with this rich, rosy pale ale from Victoria brewery Moon Under Water.

Walking on the Edge

12 Aug

Note: this picture is filled with people far braver than I!

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I exclaimed, before having to sit down and attempt to slow my heart that was pounding faster than a rabbit’s.

I was sat in a small holding room, clad in a fireman-red onesie when I got the news.

“I thought I just had to, you know, work my way around the outside of the CN Tower. You mean I actually have to lean over its edge?” I continued, nerves bubbling up to the top of my throat.

The rest of the people looked at me as if I was a bit crazy. After all, the activity was called the CN Tower EdgeWalk. Stepping to and leaning over the edge would make sense to most. But, having avoided pre-walk research for fear I would back out entirely, I only found out the true extent of the walk around the top of one of the world’s tallest buildings when I was already harnessed up and ready to hang.

Look! No hands!

The EdgeWalk in Toronto opened last year and has been pushing people’s limits as they walk along an outside grated deck, 1,168 feet above the ground for thirty minutes. Walkers are strapped into a double-harness which attaches to a sliding rail above their heads but, other than that, there are no railings or anything else between yourself and the ant-sized cars swooping along the Gardiner Expressway.

As I’ve spoken about before here on Gwiltypleasures, I have a fear of – not so much heights – but of falling off of things, or down things. Hills, cliffs, stairs – they all rank highly in my book of things I’m not fond of. Therefore, walking around the outside didn’t sound unmanageable but the idea of leaning off of it to stare into hundreds of feet of cascading space definitely did. While I was there to push my limits, I didn’t think I could do that.

Once I calmed my heart to a level that bordered somewhere between manic anxiety and heart attack, I joined in the line up with the two other couples who were relishing the idea of the walk more than I was. Our guide – Christian “the Professor” Morassutti – just chuckled at my anxiety, assuring me that once I got out onto the platform and into the wind I would be fine.

I was not.

Well, let me rephrase that. I wasn’t so bad as to start crying, curl up in a ball and refuse to move. I couldn’t – I’d been strapped into the line in the middle so I couldn’t escape.

But, as soon as I stepped out onto the platform, I knew I would be able to lean off the tower’s edge. Instead, I inched my way to the middle of the grating, smiling and applauding at the others as the leaned over and did all sorts of backwards and forwards tilting tricks. No matter how much the Professor tried to encourage me to go just that one step further, the sinking, vertigo feeling in my stomach couldn’t be calmed.

I’m so rocking that onesie!

Still – the views were pretty damn spectacular. I lived in Toronto for four years before moving to London, and it holds a warm and fuzzy place in my heart. But never had I seen the stretching, beautiful city in all its grandeur until then. The wind whipped around at 41 kilometres per hour and I reveled in the sunshine sparking down on all the skyscrapers of the financial district, the curved whiteness of the Skydome (aka: Air Canada Centre) and the long lanes of Yonge Street (the longest street in the world).

I may not have leaned over the edge, but I was at the edge of my comfort zone the whole time – and getting up there was just as pleasurable as anything else.

Thanks to the CN Tower for inviting me as a guest of the EdgeWalk. The 90 minute CN Tower EdgeWalk runs daily from May to October and costs $175.

Ghost hunting on Jura

31 Jul

There is a legend at Jura Lodge – a lofty, alluringly designed self-catering lodge attached to the Jura whisky distillery in Scotland – that the ghost of a former school teacher wanders its halls, waiting to spy on unassuming guests.

I did not know this.

At least, not when I agreed to stay there.

It wasn’t until I was with a group of people driving to the ferry which connects Islay and Jura, that I found out I was due to stay two nights with a potentially haunted figure.

As it turned out, most of Jura Island feels it should be haunted. Despite its eeriness, it is a stunning place to visit if you find yourself heading northwards.

The island in the Inner Hebrides has only 200 residents on its craggy shores and is connected to the more populous next door island, Islay, by a small car ferry. Ringed by the soaring purple and pink Paps of Jura, the 37 mile long land feels anchored in a mysterious past, made modern only by its inhabitants and their guests – many of whom sit in the realm of the glitzy and glamorous (think: the Astors and Prime Minister David Cameron).

