Rock Samphire Martini at Native Restaurant

An excellent Martini concocted by the fabulous foragers of Native Restaurant.

A quick one for you, today: Native. Amy and I had an excellent supper there, a couple of days weeks months ago. I could probably spout a few hundred words on the food, but let’s keep the focus boozy, shall we? Let’s talk about the Native Martini.

Which is rather good. I’ve not had Mermaid Gin, which is what they use, but the magic here comes from the pickled samphire. Native’s schtick is foraged stuff, and the samphire makes conceptual sense as a result. It also (more importantly) makes flavour sense, adding a fabulously fresh note of the sea. The sourness of the pickle is subtle but noticeable, in some ways doubling down on vermouth’s role in a standard martini.

Judging from the texture of the drink, it’d been shaken rather than stirred — at which news, some tiresome old bugger will probably cry ‘sacrilege!’ or blather on about ‘bruising the gin’, but that’s nonsense, innit? What does happen when a martini is shaken (not stirred) is that you get lots of tiny ice shards in it and (if it is shaken long) you may also end up with more dilution.

I normally stir my martinis but shaken makes a nice change. Native’s was quite dilute, both as a result of meltage and the inclusion of the samphire pickle liquid. That meant it made for a softer, gentler version of the classic: deliciously fresh. And a lovely amuse bouche for what followed.

What I’m Doing (mid-Feb edition)

All the stuff I’m up to that I either haven’t been concentrating enough to write about properly, or else can’t quite be bothered to. If that sounds like a compelling pitch to you, god help you. Cocktails at Hide Below, Oysters at Bentley’s, alcoholic wisdom from Morgenthaler and more…

You ache, don’t you, for further insights into my almost inconceivably rich and varied lifestyle?

Well let that ache be soothed! Here’s a new series in which I rifle through the receipts crumpled in my wallet and the memories crumpled in my brain. To be published at a frequency of whenever-I-can-be-arsed. Here’s what I’ve been doing so far in February.

Drinking Out at Hide Below

Hide (verb, I presume, not noun) is rather trendy. Pretty much anything anyone writes about it will start by talking about the staircase. How tedious; how predictable. Oh fuck it.

Staircase at Hide Restaurant in London

We descended those shapely stairs for cocktails. Which are expensive, obviously. You don’t get the cash to build stairs like those in Mayfair with a business plan that involves BOGOFs and happy hours. The bar staff are utterly charming and the drinks are good. Everything I tried was a bit sweet for my taste, but the flavours were excellent. I appreciated the complexities and subtlety. And the turding great ice block they put in my second drink.

Eating Out at Bentley’s Oyster Bar

I see why Bentley’s is an institution. It’s the kind of restaurant where the curtains are heavier than your maiden aunt, and probably first saw the light of day at around the same time. The oysters are bloody lovely. Perhaps one day I’ll have enough of a clue to be able to choose between six different types. As it was, the seafood platter was the perfect, delicious opt-out of making such a choice. And some magical grilled turbot afterwards.

Drinking In with Chateau Mont-Pérat

I whipped this charming fellow from the rack the other day to drink with garlic and rosemary roast beef with caramelised onion gravy. A lovely substantial mouthful of dark fruit with some proper tannin to grab onto. Almond and pepper and spice too. Serious but totally approachable.

Chateau Mont-Perat Grand Vin de Bordeaux 2009 was £16 from The Wine Society but is now, alas, sold out. You can search for stockists via Wine-Searcher. Good luck…

Reading Jeffrey Morgenthaler

I tore my way (not literally; it’s a hardback) through Morgenthaler’s Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique (£21.99, but reduced to £15.43 at Blackwell’s at time of writing). I bloody love this kind of thing. It speaks to the monstrous geek lurking within me who wants to know exactly the most efficient method for everything, and also likes to know why.

Morgenthaler dissects the many elements of cocktail making. Elements may be processes, equipment, ingredients and so on. Simple but fucking crucial things (like ice) which most cocktail recipes consign to a sentence are here the basis of whole chapters. Hell, the man does a controlled experiment to demonstrate that neither rolling citrus before squeezing it nor keeping it at room temperature measurably increase juice yield, thereby making the life of everyone who reads this that little bit better for ever afterwards.

Saint the man, I say.

Mongenthaler's 'Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique' atop a wooden table

Unlike lots of booze books that I tend to dip into and out of, I read this one all the way through.

Listening

I’ve been listening to quite a lot of organ music — one of many areas about which I’m reprehensibly ignorant.

Bach’s C Major Prelude & Fugue for Organ (BWV 553) speaks for itself and needs no besmirchment of ugly human words from me. I’ve been accompanying it with Nikka From The Barrel Japanese Whisky (£36.99 from Masters of Malt) which which has a combination of power, pellucid clarity and focus that feels entirely appropriate.

Booze of the week: Asterley Bros Estate English Vermouth

Many things are nicer than a bout of labyrinthitis-induced vertigo. Asterley Bros English Vermouth is one such thing. You possibly shouldn’t drink this until your room spins, but far be it from me to dissuade you… It’s bloody good.

