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Marry me!

I have a Hungarian friend who’s a genius in the kitchen. He’s a natural. He instinctively knows what a dish needs to rescue it, to save it from blandness and turn it into something special. I envy him this. Oh, I get it right sometimes, but his is a talent, an art.

Mixing drinks is another art form. Budapest is rife with bars boasting cocktail menus that are simply variations of the same dated theme. Cosmopolitans, mojitos, Long Island iced teas. Yes, I know they’re classics and when done right, they’re grand. Follow the recipe and get a little creative and you can come up with something that’s bordering on great but never quite makes it to the next level.

For all its fine eateries and exclusive hotels, I’ve found Budapest lacking a decent bar with an innovative bartender who can do with drinks what my mate can do with spices … particularly one that caters for those of us who don’t have a Four Seasons wallet or an expense account. I’ve tried the notables and each time have come away disappointed. They’ve never quite lived up to my expectations. But I’ve never known what exactly I was looking for until this week – when I found it.

An old friend I hadn’t seen in some time invited me to try this new bar in District V. AKA Bar is the front bar of the relocated Baraka restaurant (Dorottya u. 6) which moved downtown from Andrassy last year. I’d been to the old Baraka a few years ago on a posh night out and loved it so I needed no persuading. But, given its location, I was a tad concerned that this new bar might be verging on the pretentious side. And when it comes to high-quality mixed drinks, exclusivity and pretentiousness seem to go hand in hand.

_MG_7808 (800x533)As early birds, we had the place to ourselves for a while and got chatting to the bar manager, György Demendi. In an age when a tired apathy seems to be the order of the day, it’s refreshing to find someone who is passionate about what they do and better still, is knowledgeable and willing to share that knowledge. Demendi asked what my tipple of choice was. Gin, of course. He asked if I preferred sweet or sour. I said sour. He had half a dozen bottles amidst the multitude on his shelves, bottles that were so artistically arranged that I found myself staring at them in something approaching awe as he got busy making me something – throwing it together with the practiced ease of a man at home with his ingredients.

He suggested BCN – a Spanish gin that combines juniper berries, rosemary, fennel, pine shoots, and figs from the mountains of the Priorat with lemon peels from South Catalonia.  He mixed it with fig syrup, some Yuzu (an Eastern citrus mix of grapefruit and lime), some lime juice, FeverTree tonic and then garnished it with grapefruit rind and grape halves. It’s so new it doesn’t yet have a name. I took a sip. An involuntary moan rose out of nowhere. ‘Marry me’, I said.

In much the same way as a shelf of books can tell you something about the person, the selection of bottles he had painstakingly put together speaks volumes about this bar. Never did I expect to see Monkey 47 or Caorunn in Budapest. Nor the range of Japanese whisky that blends nicely with the best of what Scotland and Ireland has produced. The diversity of what’s on offer is priced on the right side of exclusive. The quiet enthusiasm with which Demendi answered my questions about provenance and taste was matched by the exquisiteness of what he pours. It’s an experience to be savoured and one I look forward to repeating … even if marriage is out of the question.

First published in the Budapest Times 4 February 2016

2016 Grateful 49

Back at the turn of the century, a bunch of Irish friends were making semi-regular trips to France to purchase wine by the bootload. They’d make a weekend of it, stretch out the buying spree to include everything French. I was never invited for two reasons (a) I didn’t drink wine and (b) I didn’t like olives. The fact that I wasn’t living in the country then may also have had something to do with it.

Around the same time, in Oxford, the one and only RG, talked me into sharing a bottle of white wine with him one evening and the rest, as the man says, is history. But I’ve never quite mastered any sort of appreciation for red wine, partly due to an overindulgence in hot port in Anchorage one evening that has left me marked for life. I can’t sit beside an open bag of wine gums without feeling nauseous.

Early this month, I was in Castle Leslie with said same Irish friends. As we sat down to a five-course dinner in our private dining room, it was soon clear that everyone but me was drinking red wine.  What to do? Get a bottle of white for myself? I couldn’t be that obvious.

gin1I’d been a little late to dinner so missed the cocktail order. Instead, I chose one of the 88 gins from an extensive menu curated by Food and Beverages Manager John Matthews. No. 209. From the only distillery in the world that is ‘situated over water’. Based on Pier 50 in San Francisco, it’s quadruple distilled and gets its name from the fact that it’s the 209th distillery to be licensed in the states. And it was rather delicious.  [Note to anyone interested: I have a birthday coming up this year!]

