The Tom Collins

Having spent a happy hour or so – I forget how long it was, exactly – exploring the wonders of the gimlet, I picked up on the interesting variation of the Tom Collins. Unfortunately, I lack one crucial ingredient so I’m afraid I’ve had to write this one dry – unless I get to visit a superior cocktail bar and sample one made properly.

The Tom Collins is made in a tall glass using three parts Old Tom gin, two parts lemon juice, one part sugar syrup and four parts carbonated water over ice. As you can see, it is very similar in style to a gimlet with the exception of Old Tom gin. This is the one ingredient I don’t have, and it’s not really a Tom Collins without it. Perhaps a Jackie Collins, especially if accompanied by a trashy novel.

Anyway, I digress. Old Tom gin is a very particular kind of gin, which has been aged and sweetened so that it falls somewhere between a London dry gin (say, Gordons) and a jonge genever, one of the two traditional Dutch gins which seem to be making something of a comeback in cocktail circles. I expect it’s quite a sweet drink (since the gin is sweetened and sugar syrup is included) but the lemon juice cuts through the syrup and adds a nice tartness.

I think this is a summer drink – by which time I may have got my hands on a bottle of Old Tom and will be able to find out for myself!


The Cookie Lady

I’ve had two volumes of Philip K Dick’s short stories gathering dust on my shelves for far too long, so as I was in the mood for a bit of reality bending, I picked one up for a read on the train. I have to say that it was one of my better decisions, as almost immediately I remembered all the reasons why I love Philip K Dick’s short stories.

This story starts volume 2 of The Collected Stories (I own volumes 2 and 5) and, like a few of his tales, is set in what I can best describe as 1950s suburban America. There’s a rickety old house at the end of the street, children pass it on their way to school and nobody thinks anything of going to a little old lady’s house and eating the cookies she bakes for them every day…

Of course, it wouldn’t be Philip K Dick without that little mindwarp at the end, and to say any more would give the game away really, but it is a very clever variation on the vampire theme that I really enjoyed. What struck me, though, was the complete and absolute lack of malice; selfishness, yes, but not malice. Admittedly, there’s not enough of the story to merit turning it into a film (unlike two of the stories in the collection which have been) but if there is another series of Electric Dreams, then I think this could be a candidate for an episode.

Variations on a Gimlet

Before I get carried away on the many variations of this classic gin cocktail, it might be a good idea to ascertain firstly what a gimlet is. A gimlet is a cocktail of gin, and lime cordial over ice – and the variations come in the proportions of gin and lime (the ice is just to top up the glass). Amazingly, such a simple change can produce vastly different flavours, so this was an experiment I was quite looking forward to.

Because I can’t do a blog about a cocktail without having drunk it, can I?

First of all, there is the classic gimlet. This is equal proportions (one shot glass each in my case) of gin and lime cordial, shaken with ice and poured into a glass – or in my case, a 330ml beaker. If it reminded me of anything it was the old fashioned lime fizz boiled sweet, and was certainly not unpleasant. If it hadn’t been the fact that I was doing a taste test, I’d have stopped there and poured myself another.

The first variation is two parts gin to one part lime cordial. I was surprised at just how sweet this was; you get a very definite hit of lime which goes really well with the sharpness of the gin. I rather like this one as well, if I’m honest. But then again, the gimlet contains two of my favourite things, so I’m on a winner whatever happens.

Variation Two is three parts gin to one part lime cordial and is probably the closest thing to perfection I can think of that doesn’t include either sprouts or beetroot (my other two favourite things). The balance between sharp gin and sweet lime is spot on. Lengthened with a fair bit of soda water and this could be the perfect summer drink. Better than Pimms, anyway.

Variation Three is four parts gin to one part lime cordial. Essentially a lime martini, this is just when you need to disguise the fact that you’re an alcoholic. Very, very dry.