What’s worse than a hangover? I’ll tell you: the symptoms of a hangover (the absolute worst kind), lasting for days, without the benefit of actually having been drunk beforehand.

Reader, welcome to the world of labyrinthitis.

Thanks to questionable goings-on in my manky old inner ear, the world has been spinning in a decidedly unpleasant manner lately. Needless to say, the beast alcohol has taken a back seat during this nausea-wracked time. Along with work, the outside world and anything beyond the most rudimentary forms of motion.

Labyrinthitis isn’t all that fun.

Anyhow, this weekend the good ship Parn seems to have steadied. And I’d like to celebrate that fact, if I may, with a generous glassful of the subject of today’s post: Asterley Bros English Red Vermouth.

I mentioned this vermouth before (in my post about the Negroni Manzanilla, remember?), but only as a footnote. It’s better than a footnote, though. It deserves the spotlight.

There aren’t many English Vermouths knocking about, as far as I can tell. Asterley Bros (they actually are brothers, I believe) leapt with typical Forest Hill panache into the breach. What is it, incidentally, about Forest Hill and alcohol? I’ve only been there once or twice, but you have the Asterley HQ, you have Robert McIntosh (patron saint of UK wine bloggers), you have Forest Hill Gin Club, whose virtues a friend of mine extols… None of these things, mark my words, do you have in Petersfield, Hampshire.

Anyhow. The bros Asterley knocked up a vermouth (alongside, intriguingly, an Amaro and a Fernet, neither of which I’ve yet tried). Unlike lots of red vermouths, the Asterleys’ isn’t made from a base of white wine (the colour of red vermouth normally comes from caramel, not the original wine). Asterley Bros Vermouth, though, is made from a base of red wine (in this case, pinot noir from Gusbourne Estate in Kent). It’s instantly evident, both in terms of the drink’s appearance (darker, tending more towards opacity) and its taste: the grip of the tannin and heft of darker berry fruits is unlike the more herb-led Italian vermouths (Martini Rosso et al).

Which is all frightfully interesting, of course. But you don’t come here for facts, do you?

(Please tell me you don’t come here for facts.)

Let’s taste, then. Starting with Asterley Bros Vermouth unadulterated (well, except for the obligatory twist of orange peel): neat, over ice.

Glass of English Red Vermouth alongside a table lamp

It’s indecently full and sweet in the gob to begin with, but a very nice catch of bitterness steps in fairly quickly, handing over to a bunch of spicy, rooty characters to escort you out. Considerably less sweet than some of its ilk (I’m looking at you, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino) and rather delicious to sip when you want something without the hefty ABV of a whisky (or a Negroni) but with some depth and complexity to it. I know it’s customary in Spain to drink Vermouths neat in this way, and I raise my glass to our Iberian friends in approbation.

And in a Negroni, too, it’s excellent — so long as you’re not after a classic Negroni. Because of its depth and bitter edge, it certainly muscles into the drink. My preference is not to put it up against Campari, but instead pair it with the mellower Sacred Rose Hip Cup (£27.95, The Whisky Exchange), against which I don’t feel it competes to the same degree.

Oh, and it’s sodding blinding in a Manhattan. Really extremely good, anchoring the drink superbly. I put it in a 1:2 ratio with Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey (£27.75, The Whisky Exchange) and a couple of dashes of Angostura Bitters.

Now, sorry in advance. I’m going to talk dirty.

I’m going to talk (urgh) marketing.

I don’t know whether the Bros have a natural grasp of the dark arts or whether they’re superbly well-advised. But they’ve done a couple of pretty intelligent things with their drinks. Firstly, by the look of it, they’ve spent a decent amount of cash on the packaging design and sourcing, and have accomplished the two most important goals: it looks expensive and it looks different (bear in mind this will sit alongside bottles of Martini Rosso, Punt e Mes and the like).

Bottle of Asterley Bros Estate English Red Vermouth

Secondly, they did some rather clever ‘beta testing’ whereby those registering early interest in the company were sent samples of alternative blends before the product was finalised and asked to confirm their preference. An alcoholic A/B test, in other words. What a fabulous, low-cost way to build an engaged base of customers and advocates (and do market research at the same time). Well done, chaps.

I’m not going to write loads more about the Asterley vermouth now — you’re a busy person, I know, and I have another English Vermouth post planned. In any case, I’m too busy drinking.

I have a week of lost labyrinthitis time to make up for…

Asterley Bros Estate Vermouth is available from the Bros own website (£23.95 for 500ml) and is also stocked by The Whisky Exchange, if you want to buy it alongside a host of other booze. It’s 16% ABV, if you’re interested.

When Clemmie Misses Her Train

In which the delightful Clemmie is reintroduced to these pages, and a tale of debauchery, recklessness, minor infringements and cello-loving is recounted

Now, it’s a blogging faux pas to apologise for — or even refer to — the time that’s elapsed since one’s last post. So I shalln’t. Perhaps you’re hoping I’ll account for myself? Hell, believe me: I’m hoping the same thing, and have been for several years. Still hopin’.