I was there visiting the Jura whisky distillery, a small, single malt producer owned by Whyte & Mackay. The aforementioned Lodge was previously the home of the distillery manager, but was renovated for guests of the distillery and people wishing to rent the space for a visit.

With expansive wooden-floored rooms filled with fireplaces, claw-footed bathtubs and picture frame windows looking out onto the bay, the place would feel peaceful if you were unaware of light-footed ghouls. When I entered my room, I made sure to say hello to the ghost, let her know I was not there to harm her and would be sure to be as quiet as possible (all things one is apparently supposed to do when sharing a space with those trapped in the otherworld).

Despite my focused admission of a potential roommate, it did nothing to ease my wariness when I lowered myself into the big bathtub, with its long curtain which draped awkwardly behind my head, therefore creating a crevice into which a ghost could slip. Seeing the room reflected in the taps, I was sure I would catch sight of something whooshing past. Luckily, I managed to get through my soak sans sighting, but that did little to convince me all would be fine.

The next day, I took a fascinating tour of the island during which I learned of its spooky, superstitious history, most of which is illustrated at a lovely little photo exhibit in the local church. Black and white shots going back to the early 20th century show how hard life was on the rocky, windswept island, cut off from the rest of Scotland. The population declined rapidly over the years, with many people moving to the mainland to seek employment.

The land is said to have been visited by the Knights of the Templar. A walk up to the graveyard showed heavy stones inlaid in the ground, embellished with intricate carvings, featuring swords. At the other end of the graveyard rest many of the famous former owners of much of Jura: the Campbell family. While the family was in full power until the early 20th century, a legend called ‘The Jura Prophecy’ tells that the family fell in disrepute after trying to raise taxes on an already suffering population. When the landowners refused to pay, the family destroyed all of their houses. A wise woman is said to have cursed the family with the idea that the last Campbell would leave with all of his possessions in a cart pulled by a white horse and be blind in one eye, which is just what happened to Charles Campbell in 1938.

Driving around the rest of the island makes one feel like being stranded away from most living creatures. This was exactly what George Orwell – who retreated to the island to write his famed novel, 1984 – was after. His trip nearly saw fate deal him a fatal blow, however, when he came close to drowning in the swirling, tumultuous Correyvrecken whirlpool. He was luckily saved and went on to write his most renowned piece of literature in 1948. If you go to visit the Correyvrecken with one of the local boat companies, be sure to look out for the lovely Jura seals, which lounge languidly on rocks far out in the bay.

If you do visit Jura, continue on your journey to the far tip of the island to Inverlussa beach, where you’ll find ‘Tea on the Beach’. Here, patrons can radio in to the hostess, who happily delivers homemade cakes and tea or coffee down to the beach to those wishing to partake – a brilliant way to spend some time relaxing before heading back down the island.

And, if you find yourself visiting Jura Lodge, but find it’s too scary to occupy – head across the road to the Jura Hotel, which also serves up a tasty meal in its pub – a perfect spot to watch the waves and sunset over the harbour.

If you are comfortable sharing a space with potential ghosts, then definitely check out Jura Lodge – if only to say hello to the man donning a suit of armour in the lounge, or to view the hauntingly, spine-shivering black and white photos of young girls clutching dollies in the second lounge.

Just make sure to keep the noise down and ensure the former school teacher that you’ll be kind to her if she appears.

Art meets Coffee

25 Jul

An alluring poster in the Nespresso shop

Standing in front of a giant window display with pods formed into a shape like a London bus, the shiny white walls reflecting the summer sunlight and whispered speech echoing delicately around me, I feel as if I could only be in a museum.

But I’m not. Instead, I’m standing in the new Nespresso store on Regent Street – a flagship among flagships.

The new major storefront, which launched this month, did so with much fanfare, even pulling Phil Howard (of Michelin star restaurant, The Square) on board to integrate espresso into a tasting menu for a few lucky folk.

This is the latest step for the company which is pushing the idea of in-home, high-quality coffee ever further into consumers’ minds. While on our screens George Clooney swoons over the creamy-topped liquid emerging from his favoured machine, the brand seeks to reach consumers’ minds by creating an “experience” which brings together art with the love of the bean.

