Tag Archives: drink

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!

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Finding Nespresso Necessary

29 Mar

My weeks of late, have looked a bit like this: get up, write, find time to eat, write more, dash to meetings and a whisky event before a quick sleep and then a repetition of the cycle. Last week I tried 38 whiskies (I write about the stuff; I’m not an alcoholic). I drank lots of water in between, but it was a bit epic.

Now, do not get me wrong – I am not complaining in the least. Every once in a while the boy and I even get a chance to indulge in an episode or two of The Wire (to which we are addicted). I love it (the schedule, and The Wire, that is) and would have it no other way. But, after the first week of this, not only was I developing black circles around my eyes, but a greater need for caffeine.

Nespresso pods sit, waiting to be devoured by me, myself and I.

So, when the team at Nespresso mentioned to me they were launching a new espresso, well, I was down there as fast as my feet would march me (I’ve also taken to walking most places since the weather has improved – this is partially due to the fact I had about as much exercise this winter as a hibernating bear).

And what was the launch all about?

Well, every so often the development team brings out a new flavour of espresso. This time around, it is featuring Naora, made from Colombian Castillo Arabica beans.

Now, I’m sure you’re just thinking: so what? A new coffee pod?

Well, what was interesting about this blend was this: the new coffee has been made using (what Nespresso says) is a first-time technique. Working with the Federation of Colombian Coffee growers and inspired by wine-making techniques, the coffee cherries have been left to grow for as long as possible on the branch. These are then picked and the “late-harvest” bean is extracted to be dried for coffee production.

Company coffee expert, Jonathon Sims, said the decision to try out this experiment was based around the fact customers’ palates are changing.

“People want to try different flavours,” he told me, while I nodded and chugged down as much espresso as seemed polite in the company of others.So, what did I think of Naora? Well, I’ll be honest – it wasn’t my favourite. The stuff I chugged was mostly the Kazaar, another special edition release. I found Naora to be extremely acidic on its own, despite Nespresso only categorising it as having a “juicy acidity”. There is a slight sweetness and light bitterness, so it will appeal to those who don’t love really bitter beans. But, for me, it wasn’t a winner.

The new Pixie, featuring side panels made from recycled capsules.

What was intriguing though, was just how much effort goes into making those little coffee pods. Johnathon told me that “much how a master chef comes up with things for the coming season, we’re thinking two years ahead.”

As such, if you own a Nespresso machine, Naora is worth trying just to experience the sheer effort that went into the planning and experimentation around leaving the coffee cherries on the tree until the last possible minute.

And as for me, I’ll be the one you see standing outside of the company’s new capsule-crazy, modern-art styled flagship store, opening on Regent Street in July. I’ve heard there is a tasting counter and I might just make it my “go-to” stop in between meetings.

Bewitched by beer in Bruges

24 Feb

I stare at the menu longingly but with confusion. I want them all…every single bottle of beer on the menu at De Kuppe bar on Kupperstraat in Bruges looks appealing. But, given most sit around the 8% or 10% ABV mark, I have to concede: I will only get through a few.

The boy and I had arrived with our friends in Bruges earlier that afternoon. It was colder than cold and we had to trudge through slippery snow if we wanted to see the town.

So instead of freezing ourselves in the cultural endeavour of sight-seeing, we opted to hole up in one of the many bars the petite Belgian town has to offer, which worked perfectly for me.

You see, I am a massive fan of Belgian beer – it is almost always my go-to beer as standard. It’s generally richer (without being gut-filling like a stout), has more subtle flavours and is crisp, despite being very strong.

Straffe Hendrick beer

The history of beer from this region is equally enticing. The famous Trappist beers, for instance, began being brewed in the late 19th century by monks in monasteries. In order to be called a Trappist, the beer must still be made in the same fashion. There are six beer-producing monasteries that meet such distinction in Belgium, making brands such as Chimay, Westmalle and (my all time favourite) Rochefort.

As such, when faced with a veritable book of beers, it was hard to know where to start. I opted away from ones I knew and started with a Straffe Hendrik, which is brewed in Bruges. This dark brown tripel beer comes in at 9% and is made from six kinds of malt. It has notes of toffee and brown sugar, and lots of hop. A delicious way to begin.

I followed this with a Bush Ambrée, a hefty corker of a beer that has a wine-strength 12% ABV. The boy and a couple others joined in, swayed by the idea of drinking such a strong brew. Made in 1933, this beer is the strongest Belgian variety. But you wouldn’t know it – until you stand up of course. It is balanced between sweet and bitter, but doesn’t have the same “oomph” as the other Belgian beers I tried, despite being stronger.

Next came Judas and La Trappe Quadrupel, which I only realised later is actually from the Netherlands.

