Saturday 26th April - In November last year I wrote about an evening of drinks & sweet potato fries at Shaker & Co, a lively cocktail bar that turns into Shaker Bar School during the day. For completeness, I returned a few weeks ago to participate in one of their 5 hour Cocktail Masterclasses, which anyone can sign up for online (£149 - 11am-4pm on various dates).
It felt a little odd making my way to a bar in Warren Street on a Saturday morning, but I reminded myself that I probably would just be at a Bermondsey based brewery alternatively. After struggling to open the door (demonstrating my hand eye coordination), I made my way in and met my classmates for the day, a mix of bartenders and enthusiasts looking for top tips on making some of the classic cocktails.
|Buy a Mexican Elbow to squeeze the juice out of these fellows|
Amit & Panu were our mixology hosts and warmed us up with a very quick chat on the history of cocktails. It is widely regarded that the first definition of the word "cocktail" as a type of drink was when a reader allegedly wrote in to a New York newspaper in 1806 enquiring about a previously wirrten recipe of a bittered sling. The editor responded, defining what exactly the new born cocktail was:
"A cock tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. It is vulgarly called a bittered sling."
Back then, a cocktail was just one type of mixed alcoholic drink in a wider family that included the likes of sours, slings, fixes, fizzes and flips. Now, the word has grown to cover all of these.
Put simply, a cocktail is a mix of strong (spirits, liqueurs) & weak (ice, water, fruit juice), and sweet (sugar syrup, honey) & bitter / sour (bitters, lemon, lime) elements. If you learn to balance these correctly, and of course pick ingredients that go well together, then you can start creating your own drinks at home. However, nailing the classics first is essential for any budding bartender.
We kicked off with two very simple cocktails, Tom Collins and Moscow Mule, which don't require a shaker at all. Instead, they are simply "built" in the glass (i.e. adding the components one at a time) and gently stirred with a long bar spoon.
The Tom Collins makes use of sugar syrup, which can be bought or made at home (dissolve sugar in water around 1:1 or 2:1 ratio) - beware of Gomme Syrup which actually contains some orange blossom flavouring, Simple Sugar Syrup is what you want. As with the Mules, changing the base spirit changes the name of the cocktail. Gin makes a Tom Collins, but with Cognac instead it becomes a Pierre Collins. Vodka is used in a Moscow Mule, but I prefer Jamaican Mules (with Jamaican Rum), The point of the vodka is that it just adds strength rather than flavour, allowing the ginger & lime to take centre stage.
Amit was very fussy about "the window" at the top of the glass, i.e. leaving space at the top so drinks are less likely to be spilled - "Drinks are for drinking not for wearing". Ice should be piled high though, and if using straws and garnishes, grouping them together looks best.
Moving on to the shaker, we mixed up some Daiquiris, Margaritas and Cosmos.
Margaritas (daisies in Spanish) allowed is to practice our rimming (snort). Rub a lime wedge around the edge, roll it in some sea salt (not the cheap stuff), and then, crucially, wipe any salt away from the inside rim of the glass. You don't want it floating around in the cocktail.
An excellent variant is a Tommy's, served on the rocks with 50ml tequila, 25ml lime and 15ml agave syrup. Or even better, seek out a smokey mezcal for the base spirit. Hard to beat.
|Margarita - supposedly created in 1946 by Margarita Sames at a cocktail party in Acapulco|
Cosmopolitans are famous for the flaming of the orange garnish, though apparently this piece of flare was first use with the Flame of Love cocktail originally created for Dean Martin.
The key is to hold the orange very close to the flame, keeping your fingers out of reach of course, before squeezing the disc, releasing the warm oils over the surface.
|Cosmos, daiquiris and margaritas|
Make sure you start with egg white and lemon in the mixing glass before you add the alcohol, to give it more body. Then add your spirit of choice (Pisco / Whisky / Midori are all worth a try) and sugar syrup. Omit the sugar syrup for Midori.
Now, the fussy bit, which bartenders often disagree on, is the shaking method. We went for a Dry Shake (with 1 ice cube), before doing a Wet Shake (a short, sharp, fast shake with loads of ice). Different approaches will change the smooth consistency of the drink - experiment at home! Then, swirl the shaker before straining in to an ice filled glass very quickly for the best results. A quick spray of oils from an orange peel, towards the rim rather than right into the drink, lends a nice aroma.