The new shop is impressive. Situated at the bottom end of Regent Street, the immense space is designed to the esthetic favoured by loft-livers and Banana Republic, clean-cut clothed coffee sippers. Throughout, white cubed tables feature the latest pods and shiny cups and saucers. One whole side is dedicated as the ‘Accessory Collection’ harkening to the latest fashion trends in coffee culture. It is, after all, seemingly attempting to capture today’s dedication to a proper cup of alluring caffeine that many of us lust after with ever greater focus.

After taking in the new space, I sat down to a meal with the master chef himself, Phil Howard. This is the first time in 21 years he has partnered with a brand, his declaration summing up the idea he was in full support of Nespresso. While he said he considered the task of working with coffee beans to create distinct dishes “fascinating” he added it was not always easy.

“In savoury cooking, it only works well with dishes that have a sweet element. As long as there’s some sweetness in the dish, it seems to work,” he explained, saying fish was by far the most tricky thing to partner with coffee.

In making his creations, he added he learned to appreciate how many subtleties there are in various versions of coffee, each of which can pair in different ways with myriad foods.

I tried his roasted granola with coffee, Greek yoghurt and honey (the recipe for which is below); a smoked venison and pork Scotch egg rolled in coffee grounds and served with an espresso brown sauce; and, a duck liver parfait with port, cherry and currant chutney and coffee nougatine.

The first was highly delectable – a crunchy, spicy morning kick that I would happily make at home. The Scotch egg, meanwhile, was deeply flavoured, with a delightfully gooey yolk and just enough espresso bite on the crust and in the brown sauce to make it stand out. The final dish was my favourite however. The creamy duck and sweet and sour chutney did a merengue in my mouth with the Rosabaya de Colombia coffee nougatine. Muy excelente!

While Phil won’t be on hand to cook for those patrons who find themselves tip-toeing around the vaulted Nespresso store space in future, I can confidently pass on the details that his creations (more of which you can view on the Nespresso site, here) will make you rethink how coffee can be used in dozens of delectable dishes.

For now, I invite you to give the granola recipe a go – and let me know if it delights you too!

Roasted Granola with coffee, Greek Yoghurt & honey:

  Ingredients:

  • 225g jumbo oats;
  • 60g sunflower seeds;
  • 60g white sesame seeds;
  • 90g apple puree;
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice;
  • 60g agave syrup;
  • 30g honey;
  • 50g muscavado sugar;
  • 125g nibbed almonds;
  • 1 tsp salt;
  • 2 tbsp hazelnut oil;
  •  20g Dulsão do Brasil grounds
  • Greek yoghurt
  • Runny honey

Place all of the ingredients except the coffee grounds into a large bowl and stir them thoroughly until they are evenly distributed.

Place the mix into a large baking tray and bake for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.

Add the Nespresso Dulsão do Brasil grounds and continue baking until the contents of the tray are golden brown – no darker.

Remove from the oven, set aside to cool and store in an airtight container.

To serve: place the yoghurt into a small bowl, drizzle with the honey and finish with a covering of granola.

Discovering Rakia the Serbian way

11 Jul

Central and Eastern Europe is, I’ve always found, full of random liqueurs. My cupboard is hiding many a strange bottle of fruit based drinks I’ve picked up over the years in Montenegro, Croatia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

But my best discovery in recent years came as a bit of a surprise. During a trip to Serbia to learn about the country’s food and drink heritage, I came across Rakia (or, fruit brandy). And it’s one purchase I don’t imagine will be gathering dust in my cupboard for long.

Grape rakia at Distilerija restaurant, Belgrade

Rakia is a traditional drink made across the region, from Slovenia to Bosnia and Serbia. For hundreds of years, families have had minute copper stills at home to distill the strong, sweet liquor themselves. Flavours range all across the board, from quince, to apricot, grape, raspberry, young walnuts, herbs and – the most popular – plum. The latter – called Slivovitz in Serbian – is what you’ll find most commonly and can run the gamut from pretty horrible to deliciously drinkable. But with most sitting at an alcohol level over 45%, I recommend you mind how much of the latter you’re getting down your gullet.

