Summer - at no other time of year is nature's bounty more, well, bounteous. Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller switch swizzel sticks for dibbers and make the most of seasonal ingredients to give cocktails a unique twist.
Like fine wine, good cocktails begin with fingers in the soil. At minimum, you gain a far greater understanding of your ingredients by growing your own. At best, you create the ultimate indulgence for your guests.
We live in a time of globalisation: a time when you can order the same rum and cola in every bar on the planet. What is the ultimate indulgence? It is a seasonal, local, handcrafted drink. It is a flavour you can’t find in every bar on the planet. This is why so many great bartenders are spending time in the garden and kitchen before stepping behind the bar.
You don’t need a particularly green thumb. In spring, plants come up like it or not. Any ground not intentionally cultivated is now filling with nettles and dandelions. These aren’t a complete loss. We have just begun to explore the potential of nettles.
One of our all-time best purchases for working with garden ingredients is a £49 dehydrator. We dry pineapple chunks saturated in Angostura bitters, bergamot slices pre-simmered in simple syrup, apple and pear slices, blackcurrants and their leaves, plus every other leaf in the garden – sage, chives, Corsican mint, lemon verbena, loads of lemon verbena.
Concentrated flavour for infusions, syrups and garnishes is our goal. Shelf-stable when stored in air-tight containers, dehydration ensures no waste when you have a bumper harvest in the spring, summer or autumn.
We’ve started our green shiso for the year. Also known as Japanese basil, these leaves can be horrendously expensive. We recently spotted them on sale in Soho for 25p per leaf, which is half the normal price. There is a secret: before planting in potting soil, they need to soak for two days in a shallow dish of water. Only then will they sprout, and they will sprout in abundance. We grow both green and purple shiso outdoors and indoors.
Purple shiso makes a glorious violet-hued syrup. Based on a century-old recipe, the leaves are simmered in simple syrup, covered, on low temperature for 30 minutes. The cooked leaves are no longer purple but green. Our usual measure is a large handful of fresh or dried leaves with a litre of water and a kilo of sugar.
Mixed with gin this plant is our favourite year-round party piece. We’ve also had great success freezing the syrup in ice-cube trays. Add a cube or two to the shaker when making a Gimlet or Bee’s Knees (one of the best drinks ever). Garnish with a fresh shiso leaf.
But back to those nettles. We have so many this year that some will go into the dehydrator to become nettle tea, extract, and syrup. I can’t help wondering if we will end up with more desperately painful stings from the dried leaves. After a few stings, the excess nettles, the ones not left for ladybirds to lay their eggs on, will get heaped in a trug and covered with water where they will ferment. The aroma will be frightful, but it’s a phenomenal natural fertiliser when poured on the roots of other plants after a few weeks rotting.
The dandelions, which are just finishing their season, will likely head from garden to compost heap, though their unrepentant bitter flavour is reminiscent of wormwood (artemisia absinthium). Given the choice, we will keep working with wormwood as it’s a known quantity. There are those who might suggest we seize the abundance and make dandelion wine. Maybe next year.
It’s all in the timing
However, one of the biggest challenges of working from garden to glass is allocating time. There will always be more options than hours in a day, so it is essential to pick the best ones and focus on them. For example, after two attempts at sloe wine we finally accepted the wisdom of Victorian English farmers who never looked back once they discovered sloe gin. We will save our secrets of sloe gin (and sloe Irish whiskey) for a later article, as there are so many crops coming sooner.
There’s an abundance of rhubarb, which arrived in spring but is still going strong. Wonderfully citrussy, it lends itself to infusion in spirits, especially white spirits. Chop a few stalks of rhubarb into 1-inch segments, enough to fill half a kilner jar. Pour in a bottle of gin or vodka. Let it steep for two weeks.
Rhubarb can also be made into an instant liqueur. Simmer a kilo of chopped rhubarb with 50cl water and 400g sugar for 30 minutes. Cool and then strain through a jelly bag. Jelly bag – it’s another essential piece of garden-to-glass kit we encourage you to own.
But that’s enough for now. The garden is calling.