RECIPES: Mojito and Aperol spritz discovered during our travels.
DIARY: Memories of Africa and ‘sundowners’ on the verandah.
Sweet-tinis are out and complex cocktails are in according a recent story out of New York. I don’t know – last week in a bar off Bay Street, in Toronto’s financial centre, I heard a young trader type order a Manhattan, that mixture of sweet vermouth, bourbon and bitters with a Maraschino cherry to top it off. Never tried one myself although I do know how to make it. I’m a Scotch on the rocks chap. But I did pay $16 for something called a Gentleman’s Portion the other day in a cocktail establishment in Toronto. It was the bartender’s take on my own (and my dad’s) nickname for a generous pouring of any type of booze, tarted up into a complex mess with smoke and pine flavoured bitters. Ugh. What a waste of good Scotch.
When I was a young man living with my family just south of the Equator in East Africa, the cocktail ceremony was identical every evening. Just before the sun set at pretty much the same time every night of the year, about six o’clock, our house boy would wheel the drinks cart out onto the verandah of our Out of Africa home. (On an etymological note, ‘verandah’ derives from a Hindi word for porch, and the whole ceremony reeks of the old Raj in India. Even calling the aged servant ‘boy’ sounds strange in this post-Colonial era, but that’s what they were all called back then.) ‘Sundowners’ were served to the guests and family as we watched the sun set over the Great Rift Valley from our hill-top aerie, and the vast soda Lake Nakuru, home to millions of flamingoes. As the setting sun turned the waters of the lake to burnished gold, and the roosting flamingoes tucked their heads under their wings, showing their scarlet feathers to the sky and making the enormous flocks seem to flick the colour switch from white to intense pink in an instant, the adults quaffed their cocktails.
My own introduction to cocktails was a weak ‘chota peg’ — again a Hindi word, this one meaning a very small drink, usually of whisky and soda. Where the water was undrinkable in the colonies, the drop or two of whisky was supposed to kill off the bugs. On safari as a teen, like my dad, I grew accustomed to cleaning my teeth in whisky, rather than a mug of water teeming with who knows what.
“Boy, lete whisky na barafu, pese pese,” my boss, the editor of the local paper where I landed my first job, would shout in Swahili at a servant waiting about three feet behind him, meaning “bring me another whisky with ice, and be bloody quick about it, before I die of thirst.” At the Kenya Weekly News, the sundowner ceremony took place in the editor’s large office shortly after the paper had been put to bed for the night (that is, sent to the presses for printing). It seems it was mandatory for the editorial staff to attend. My taste for Scotch came early.
It would be years before I learned that there were drinks other than gin and tonic (G&T) and whisky and soda (Scotch was always whisky in the British Empire). The quinine in the tonic was thought to stave off malaria. Wine was intolerable in the heat, and beer was for the ‘other ranks’ as the officer class called them. Mum was a renegade and drank brandy and ginger ale, which was thought to be a bit French and sissified by the Brits. Later she switched to whisky, which at 97 she still enjoys.
My next two cocktails were vodka and orange juice (a screwdriver in North America), which girls in 60s London seemed to like, and Campari and soda, which I learned to enjoy on a BBC television junket to Milan. Then there was the bloody Mary, which was all the rage at Sunday brunch when I arrived in Canada. At the long defunct Forum of the Twelve Caesars restaurant in New York, I was introduced at 24 or so to the vodka martini, large, very dry, straight up, shaken not stirred, with a twist. Waiting for a table for a late lunch with a much older BBC colleague, I had two, and promptly fell off my bar stool. I was hooked.
So that was my repertoire until much later in life, divorce papers fresh to hand, when I had in mind the idea that I would sail around the Caribbean in my small yacht, supporting myself by picking up occasional work for cash as a bartender. Someone had told me you could get work anywhere as an expert fixer of cocktails, and anyway I had seen Tom Cruise in the movie Cocktail and figured I could do just as well at a beach bar. I took myself off to a local bartending school and learned mixology. On exam day, each student was called out to make six random drinks from a list of over 100 we had studied. My fellow students were all many years younger, and I must have gotten lucky with the selection I was handed, but I passed top of the class with a 100 per cent grade.
Here’s a video link to a sailor who did make the trip south, and I envy him his freedom. For me, new love blossomed, so I didn’t go bartending in the Caribbean after all.
Don’t get me wrong. Fancy cocktails have their place, especially when one’s on holiday. Hard to beat a delicious mojito in Cuba or the new Italian rage, Aperol spritz, after a hot day sightseeing in Europe. But the real point of booze at the cocktail hour is to take the edge off a murderous day earning one’s crust and, as Ogden Nash put it, liquor is quicker. So real men, and women, take note. Take your booze straight … and take a taxi home.
- Handful of fresh washed mojito mint leaves (substitute peppermint if necessary)
- 1 washed lime, cut into quarters
- 2 tbsp white sugar
- 1 ½ oz white rum
- 4 oz club soda (1/2 cup)
- 8 oz ice cubes (1 cup)
- Put the mint leaves and sugar in the bottom of an old fashioned glass
- Use the handle of a wooden spoon (or a muddler if you have one) to crush the mint into the sugar
- Squeeze three of the lime quarters into the mix
- Fill the glass with ice cubes
- Pour over the rum and swirl to mix with the mint and sugar
- Top off with club soda and decorate with the last wedge of lime
An Italian spritz making a serious comeback throughout Europe in the summer of 2013
- 1 measure of club soda
- 2 measures of Aperol bitters
- 3 measures of Prosecco, Italian sparkling wine
- 4 oz ice cubes (1/2 cup)
- Slice of orange
- Put the ice cubes in a stemmed glass, almost to the top
- Pour over 2 measures of Aperol
- Pour over 3 measures of Prosecco
- Top with 1 measure of club soda
- This one-two-three mix is the true traditional Italian method and no North American style measuring allowed! Just splash it in. You’ll soon adjust the proportions to your taste.
- Float a slice of orange on top to match the colour of the bitters.