The first references to the drink in Serbia originate with stories about Turkish invaders of the 14th century. It has been mass produced since the 19th century and is traditionally served up in every cafe and bar, and drunk at any point in the day.

While in Serbia, I visited both a distillery and a rakia bar called Distilerija, in Belgrade. Both opened my eyes to the product which was very exciting as a drinks lover.

The distillery, called Zarić, was located in a hilly region in western Serbia called Kosjerić, which is famous for producing various fruits that end up in the drink. The distillery was established in 1946 and produces three millions litres of brandy a year through a process much like whisky or gin distilling.

Zaric stillhouse

Dusko Disanović, the master distiller, took me around the distillery and explained the process.

To start, the chosen fruit, enzymes and yeast are fermented in large vats for 20 days. Then, the resulting mash is distilled in large copper stills powered by steam, coming off at 60-70% ABV. The pear and raspberry brandies are distilled on a column still, as it helps hold in the fruit essences more fully.

A single distillation takes 10-12 hours, although it’s longer for Slivovitz, which is double-distilled. The alcohol content is brought down by adding distilled water to the vats (or, in the case of Slivovitz, to the large casks it will mature in).

The Slivovitz is then aged for a minimum of six months in huge, 250,000 litre Slavonian oak barrels from Croatia, which gives it a darker colour and deeper flavour than the other brandies. This one was definitely my favourite. While some of the fruit ones were interesting – the raspberry, for instance, had a nice, sharp twang to it – many were too sweet for my liking. The Slivovitz, however, was more balanced, with notes of vanilla, spice and stewed plums.

A random Gwiltypleasures interview with Serbian TV about my thoughts on Rakia!

I tried all of these and many more at both the distillery and Distilerija. The latter was just opening when I visited, but is owned by Branko Nešić, who started the first rakia only bar called – quite logically – Rakia Bar in 2006. His new venture combines a quasi-museum providing the history of the drink and a full restaurant and bar.

Trying the types of tapas that go with rakia.

Rakia is normally served with small dishes of food, similar to tapas. I first tried a cold pressed grape rakia, paired with a pike carpaccio, that offset eachother wonderfully, the sharp lemon and fish flavours marrying well with the alcoholic bite of the rakia. Also on the menu was a quince rakia, that hinted at parma violets and fleshy fruit, and a buckwheat pancake stuffed with mushrooms and a type of Serbian cream cheese called Kajmak. But the best of the night was definitely the Slivovitz, once again. It was paired with a small dish of ox tail with a spicy paprika, dill and lemon sauce, which was salty enough to balance out the sweeter vanilla and brown sugar notes of the drink.

Throughout my journey to Serbia, one thing was clear: Rakia is king. Every home will offer the traveller a drink of it, while at every restaurant, a waiter will proffer it to start. It’s diverse and more enjoyable than traditional, thicker brandies we get in western Europe. So if you find it on liquor store rack somewhere, give it a try – I’d share mine but it’s too pleasurable to leave on my shelf for long!

Invigorating Invivo

13 Jun

When Graham Norton takes a sip of wine on his chat show, do you know what it is?

The winemakers behind the brand gracing the glasses of many an A-list star probably didn’t envision their drink reaching so high a profile, so early on, but it did just that.

Invivo wines was started after two lifelong friends – Tim Lightbourne and Rob Cameron – decided to pack in their jobs to do something they loved.

Rob Cameron & Tim Lightbourne of Invivo

It was five years ago and Rob was working in Europe as a fine winemaker, while Tim was here in England, working in marketing. Both were keen to get back to their homeland so they threw in their respective towels and ventured back to start their own wine company.

They launched Invivo in 2007 and followed with their first wine release in 2008 after approaching growers in the Wairau and Awatere Valleys in Marlborough. Rob now works with 13 growers, including some in the Central Otago region. He is meticulous, picking what he thinks are the best grapes and working with varieties he is particularly passionate about, such as Pinot Noir.

I met both recently at the London International Wine Festival where they were doing tastings through their UK distributor,  Grupo Codorníu UK. Early into our conversation I realised how passionate both are, exuding a childish excitement that can only come from doing something you truly love.