I think there may have been another version, but I couldn’t entirely swear to that, as by this time I was finding the whole experience far too enjoyable and had to go and have a lie down afterwards. If you are going to recreate this tasting test for yourself, please do so responsibly, don’t drink the entire cocktail unless you don’t have to get up in the morning and please try and remember which one is which so you can let me know what you thought.

Breakfast at the Savoy

Because, of course, one simply has to at least once in one’s life. I was fortunate that this was a birthday gift from my boss – and I liked it so much, I have resolved to go again, just to treat myself. It was, I think, a combination of factors that made this breakfast stick in my mind: my fiftieth birthday; a wonderful winter morning, bright and fresh; the fact that both my grandfather and aunt worked at the Savoy when I was very young; wonderful artworks on the walls into the restaurant; and simply amazing food. The service was exactly what you would expect from a major London hotel – absolutely spot on, nothing too much trouble – and the helpings were surprisingly generous.

I breakfasted in Kaspar’s, the seafood restaurant which now occupies the space previously home to the River Restaurant. The large windows on the far side of the restaurant (away from the door) have the most wonderful views of the Thames. The interior, like the rest of the hotel, is decorated in Art Deco style, and it wouldn’t surprise me to find out quite a lot of it is original. Between the restaurant and the main hotel foyer is a wonderful atrium with an Art Deco stained glass ceiling – I think this is where quite a few afternoon teas are served. I would certainly love to have afternoon tea there – it’s on my list of things to do, along with a round the world cruise and a trip on the Orient Express.

For breakfast, I had pink grapefruit juice, coffee, toast and preserves, and poached eggs Florentine on a bed of asparagus. It doesn’t sound like very much written out like this, but I can assure you, it was a very filling breakfast. This was just my choice – I could have had apple, orange, or cranberry juice, my coffee any which way – or tea if I’d preferred. My toast was granary, but I could have had white bread or a combination, the preserves were orange marmalade, strawberry jam and honey. The list of dishes for the main part of the breakfast went to two pages. Expensive, yes, but I personally think it’s worth every penny.

I really did fall in love with the experience of dining at the Savoy. It was a real treat, partly because it’s not something I do a great deal, but it felt so luxurious and special. I felt special as well (and not just because it was my birthday). It was a world away porridge and tea in my local Pret a Manger – and I loved every minute of it.

Hope Not Opium

Al Jazeera is rapidly becoming my news channel of choice if I want to catch up on global news (and weather – always interesting), since the BBC seem to be either Eurocentric – by which I mean France, Germany or Russia – or obsessed with Donald Trump; and if I’m going to be honest, I’m utterly sick of him. I was surprised that it’s not completely focused on the Arab world, although it does cover the area in depth, but I’ve learned more about the rest of the world lately than I have in ages from the BBC.

For example, I caught a wonderful piece about how villagers in rural Afghanistan are being encouraged to keep bees and harvest honey instead of growing poppies and harvesting opium. Since the start of the war in 2001, opium poppies have rapidly become the cash crop of choice, as the returns on opium can be lucrative – the British realised this when they conducted the Opium Wars against China in the late 1800s. However, there were a number of interesting points that I learned from this report.

Many Afghan women (especially in rural areas) are not allowed to work outside the home. However, it seems that many village elders consider beekeeping housework, and consequently, many women are starting their own businesses keeping bees and marketing the honey. One young woman interviewed started three years ago with a small loan and one hive; she now has five hives, repaid her loan in full after the first year and is now making twice as much money per annum as the average Afghan. No wonder they are taking to it with a vengeance. It is hoped that at some point in the future, Afghan honey will be available internationally.

Honeybees are globally endangered so I think anything that promotes their care should be encouraged – and anything that knocks a hole in the global opium trade can only be a good thing. I hope this is something that can be encouraged in other developing areas, as it would not only help the honeybees, but also promote global biodiversity and hopefully find a way to bring these rural populations out of crushing poverty.