By the time I had sipped my way through those beers, it was time for bed. But with three more days in the winter wonderland of Bruges, I knew there was still time to work my way through a few more.

The pink Delerium elephant watches over the coconut beer.

As luck would have it, the Bruges beer fest was going on at the same time we arrived – a fantastic and welcome surprise. Featuring more than 250 beers, it only added to the beer odyssey.

There we managed to get through nearly 30 beers – only a drop in the ocean, but a good attempt I think. We tried the Troubadour Blond and Troubadour Obscura, two I had never heard of, along with the beautiful Val-Dieu Blonde and the super hoppy Martin’s IPA. There were hoards of intriguing fruit beers, such as the Floris Fraise and Peach, or the Banana, Coconut or Mango varieties from Mongozo. Interestingly, there was also a beer aged in whisky casks – the Bravoure, which was slightly sweet and stunk of smoked cheese. Despite this, it was intriguingly pleasant.

And so the list goes on. After the beer festival, we continued on to the quaint De Garre bar, where beers such as Kwak and their 11% house beer. Maybe not the best choice after a few hours of beer drinking, but delicious and highly recommended.

Kwak served up in a quacky wooden holder.

By the time we departed from Bruges, I was satisfied. I may have only tried 25 or 30 beers out of hundreds, but it was a great first stab at the books of beers in Bruges. I left with taste buds satiated, utterly bewitched by the Bruges beer scene.

Stateside Beer

13 Jan

I always find it funny how some memories in life stick out to you so much more prominently than others. Ask me about my childhood and I can wax lyrical about some elements (cows in the field, bears in the forest, country life, the big yellow school bus) while others remain completely hazy. But one that I couldn’t help remembering recently was the first time I tried a wee sip of beer. I was about four or five years old and was sat around a table in our living room. I had my playset mugs and toys around me and my dad was chatting with one of his friends, drinking a beer on a summer’s eve. I remember grabbing at his glass to smell the beer and him smiling, laughing at my intrigue. So, he gave me a tiny, less than thimble-full sip in my doll’s cup to satiate my interest (and probably to stop me asking questions – I was a very chatty child). I declared I liked it. And, I’ve not stopped liking it since (well, there was a brief period of, oh, 12 years where I didn’t drink any, but you get my point).

As I’ve grown older, I’ve tended to veer towards what I consider “good” beer – I don’t mind an occasional cheap lager if it’s given to me, but if I had my choice it would be a Belgian brew or rich stout any day over that. So, when I received a package in the post a few weeks ago only to discover I had been sent a few bottles of specialty beer to try, I was rather overjoyed.

It contained no less than seven varieties of beer – three from the US and four from Europe. I have finally tried them all and have decided to divide my review into two parts. This first one will focus on the bottles from the US and the next (coming soon!) will shout out my thoughts on the others.

So, to begin…

Anchor Steam from Anchor Brewing Co, San Francisco

Anchor Steam: 4.8% – Anchor Brewing Co, San Francisco:

As soon as I took a sip from this, I was transported back to the past summer, when I had been sat on an outdoor patio in the sunshine in San Francisco. This beer is distinctly west coast (Canada or US): its flavours are infiltrated with the warmth of a summer’s day and all that entails: BBQs, ocean, fresh breezes. Sure we have that here in the UK but, for me, this beer contained everything I know and love about the west coast. It’s also very rich and creamy, with a yeasty, almost Marmite like hint, and leaves a slightly charcoal and bitter note on the tongue. The company has named it Anchor Steam after the old term for beer – steam being the word used to describe beer made on the west coast under very basic conditions in the 1800s. So, with even a name that symbolises all things western, this is one for those laid-back weekend days in summer when all you want to do is relax with friends under the sun. It can be found at Selfridges for £1.99 a bottle.

Goose Island India Pale Ale

Goose Island India Pale Ale: 5.9% – Goose Island, Chicago:

I don’t normally drink India Pale Ale. In the past, I’ve found the bitterness of these to be too intense. So, I was very surprised when I tried this beer and it really hit the spot. It was most certainly one of the best beers of the lot – crisp, slightly fruity with a good load of hops working through from start to finish, without being so bitter as to make my mouth pucker. I had never heard of Goose Island but it seems a lot of Midwesterners have been enjoying it since the late ’80s when founder John Hall decided to try to create a brewpub in Chicago akin to those found in Europe. It was a very pleasant discovery and, even more so, when I noticed it’s available in Sainsbury’s for £1.99. It’s definitely one I’ll be indulging in more often.

