Summer aperitifs

Summer brings a special character to my dinners. The table erupts with colour as I add edible flowers and specialist herbs like bronze fennel or red oxalis as garnishes. I have a loose-weave tablecloth that shows the colour of green, pink or blue undercloths beneath. Table flowers are chosen for their scent as well as their colour, and freesias are a favourite.

With so much colour on the dining table, I love to serve colourful and frivolous aperitif drinks, too. One such is the Douglas Fairbanks cocktail. As befits a handsome and daring actor, the cocktail is strong, sharp and fruity.

Douglas Fairbanks
60ml dry gin
20ml apricot brandy
10ml fresh lime juice
15ml egg white

Place all the ingredients in a shaker with ice and shake hard until your hand can't stand the cold. Double-strain into a coupe glass and garnish with slices of lime and cocktail cherries.

Pimms & lemonade has become synonymous with the English summer, garnished with heaps of fruit, cucumber and borage. If you grow borage in your garden, you'll know how pretty the flowers look frozen into your ice cubes. Make sure you use cool, boiled water for this, so the ice is perfectly clear. Pimms, being gin-based, works just as well mixed with ginger ale, tonic water or sparkling apple juice.

This style of drink is an example of a fruit cup: a mixture of a spirit base, fruit juice and other flavourings. Fruit cups make great summer drinks because they're generally lighter in alcohol and refreshing in the mouth. They add a touch of fun to wedding receptions, garden parties and picnics, as well as pre-dinner drinks parties. Here are some more ideas you might want to try:

My borage in flower
Sangria: red wine, oranges & lemons, a slug of brandy & orange juice. Sweeten to taste with sugar.

Grand Esprit: Grand Marnier, elderflower cordial, strawberries & soda water.

Grapefruit cup: gin, grapefruit juice, slices of pink grapefruit& soda water.

Fire & Ice: gin, ginger beer (not ginger ale - it needs to taste hot in the mouth), slices of lemon.
Bitter Pink: rosé vermouth (such as Martini Rosato or Cocchi Rosa), pomegranate juice, raspberries & hibiscus flowers in syrup.

It is important that any fruit cup is garnished with lots of fruit and lots of ice. Make them in a punch bowl or the biggest jug you own. They are not meant to be strong drinks at all, so add a little more soda or lemonade to any of the above as you wish.

Nobody's going to complain if you serve a cold starter on a warm, summer evening. By doing so, you'll free up lots of time for you to get out in the garden with your guests and turn the aperitif into a bit of a garden party. Put some pretty lights out and music from your mis-spent youth. With fruit cups being light on alcohol, it doesn't matter if your guests have several glasses over an extended period of 90 minutes to 2 hours before dinner. Furnish them with a cured meat platter or plenty dips to keep them going until you're ready to bring them to your table.

Of course Champagne lends itself to summer evening drinking. If you're lucky enough to have wild strawberries in your garden, pick just 3 per glass, prick them a couple of times with a fine needle and put them at the bottom of a flute glass with half a teaspoon of caster sugar. Let them sit for half an hour before your guests arrive, then top up with Champagne. Another wonderful cocktail to make with Champagne is the great Salvatore Calabrese's Dream cocktail. This is a wonderful mix of sweetness, spice and sharp citrus fruit with Champagne fizz. It holds a very special place in our hearts as we served it before our civil partnership celebration lunch, and we try to serve it at at least one dinner every summer.

Dream cocktail
Love's young dream
30ml Dubonnet
15ml Cointreau or Triple Sec
15ml grapefruit juice

Mix the first three ingredients over ice in jug or mixing glass. Strain into flutes and top up with Champagne.

Champagne and cocktails made from it work well with simple, salty foods. Olives, marinated cheese cubes and sliced saucisson or salami are all great partners and can be prepared well in advance of your guests' arrival.

Next time: planning a menu


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