The Joy of … Sweets

There’s a wonderful passage in Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon where an American GI based in England during the war is introduced to classic English sweets and finds the choices becoming increasingly surreal. It’s fair to say that classic English sweets are a bit of an acquired taste, but then I never acquired a taste for Hersheys chocolate so perhaps that’s only fair. In fact, the somewhat baroque nature of classic sweets was also parodied by Roald Dahl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Mr Wonka is experimenting with various flavours of boiled sweet.

There are essentially four types of classic English sweet – mints, toffee/fudge, fruity chews and the boiled sweet. Mints come in all shapes, sizes and strengths, but are all characterised by their distinctive taste and slight chalkiness to the taste. Toffees and fudge may have different flavours – usually butter or chocolate – but they are characterised by being soft and chewy, even if they contain nuts. Fruity chews have a similar consistency to toffee but are brightly coloured and (unsurprisingly) a fruity flavour. It is the boiled sweet in all its forms that fascinates me.

The boiled sweet is so called because during its manufacture, the sugar is brought to boiling point, meaning that the resulting confection is hard, rather than chewy. A good example, actually, is the mint humbug, which despite its flavour is not a classic mint. They come in all shapes, sizes and – amazingly – flavours. Hands up who’s eaten a clove ball or a pear drop? Boiled sweets have to be sucked and held in the mouth until they disintegrate – or get small enough to crunch – and take time to eat, so the pleasure isn’t over in a couple of minutes. This may also be why they come in such peculiar flavours.

I’ve already mentioned the clove ball, which is a highly flavoured ball shaped sweet and really isn’t to everyone’s taste. It’s a variation on the aniseed twist (which I also like) but shaped like a cinnamon imperial. There are sherbet lemons, the cause of many watery eyes and cleared sinuses – acid drops, barley sugars, cough candies and the delightful bulls eyes, which have probably broken more teeth than the average football terrace punch up. It’s that combination of spicy, sweet and sour all merging together into one delicious treat that, if eaten right, can last ages. There really isn’t anything quite like a proper old fashioned sweet is there?

The Negroni

As most of my friends (and relatives, it has to be said) will tell you, I’m rather partial to gin – even though I openly admit to cleaning my jewellery in it. Does bring the old diamonds up a treat, I must say. It’s much better in a cocktail though, so I’ve dug out my old recipe book to see what gin-based potions take my fancy. Top of the list is one of my favourites, the negroni.

The negroni is an aperitif comprising equal parts of gin, red vermouth and Campari, served with a sliver of orange peel. It’s remarkably tart, fruity and extremely potent. Just the thing to kick start a three course dinner. It was based on an established cocktail called an Americano, which was equal parts Campari, red vermouth, topped up with soda water and garnished with a slice of lemon.

If gin isn’t your tipple (strange person you are), there is a whisky variant called the Boulevardier; the Dutch make a negroni with their own native genever rather than London dry gin; an Old Pal is a version using dry vermouth and Canadian rye whisky. There’s even one with tequila!

However you like your cocktail, I hope you have fun experimenting and enjoy a negroni. Please remember, however, the recommended guidelines for alcohol and also bear in mind that the average cocktail is often a lot more alcoholic than it looks!

An Ideal Dinner Party

Before my friends and family protest – I’m only imagining one. I don’t cook, I loathe cooking almost as much as I loathe having other people in my little sanctuary. So please view this in the spirit in which it is intended, as an entertaining thought experiment and not much more.

But – if I were to have a dinner party, who would I invite? Apparently, there are rules to these things; firstly, you must have equal numbers of men and women; secondly, all the invitees are to be fictional characters*; and thirdly, it is assumed that you’ve got an unlimited budget in terms of food, drink and catering generally. I don’t believe that a detailed menu is required, so I’m not providing one. They’ll get what they’re given and like it, as my gran used to say! So, here’s my list of dinner guests:-

1 – Miss Havisham, if she can be crowbarred away from her rotting wedding breakfast and enticed into polite company. She’s allowed to keep the wedding dress, mind.