We finished up with some Mojitos & Caipirinhas, two extremely popular refreshing summer drinks that don't require a shaker. Mojitos are the bane of most bartenders lives, but probably account for the majority of their paychecks. Both require "churning" with the wrong end of a bar spoon, and "muddling" limes and sugar. Go easy on the muddling, and make sure the mint is added to mojitos post-muddle, otherwise a lot of bitterness from the backs of the leaves comes through. A generous mint garnish at the end goes a long way too.
|Sours and Mojitos|
|Mega straw mojito|
We ran out of time for Manhattans & Old Fashioneds, and had a very quick look at a Dry Martini, but we learnt a great deal about 8 classic cocktails (and drank a fair few too). Thanks to Amit & Panu for a fascinating and informative day. Sign up for courses here.
After 5 hours of drinking & making cocktails, heading out wasn't really on the cards, but I did drop in to Brewdog's new beer shop, Bottledog, halfway down Gray's Inn Road.
|No sign of Brewdog branding at Bottledog|
Unsurprisingly, they have a superb selection of bottles, with a noticeably strong Mikeller presence. You'll have to be quick if you ever want any Westvleteren XII (one of the most highly rated beers in the world) as it normally disappears in minutes.
You can buy hops, malts & other home-brewing essentials in-store. If you can't be bothered with all that, get yourself a growler and fill it up with Bottledog's fresh beer.
Bottledog isn't the only place getting on the growler & craft beer act though:
Clapton Craft recently opened with 12 growler refill options and a wide range of bottles on site. The Brew Testament (attached to Bottle Apostle wine shops) is in three locations across London selling bottled beers and ciders. The Bottle Shop recently moved in to the Bermondsey Beer Mile next door to Anspach & Hobday, opening up 10-6 on Saturdays selling beer on tap or in bottles, to drink in the arch or takeaway. Beer bars like Mother Kelly's & Craft Beer Co also sell a lot of bottles on site to take away at reasonable prices.
However, we shouldn't forget about two old-timers who were doing it long before everyone else - Kris Wines near Caledonian Road (est. 2001) which stays open til 11pm most nights, and Drink of Fulham near Craven Cottage (est. 2010) where you can pair beers with Gujurati cuisine and drink on site.
Wednesday 23rd April - And now for something totally different, another sneaky lunch with Dad The List at Dinner by Heston in Knightsbridge, round the corner from Alain Ducasse's Rivea that we also sampled recently.
Here's what Heston has to say about the name:
"It is never easy naming a restaurant and on this occasion I wanted something that represented our menu that is inspired by historic British gastronomy, so I searched for a name that had a bit of history, but was also fun. 'Dinner' fit the bill perfectly. In the past, the main meal -dinner- was eaten at midday, before it got too dark. But affordable candles and, later, gaslight saw dinner shift. By the mid-1800s people were dining later. People working in the cities were taking a 'lunch' to work and having their main meal at 5.00pm when they got home, while in rural areas the main meal was still taken at midday.
Even today, depending where you are in the British Isles, 'dinner' might be served at lunchtime, suppertime or, indeed, dinnertime!
This made 'Dinner' the natural choice for its typically British quirky history and linguistic playfulness. If nothing else, I hope it's easy to remember."
This was my first **2 Michelin Star** experience, so expectations were high, though we were sticking to the set lunch menu rather than A La Carte, which meant missing several signature dishes. Our 3 courses cost £38, and we had two choices for each round. Whilst nothing on the menu put us off, it's a shame that some of the more interesting dishes don't make it on there. If we had gone A La Carte, a combination of Meat Fruit, Spiced Pigeon and Tipsy Cake would have set us back £67. We settled for looking over at our neighbours' fancy plates instead.
Now, let's be clear, Heston Blumenthal doesn't cook at Dinner by Heston. He's a busy man, probably filming some more of his fun Heston's Great British Food series, or setting up his Perfectionist's Café at Heathrow. The head chef is Ashley Palmer-Watts, whose CV also boasts Head Chef at The Fat Duck, so we were in good hands.