Anchor Porter: the first porter beer in the US

Anchor Porter: 5.6% – Anchor Brewing Co, San Francisco:

This porter beer – also from Anchor Brewing Co – was the first of its kind when it was released 40 years ago in the States. Before that, no one was really brewing the dark, rich porter beers that we here in the UK had been familiar with for hundreds of years. This version is lighter than a Guinness, but still dark as tar. It is rich, without being overbearing, and carries a load of chocolate and toffee notes. It avoids being bitter and instead makes itself very drinkable. I didn’t get that heavy feel after finishing this bottle, like I sometimes do when drinking this type of beer. All in all, very enjoyable but probably not for people who like lighter brews, as it is still rich. This, too, is available at Selfridges for £1.99.

Coming soon: I review Innis & Gunn Limited Edition Highland Cask; Duvel and Liefmans Fruitesse. These beers were provided to me, with thanks, by R&R Teamwork, a specialist London Communications Agency.

2012? When did that happen?

3 Jan

When I was a kid, any date after 2010 seemed an impossibility. I remember very clearly, sitting at home in a philosophical haze (as much as my 10-year-old self could handle) trying to envision the thought that by 2010, I would be 25. TWENTY-FIVE YEARS old! To my brain, that seemed an eternity away.

And yet, I couldn’t wait. Having a sister 11 years older than you, tends to make you want to be a grown-up much quicker – she was already off to university, living away from home, getting to “play house” as I called it.

So, now here we are in 2012. And all I can think is, “When did that happen?”

But, happen it did. And moving into a new year always makes me reflect on the year that was.

So, what was 2011?

Well…2011 was the year I started this site with a post on the food I savoured in Montenegro.

Hot air balloons drift in front of ours in the Napa Valley

It was the year I discovered fantastic wine in the Napa Valley and went hot air ballooning over the vineyards; worked on an organic farm; and, volunteered to take care of turtles in Costa Rica before returning to London to a new home with “the boy” and a new life writing about food, drink and travel.

A little girl runs after friends in the small village of Parismina, Costa Rica

It was the year I discovered my great weakness for whisky and created a site to encourage more young/female/people (!) to drink it, while also trying some fantastic tipples such as absinthe, tequila and cognac (the latter while sitting in a window at Harrods) through my work with Fluid London.

Glasses of Martell Cognac sit on the table in the window at Harrods

It was also the year I and the boy found out how absolutely, divinely incredible Ireland was with a series of posts (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) on our journey up the west coast.

The boy stands near yet another beautiful vista in Ireland

And, finally, it was the year I finished off by tasting some great mince pies for a worthy cause, going off the beaten path of food and drink writing, by thanking many supporters who donated to a fantastic charity night I helped organise with Marie Curie, learning about soup making with Nusa Kitchen and writing about some lovely wines I tried at a Virgin Wines event.

Me, looking incredibly cool, making soup at Nusa Kitchen.

All in all, very pleasurable indeed – and I have to say, far from what my 10-year-old self necessarily envisioned for my 26-year-old self.

And so, I say thank you to the people who have taken a spare few minutes to read my ramblings, and to wish you all the very best for 2012 – it’s the year of the Olympics, the year of the Jubilee, and the year of…well…we shall just have to see. I hope to continue celebrating London’s great food & drink, and maybe do some further exploring afield. And I hope for many pleasurable things all around for all of you (and your ten-year-old selves!)

38 Wines? 2 Hours? Why not!

20 Dec

I’m always a fan of trying to set new personal records. Some people run marathons or do the Iron Man competitions. Some people scale mountains or collect the largest number of Dalek figurines in the world. And while I am impressed with them all – okay, maybe not the Dalek collectors; sorry if you’re one – I tend to think it’s much more pleasurable to focus on personal records involving food and drink.

So, what has been my latest record?

Well, it’s got to be trying 38 wines in under two hours. The reason? Virgin Wines was having a press tasting and I was short on time. But, not one to skip on research opportunities, I decided I would work my way through their offerings, one small sip at a time, to bring you, the reader, my balanced opinion on a selection of wines the company is offering up just now for consumers.

Now, I’m sure there are skeptics out there saying, “But surely you wouldn’t have valued each wine individually if your taste buds had been influenced by such a quick onslaught of so many flavours.” To them, I say, you’re possibly a wee bit correct. But I did ensure to rinse out my mouth with lots of aqua and drink a fair amount of it as well, to ensure my brain was still working properly!