But what follows, I guess, is a sort of oblique apology of its own, in a way. I’m going to tell you the story of yesterday evening.

And for this purpose I’d like you, please, to join me in welcoming back to these pages the inestimable Clemmie. Last time you met her, Clemmie missed her bus. This time, Clemmie misses her train. And then Clemmie catches a taxi, a coach, two tube trains and another taxi.

(I know: it’s all in the way I tell ’em.)

A bottle of Durnberg Gruner Veltliner white wine on a wooden outdoor table, with glasses, olives and assorted items

But our riches-to-rags tale begins with the best Oxford can offer: the Old Parsonage Hotel, with its perpetually burning log fire and its perpetually rather damn nice Durnberg Gruner Veltliner — bracing like a sea-breeze in spring. Of all Oxford’s providers of food and drink, this is the place I most miss.

(And I reckon they probably miss me, too. Clemmie and I have put a fair bit of business their way, y’know? And we’re fucking charming customers, too.)

In the garden of the Old Parsonage, Clemmie is on the phone to her mother. Clemmie’s phone only functions in loudspeaker mode:

‘Mum, don’t say anything rude or horrible, because you’re on loudspeaker.’

Clemmie was supposed to catch the train to her mother’s home in Suffolk. But Clemmie is drinking Gruner Veltliner at the Old Parsonage. The advantages of a phone that works only in loudspeaker mode begin to be apparent.

We don’t linger, though, at the Parsonage. Rather prosaically, this is because I have to go to my old home in order to pick up my cello. In so doing, I am also the delighted recipient of two enormous — but very nice — but enormous — cushions. A gift from my kind little sister.

When one is carrying a cello and two enormous cushions, one needs another drink. And that drink was provided by Portabello restaurant on South Parade. A blossoming blackcurranty Carmenere that had, mayhap, a bit too much of the fruit juice about it for my liking, but was nevertheless welcome enough. Welcome also was the brief presence of Anna ‘Big Mitch’ Mitchell from her house on the other side of the road. Anna had a small pinot noir. Anna is quite a small pinot noir herself. (That’s meant to be a compliment.)

By this stage, alas, anything resembling a plan for the evening had been shredded like a tissue in a blender.

So Clemmie and I left Anna to roam the streets of Oxford — and decided to get a coach to London.

At this point, the class and sophistication of our evening began to take something of a dive:

‘It’s a pity we can’t drink wine on the coach,’ said Clemmie, wistfully.

There was a moment’s silence.

‘Is Tesco’s still open?’

And so it was, dear (horrified) reader, that Clemmie and I found ourselves on the back seat of the coach to London, surreptitiously pouring Tesco’s Finest Fiano (SECURITY PROTECTED) into plastic cups.

(Yes, I bought plastic cups. What do you think we are? Savages? Hey, don’t answer that.)

Now, I happen to believe that wine shouldn’t be taken even remotely seriously. Wine is our bitch, and we do to it as we will. So I don’t feel bad for subjecting Tesco’s Fiano to this treatment.

Especially as it’s not a very nice wine. It’s kind of thin, and has a bit of a fizz to it. Not in a particularly good way.

Nevertheless — as you know — we are nothing if not stoical in our pursuit of shitfacedness. So Tesco’s Fiano and plastic cups it was. Lesser humans might have caved; not Old Parn and Clemmie. The Fiano was dispatched.

… And there we were in Victoria. Me with my cello and my enormous cushions; Clemmie with her enormous bag.

Travelling on the underground on Friday night with a cello and two enormous cushions is an experience that itself requires a degree of cushioning — so it was as well that our resourceful acquisition of that doughty Fiano had anticipated this need. So Clemmie, cello and I happily swayed our way to Putney. To a pub.

At the pub, we had some sauvignon blanc. Or that’s what it tasted like, anyway. Look, if you’re still reading this for the tasting notes, you really need to carry out some kind of reality check at this point.

‘’Scuse me — is that a cello in there?’ asked a thin man wearing a tracksuit.

‘Um, yes.’

‘I love the cello. Do you play it with a bow?’

‘Yup.’

‘Can you pluck it, too?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘I love the cello. There’s something about it that speaks to me.’

Carrying a turding great cello around with you is, believe me, a surefire way to kick off some fantastic conversations. Be that as it may, stringed instrument vendors of Putney should take note: there is a man in a tracksuit out there. Make the sale.

Our cello-besotted conversant having departed, we were at length politely nudged in the direction of finishing our drinks. Even in London, y’know, pubs close.

And so Clemmie bundled herself into a taxi. And my cello, my cushions and I made our slow — yet somehow majestic — peregrination home.

***

An illustration of a rabbit and some flowersWhen I opened the door to my flat and turned on the light, I was greeted by a rabbit.

I picked up the card and turned it over. It was from my neighbour.

Tom
Please talk to me about your packages. Why didn’t you pick up the one last night, I knocked on your door?
H—

I turned the card back over, gave the rabbit a sick kind of smile, and went to bed.

(To be continued…)