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Amari - the dark and mysterious side of Italian drinking

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I wrote a piece in October about digestifs: the strong, often sweet drinks some countries produce for after-dinner drinking¹. Brandies and liqueurs are very well known, but it's worth exploring the Italian amari further, as they're so much less well-known. Until the last ten years or so, very few amari have been known outside Italy at all, but north American mixologists, ever on the look-out for an interesting edge, have started to use them more and more in bespoke cocktails. The word amaro means bitter, and that's exactly what these drinks are. Be under no illusion: they are drinks for grown-ups. The level of bitterness will vary from one brand to the next, but they all carry that same trait. Originally, these drinks were herbal tinctures, tonics created by apothecaries and herbalists, but as access to medicine improved, people continued to drink them for their enjoyable flavours and reputed ability to settle the stomach after a decent meal. So there we have their principa

Adding Umami (gifted)

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I am pleased to be a brand ambassador for Geo Watkins sauces. I've been using their Anchovy Sauce since the days when it was called Anchovy Essence, and the Mushroom Ketchup for almost as long. When the opportunity came along, I jumped at it, because I really enjoy using their products. Full disclosure here: Geo Watkins have gifted me several bottles of each sauce, but my enthusiasm for them came first. Both mushrooms and anchovies are high in umami - that mysterious savoury experience that makes so many things taste better. Other things that are high in umami are parmesan, veal stock (when made from real veal bones), miso and yeast. It's not surprising that chefs have been using these things for centuries to enhance their dishes. The labelling on the Geo Watkins sauces pays tribute to their origin in the reign of William IV. That doesn't mean, of course, that they're only useful for traditional dishes. A few months ago I tried a little experiment with modern, Japanese-

Pain d'Epices - a taste of Medieval baking

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If you listen to my podcast¹, you will have heard last week how much I love to celebrate the winter festivals of St Nicholas, Advent and Christmas, and how I associate them with baking. I published my recipes for Dutch Sinterklaas biscuits last year, so I thought I'd treat you to my French recipe this year. Although sugar cane was cultivated in Europe in the middle ages, it was very expensive to produce and limited in its geographical spread, confined mainly to the island of Sicily and, later, Madeira. Sugar-based sweetmeats were luxury goods, even for the wealthy, and honey was the most commonly used sweetener. Rye was a popular grain for bread-making throughout central Europe, due to it being hardier than wheat and able to tolerate a wider variety of soil conditions. Finally, there are the spices that give pain d'épices its name (literally, 'spice-bread'): cinnamon, aniseed and nutmeg or mace. Aniseed is the predominant flavour, which is hardly surprising: it grows n

Give the turkey a rest - alternative Christmas roasts

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In a recent article for Handpicked Harrogate magazine¹, I wrote about how home cooks put themselves under tremendous pressure to cook a turkey "with all the trimmings." It seems that over the last 20 years or so, we have come to expect our seasonal bird to come with a vast array of accompaniments, vegetable dishes and sauces. As far as I can tell, we only seem to have these massive expectations with turkey. Given that most of us will be reducing our Christmas guest-list this year, a 16lb turkey is likely to be too much, anyway, and I thought I'd have a look at alternatives. Chicken Before the advent of battery farming, chicken was considered a luxury meat. The idea that it had more flavour is not down to nostalgia: slower-growing breeds have time to develop more flavour but are, inevitably, more expensive to rear. Having said that, you can be confident they will have had space to roam and a generally better life, especially if you're buying from an independent butche

Darker drinks to warm your winter nights

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There is a definite seasonality to my drinking habits. I have commented on it before: how I enjoy sharp and light drinks in the summer months, fino sherry in the sunshine or rosé wine with salads. By the same token, as the temperature drops and the nights grow longer, I naturally incline to darker, more full-bodied drinks in the autumn and winter. It's not just because winter foods tend to be deeper in flavour, although that certainly plays a part, but somehow the mood of the season calls for darker drinks. Even if I'm not drinking with food, I wouldn't think of opening a bottle of lager, dry white wine or crisp sherry. Even gin and tonic are less common for me come November. Shiraz, Malbec and Rioja People will tell you I'm not a fan of rich, heavily-oaked red wines. I think it would be more accurate to say I struggle to match them with food. In the winter months, I'm more likely to open a bottle after supper, or to open one early in the week and take a glass out o

Ghoulish Cocktails & Bonfire Sparklers

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Although Covid-19 has put put paid to a lot of the conventional activities of Hallowe'en, Mischief Night and 5th November, we still have plenty scope for making fun at home. Indeed, home is the best place to rediscover the joyful spirit of those celebrations, as they were family celebrations before they became bigger ones. If you have children, this might be a great time to introduce them to the cultural roots behind the festivals. Hallowe'en in the UK has its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain, a "thin time," when the world of the living and that of the dead were brought close together. Among the festivities were simple games, playing tricks & practical jokes, and dressing up. Like many Pagan festivals, the beliefs and activities of Samhain were given a Christian gloss by the fifth and sixth century missionaries as a way of explaining and promoting their faith. The "thin time" sits comfortably with the theology behind All Saints' and All Soul

After Dinner Drinking

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You know how it is: you've had a lovely dinner and a fine selection of wines; you're not ready to finish just yet as you're enjoying the company and want to relax a little before everyone's on their way, but you're not sure more wine has the right feel about it. Just as the aperitif developed to "open up" the appetite to the dinner that follows, so many countries have created "digestive" drinks to relax the body and aid digestion, so that diners aren't waddling home uncomfortably full. One for the road needs to be a small one, and small ones are often strong ones. A friend coined the term "sippy-sippy drinks," which I think gleefully captures the style of these strong, sometimes very sweet drinks that are not to be approached lightly. Many cultures serve neat spirit at the end of the evening. It's certainly true that brandy, whiskey and such have a warming, relaxing effect on the way down. Whether they make any difference to you