 

Matthews dropped by to see how we were all doing (the service in CL is second to none) and asked if anyone was on the gin. Of course I was. And then he rocked my world by telling me that it’s his belief that gin can accompany a meal just was well as wine. Imagine. A different gin every course. Who needs wine, I thought to myself. I’d be happy to be a guinea pig for this little experiment.
gin2

My 209 went rather nicely with venison starter. But for mains, I was torn between the beef and the pork (pork belly and pigs cheek). For the beef, he recommended an English gin from Birmingham’s Langley distillery  – Botanic (served with lime and juniper berries). Or was it the Scottish Botanist (served with thyme and lemon)?  And for the pork, it was another English  number, the single-distilled Hoxton gin. Made using only alcohol from French summer wheat (who knew?) its recipe includes coconut, grapefruit, juniper, iris, tarragon and ginger. This I had to try. So I went for the pork and savoured the gin. And while it was certainly different, the No. 209 was still winning.

 

I’m a great lover of cannoli and can’t pass it up on those rare occasions it makes a dessert menu. And for this, it was another American gin – Deaths Door (served with pear and cracked coriander. And while the spirit was willing, the body was weak. I was tired, too tired to appreciate another gin. Looking it up later, I see that it has had mixed reviews. And I also see that it’s in Wisconsin, a gin3part of the world I will be in pretty soon – so I might just have to visit in person.

It was a lovely experiment and one I could repeat. I’d have to eat slower though and take longer between courses. Gin isn’t something to be rushed.

It’s been a week crammed with fine dining and notable wines – a good week that included a Black Tie event, some good theatre, and plenty of socialising. Add this to lasting memories of Matthew’s Gin Menu (featuring gins from Ireland, Holland, Australia, Colombia, Spain, Germany, England, Scotland, France, Norway, and the USA) and I have plenty to be grateful for. He also tipped me off to the Ginvent calendar  from the Masters of Malt who can send a sample bottle of new gin for every day in Advent. Did I mention that I have a birthday coming up this year 🙂

 

G&Ts all round

Countries, like people, have their favourite tipple. Gin is probably best associated with England, the country that gave it birth back in the late seventeenth century. Some 30 years later, London had 1500 working stills and more than 6000 places to buy gin. Over the years, its popularity waned. Vodka and whiskey took over. Yes, it had occasional flits with fame. Who doesn’t remember the line from the movie Casablanca when Bogart’s Rick Blaine wonders: Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

In the last couple of years, gin has been enjoying quite the revival in Britain with gin parlours opening up all over the place and craft distilleries experimenting with botanical additives. [Useless fact: statistics show that the Philippines is the country with the world’s highest per capita gin consumption… I’d never have made that association.]

There is something very stiff-upper-lippish about the G&T that goes hand in hand with the upper-class insouciance so redolent in period pieces. I think it’s the tonic that promotes it from the working-class gin-swiller to the pre-prandial gentry. And even tonics are enjoying regeneration. But perhaps the heat is getting to me.

I was once rather fond of my gin, with Ireland’s Cork Dry Gin my bottle of choice. Anyone visiting me from home would be asked to include a bottle along with the Tayto crisps and the Barry’s teabags. In Alaska, I was introduced to Bombay Sapphire, and later in London, it was the quintessential Gordons.

gin2I’ve just come back from a trip to the UK that took in Oxford, Durham, Bath, St Ives, and Bristol, a trip on which I rediscovered the joys of the juniper. The standard fare of Tanqueray and Hendricks (both produced in Scotland) are still on the shelves, but beside them are craft gins like Tarquin (Cornwall) and Brennan and Brown (Cheltenham).  And the question of the day is how they should be served. Lime, cucumber, orange peel, and lemon, respectively.  [Brennan and Brown already comes with an interesting hint of ginger.] I’m now particularly fond of Tarquin, served in a balloon glass with some orange-peel ice cubes. Another craving has been born.

 

Other countries have their favourites, too. Cachaça in Brazil. Rum in Barbados. gin3Rakija in Serbia. Each nation has its special spirit, a liquid thread in the fabric of its cultural make-up. Coincidentally, Ethiopia and Eritrea have a fondness for a honey-mead wine known as tej (which is also Hungarian for milk).

In Ireland, summer is typically cider time. The weather is too hot (if you can call 24 degrees hot!) for Guinness. The nights are too long for shorts. And if you retire to the pub on a sunny afternoon after a hike or a walk or a bike ride, you want something long anciderd cold. Cider, particularly Bulmers (known to the rest of the world as Magners because of some weird branding issue), served in a pint glass over ice would seem to be the choice of many. I know it’s mine.

Here in Hungary, with the temperatures soaring into the high 30s, the seven types of wine spritzer are even more popular than usual, with the hosszúlépés (1 dl wine: 2 dl soda) giving way to the vice házmester (2 dl wine: 3 dl soda) as more liquid intake is needed. Bottles of rosé and siphons of szoda are commonplace in a country where even the most he of he-men thinks nothing of drinking a girly drink in public. And that’s refreshing in more ways than one.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 July 2015