While Rob tasted grapes, Tim was hard at work getting Invivo out to a wider audience. The label was designed to stand out from other Kiwi wineries as they wanted to avoid “mountains, lakes and bays” according to Tim. Instead, they picked an graphically strong eight-point ship’s compass rose done in silver to reflect against the black background.

Their hard work has paid off. In the past few years, it has sponsored New Zealand fashion week, emerging music artists, quirky graffiti events and, of course, supplied Mr Norton with all the wine he can handle. Its Pinot Noir has won gold and been named one of the top 5 in the world at the International Wine and Spirits Championships in 2010; received a gold from Decanter for its Sauvignon Blanc; and had its Sauv Blanc also chosen as the wine to be served on Air New Zealand. While they started with 5,000 cases, they now sell 50,000.

One of the company’s biggest sellers has been Bella which is a lower-calorie, lower-alcohol 9.5% Sauvingnon Blanc that makes up 15% of sales. The grapes used achieve fully ripe flavours with lower sugar levels, so it creates the lower-alcohol content. They are also picked at night when it is cooler, which adds to this concept. It’s a lovely crisp, tropical fruit flavoured wine and very appealing to someone like myself who often finds strong white wines create a headache after only a couple of glasses.

My favourite of those I tried was the Pinot Noir – it was bursting with a palate of ripe cherries and plums, with a tiny hint of spice and a flavour that just lasted and lasted on the tongue.

Invivo’s wines launched in the UK last year and were exclusively available at Harvey Nichols, but have now gone into local independent shops around the country and on tesco.com’s wine shop.

So, if you see the eight-pointed star in your shop, give them a go. They’re only five years in and making a huge splash. It was pleasurable to taste the wine made by such passionate young people.

Sipping Summer Sipsmith

28 May

As fate would have it, my croquet career ended almost as swiftly as it began.

Recently, the boy and I found ourselves on the South Bank at the National Theatre’s fantastic new Propstore – a pop-up summer bar made entirely from the company’s roster of props – practicing our croquet swings.

It was all rather surreal. Clutching croquet mallets with upside-down swans plastered to the bases, we gently tapped balls around the undersized course as hundreds of perplexed passersby perused our progress.

We were there for the launch of London micro-distillers Sipsmith’s new Summer Cup drink. The Summer Cup is meant to harken back to lazy, hot summers in the 1800s when English “cups” were all the rage. These were traditionally made with infused gin and fruit, and drinkers added ginger ale or lemonade to create a refreshing tipple.

The drink has been in testing over the past year – a few lucky people even tried the first run last year. It was deemed popular enough to bottle and so the tiny team at the micro-distillery decided to go for it.

And, I’m very glad they did. For if they hadn’t, I’d have never discovered the delicious drink or my inability to hit a croquet ball in the correct direction.

You see, in order to celebrate the Summer Cup the group set up a croquet championship cup outside of the Propstore. The fastest team around the course won.

I was sure the boy and I would at least make it into the semi-finals, but a few strokes into our game against our competitors (which included Gin Monkey herself) I realised we had little chance. We fumbled, I hit the ball too hard and the swan’s sharp tail even attacked me. Our time around the six-hoop course was abysmal – 1 minute and 55 seconds with penalties. We were the first to try and, no doubt, the first to be disqualified.

Licking our wounds, we retreated to a corner table.

“As least we have gin,” I commiserated.

And so, a few summer cups later I felt perfectly fine about all the shenanigans. The drink is divine. And very drinkable, so be forewarned, especially as it has an ABV of 29%. It is made by first distilling all of the ingredients individually (such as lemon verbana, earl grey tea, cardamom, cucumber, orange and spices) before marrying them all up with the group’s London dry gin. It’s slightly bitter (from the tea) and spicy – you can really taste the orange and cardamom – and it is incredibly refreshing. It’s richer and more complex than I expected and paired brilliantly with lemonade. I think it will be replacing Pimms on my shelf this summer! And giving up my hopes of a croquet career for good!

For more details on Sipsmith and its range, visit: http://www.sipsmith.com. The Sipsmith Summer Cup can be purchased at Waitrose and Majestic. It retails at £18.50. The National Theatre’s Propstore runs until 29 September and is open seven days a week from 12pm, serving food and drinks, which include Sipsmith, Meantime Ales and a variety of English wines.

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