2 – Jay Gatsby, because at least he knows how to throw a party. And besides, he’d probably know where to get some more booze if we run out.

3 – Morticia Addams, because it wouldn’t be a very good dinner party without her. She’s elegant, witty, intelligent and disarmingly funny.

4 – Gomez Addams, for the same reason I would invite his wife. Although in his case, he would probably be armed and funny.

5 – Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones) because she’s a wonderful character and I think a blooming good meal with great company would do her the world of good. And she can practice her swordplay with Gomez.

6 – Wolverine, because he’d bring his own cutlery and keep things from getting too boisterous.

7 – Alice, because I want to know if her wonderland is real. And besides, someone has to pair up with Gatsby…

8 – Count Dracula, assuming he actually eats and promises to leave the guests alone. In return, I promise not to use him as a target for archery practice.

And there you have it. Mind you, ask me again tomorrow and I’ll give you a completely different list…

* An alternative version has real people who are deceased. Nobody living is ever allowed.

Can One Be A Vegan Goth?

Now, this is quite a question because a lot will depend (a) on what you consider a Goth to be and (b) what you consider a vegan to be. I shall give you my definitions of the two so you can follow my argument, but if your definitions are different, then chances are you will not agree with me. That’s fine – just as long as you know what hymn sheet I’m singing from.

I’ve set my definition of Goth out elsewhere, but for a brief recap, it’s someone who finds the shadow side, the dark subversive side of life preferable to the bright, plastic, surface side. It’s not all about drinking blood and eating brains – where I live, the latter appear to be in terrifyingly short supply, so it’s just as well I don’t subscribe to that school of thought. It treats death as a fact of life rather than something to be feared or demonised, and understands that people are different and that’s okay.

My definition of vegan is someone who doesn’t eat meat, fish, dairy, eggs or honey and tries, where possible, not to promote or encourage cruelty to animals. In some ways this is easier than others – I try not to wear leather, but appreciate that shoes are going to be a problem in this regard so cut myself some slack. Just because death is a fact of life does not mean that that death has to be cruel and certainly promoting cruelty to animals as any form of sport or entertainment is not something I believe is morally justifiable, no matter how one tries to spin it.

For me, the crucial thing is having the right intention but being practical about it. If I am given a choice, I choose the vegan – or at least vegetarian – option; and if I do not have the choice, I choose accordingly. Most importantly, I don’t beat myself up about it. I said in another post that silk is a good option for very hot summers – but it’s not vegan, so if you are not a vegan but have a lovely silk blouse, then by all means, wear it and enjoy it. The thing is, the two are not incompatible and I see no reason why Goths can’t be vegan if they choose to be so. The days where all vegans knitted their own mung bean sandals are, thankfully, long gone.

The Great Avocado Crime Wave

I shouldn’t laugh – this really is quite serious – but there is something really funny about avocados being at the centre of global organised crime. It feels a little like a detective story written by Salvador Dali.

The root cause of it, unsurprisingly, is climate change. Extreme weather in South America has had a significant effect on the harvest and the fruit has been priced out of the reach of many local consumers. A secondary cause, especially in Australia and New Zealand, is that demand is far outstripping supply, to the point where any avocados are being harvested from orchards in the hope of making a quick buck. Apparently, Down Under they even trade through social media.

Despite how bonkers it sounds – and I still think it’s the silliest thing I’ve heard in ages – it’s incredibly serious and I think ought to force us all to look at how we view food. I ate my first avocado at the age of 30; it’s not something that I grew up with. Vegetables were the basics; peas, potatoes, carrots, sprouts, cabbage, parsnips or swede (or beetroot with a salad). Fruit was even more basic – pears, apples, plums, oranges, bananas for a treat. Food fads were extremely rare and superfoods were unknown. What we did have was food grown locally, bought locally and tasting delicious.

If we promoted local produce, grown according to our local climate, I do think we would all be better off for it, both in terms of health and in not allowing crime to pay – which is what it’s all about really, isn’t it?