With two options for each course, we naturally decided to order one of everything for completeness. We started off with a Lemon Salad (c.1730) with smoked artichoke, goats curd & candy beetroot, and a Ragoo of Pigs Ear Chewitt (c.1750) with slow cooked egg, anchovy, onions & parsley. The Lemon Salad was one of those dishes where the first mouthful flattered to deceive. By the end it was a little bit repetitive. The Ragoo (ragout, ragu - stew) of Pigs Ear Chewitt (a small pie), taken from The Compleat Housewife, was more interesting.
The Compleat Housewife, or Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion, written by Eliza Smith and originally published in London, England, in 1727, is considered the first cookbook ever to be published in the United States. It contained not only recipes, but also directions for painting rooms, removing mildew, and home remedies for treating ailments, such as smallpox.
"Take a quantity of pigs-ears, and boil them in one half wine and the other water; cut them in small pieces, then brown a little butter, and put them in, and a pretty deal of gravy, two anchovies, an eschalot or two, a little mustard, and some slices of lemon, some salt and nutmeg: stew all these together, and shake it up thick. Garnish the dish with barberries." - extract from The Compleat Housewife.
|Lemon Salad w/ Smoked artichoke, goats curd & candy beetroot|
|Ragoo of Pigs Ear Chewitt|
I quite enjoy a good story to go with the food, but it wasn't very forthcoming here, aside from some vague dates for the origins of the dishes. The A La Carte menu has a bit more detail, listing the source material for the recipes, and there are cute bits of information tucked away elsewhere, but I would have appreciated some more. Maybe I just need to go and do some light reading:
Frumenty - c.1390 - The Forme of Cury The Master Cooks if King Richard II
Powdered Duck - c.1670 The Queene-like Closet or Rich Cabinet by Hannah Woolley
Brown Bread Ice Cream - c.1830 - A New System of Domestic Cookery by Maria Eliza Rundell
Next up was Roast Pollack & Admirals Sauce (c.1826) and Roast Quail (c.1590) with Hispi Cabbage, Onion & Smoked Chestnuts. Both were nicely cooked and presented, but they were quickly forgotten. I can't find much mention of Admirals Sauce from 1826, but it does turn up in Mrs.Wilson's Cookbook (c.1920), and who knows what the Roast Quail hoo-ha was in 1590.
|Roast Pollack & Admirals Sauce w/ monks beard, peas, shallots, brown butter & capers|
Now, the desserts I can remember. Steeple Cream (c.1774) with Vanilla, blood orange & pistachio crumble wobbled its way on to our table. A really fun dish, with surprisingly subtle flavours, made by mixing jelly with cream, perhaps on this occasion moulded in a wine glass? Jelly, flummery and cream aren't so popular these days, but they used to be the crowning glories of dining tables back in the 17th & 18th centuries.
Meanwhile, my Rhubarb & Custard Tart (c.1800) with rhubarb jam, cardamom custard & rhubarb sorbet hit the spot, as no-nonsense delicious tarts so often do (Polpetto, One Leicester Street).
|Steeple Cream - Vanilla, blood orange & pistachio crumble|
|Rhubarb & Custard Tart - Rhubarb jam, cardamom custard & rhubarb sorbet|
As we were settling the bill, a lovely extra arrived in the form of a Dark Chocolate Ganache infused with Earl Grey Tea served with Caraway Biscuit. Easy on the eye and the tastebuds.
|Dark Chocolate Ganache infused w/ Earl Grey Tea served w/ Caraway Biscuit|
|Fancy tea list|
The staff were exceptional throughout, the setting was lovely with a view of Hyde Park and all the plates went back empty, but I expected more from a **2 Michelin Starred** establishment. It was recently named 5th best restaurant in the world (!) by The World's 50 Best, whereas it probably wouldn't make it into most people's top 5 in London, but I appreciate that I should probably reserve full judgement until I have tried some more of the signature dishes, or perhaps sat at The Chef's Table (£200/head for dinner at Dinner), just as soon as I win the lottery. Until that happens, I'll stick to the likes of The Dairy, Rotorino and Honey & Co.
Matt The Wishlist - Lyle's // Lockhart // Typing Room // Clove Club // Upstairs at Ten Bells