I agree with this slogan (possibly too wholeheartedly)

As such, here are my top picks (ie: those that received two ticks from me in my highly scientific rating system) from the Virgin Wines Winter Press Tasting:

  • Star & Vine Lodi Shiraz 2010: A full bodied, Californian wine that hinted at flavours of poached pears, cream and vanilla. I wrote “lovely” beside it in my book. It retails at £9.99 a bottle.
  • The Big Mo’ Barossa Valley Shiraz 2009: A rich, blackcurrent and dark chocolate offering from this Australian company bursts on the palate. Hints of olives and earthiness keep the sweeter flavours from the berries at bay. Lush. And well worth the cost of £12.99 a bottle.
  • Mas Oller Blau 2009: Tagged in the “Stars of Tomorrow” category at the tasting, this soft but fully flavoured Syrah, Garnacha and Cab Sauv Spanish blend really took my fancy. It was fresh and bold, and had a nice earthy minerality which packed a subtle but lovely punch. Retails at £10.99 a bottle.
  • The First Chapter Shiraz Viognier by Nico Vermeulen 2010: Vermeulen is one of the top wine makers in South Africa and this bottling is another fantastic achievement. The combination of Shiraz and Viognier really works (and this is coming from someone who doesn’t normally like Viognier). It was sweet but had rich mineral notes to contrast that; notes of mushroom and earthy flavours finish it nicely. Costs: £9.99 a bottle.
  • Oroura Station Single Vineyard Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2010: This was a Sauvignon Blanc with a difference: sweet but sharp; slightly smoky with hints of melon; it was really full without being too rich or sickly sweet, which I sometimes find with this grape. A lovely balanced, single vineyard Kiwi wine. Costs: £10.99.

The Big Mo' had a big effect on my taste buds

There were many others that I enjoyed as well, but these were the top of the top for me. And – it seems, now that I have looked each up on the site – that many consumers rate these ones highly as well (at least 4 out of 5 for them all), so my taste buds couldn’t have been that out of sync.

Andrew Baker, a wines buyer with the company, told me these ratings play highly into Virgin’s decisions about purchasing. “The site gets 1200 comments a week and everything is informed by that.”

So, if you end up trying any of these wines and loving (or hating) them, do make sure to add your thoughts to the site – it could effect the future of what Virgin Wines stocks (and what I might end up trying if they have another event).

And now, I have to find a next personal record to try and achieve. Given it’s Christmas, this shouldn’t be too hard…

Virgin Wines offers wines by the case on its site and free delivery on any orders. If you want to order wine in time for Christmas dinner, you can do so up until 2pm on Thursday, 22 December through the website.

Tasty Tequila

30 Nov

Tequila, for me, has always been consumed as a quick and dirty shot when I’m already too drunk to know any better.

So, I thought, what better way to displace that idea as tequila as a drink of last-resorts than to head to a tequila competition and see what some cocktail masters were doing with the product.

The el Jimador Bartender Cup brought together 15 top mixologists from across Europe to a super cool warehouse under London Bridge to find the best new shot, long drink and cocktail. I was there to sip and sup some down.

People mull around while the bartenders hustle (photo courtesy of randr PR)

As the boy was otherwise engaged I was this time joined by my chatty and cheerful friend Lucy who can talk a storm and who definitely can handle her drink.

Sliding up to the bar upon arrival, we immediately got into the spirit by grabbing a tequila cocktail – a refreshing, sparkling tequila and lemon concoction. So far, so good.

This was followed by an elderflower version and then a grapefruit one.

Bartenders work hard for the money (photo courtesy of randr PR)

After this, things get blurry but I know there was lots of shouting and clapping, along with debates about how easily we could tell which country each bartender was from just by looking at their appearance rather than their country name tag. France and Turkey were the easiest for me. There was also, most certainly, a very loud Brazilian band which played out tunes on garbage bin lids.

Finally, over a small shot of aged tequila (and can I just say here, the aged el Jimador is like a really nice bourbon, which shocked me to no end) the winners were announced. Mr France came in as overall winner while Poland, Greece and Russia acted as the tripartite of winners for each individual category. Ah, finally, something Greece can be proud of…

I remember little of the rest of the night – though I believe Lucy did decide to confiscate all the undrunk competitors’ cocktails which were lined up at the back of the room and ensure we did our damndest to drink them down before a cater waiter could swoop them away.

What I can say though is that, yes, tequila does make you a bit drunk, BUT its flavours are worth so much more than just a dirty shot at the bar. And I hope you’ll join me in a Gwilty cheers to this drink, by having a go at making the winning long drink, the recipe of which, I’ve put below!

 

 

The winning bartender in the long drink category puts the final touches on his work

Winning long drink: Pasion por Mexico

·         40 ml el Jimador Blanco

·         10 ml Passoa

·         20 ml Mus Passion Fruit

·         20 ml passion fruit syrup

·         30 ml pineapple juice

·         3 parts lime

Glass: Hurricane

Methodology: Pour all ingredients into a glass (hurricane) filled with crushed ice, then mix with the bartender tablespoons.

Created by Krzysztof Jadach, Diva Bar, Poland

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