VERY early in the morning, when the deep night begins to fade, the olive thrushes start calling in our neighbourhood.
Beautiful dark green calls, echoing through the morning air. To me, they remain one of the most beautiful sounds on earth; and if they wake you, it is a sure sign the summer sun is on its way.
Which reminds me of scorching hot days in the Little Karoo, of summer sweat in the garden and an unquenchable thirst, but also of endless twilight get-togethers, Christmas and family gatherings. And intertwined with this, of delightful summer trips and drinks I've had in faraway places.
Of Cousin Pierre solemnly admonishing, “Remain icy calm" as he clinked the ice in his gin and tonic glass. Of a bottle of prosecco, which had to assuage the longing for home at Christmas in Piazza San Marco in Venice, only to be smashed to smithereens on the ground due to a clumsy opening blow. At which a bystander cheerfully exclaimed: “Tanti auguri!" Although I would later learn that it meant “best wishes and good luck!" or “oh shit!" (depending on your mood), the joy of the wish suddenly made my shame seep into the cobblestones like the wine.
And the time my girlfriend Delana and I choked down clear ouzo on a ferry between Bari and Brindisi because my dad instructed us to try to eat and drink everything from the places you visit, and we had just come from Greece. We would only realise later that you enjoy this delicious drink with water.
Then there was the bright moment with my sister Annette, one morning at opening time in a small bar in Nice — because I was on my way back home and absinthe was still on the to-do list. We were the first and only customers and the staff were as blunt and unfriendly as only Niçoise waiters can be. But the little fountain of absinthe did its job and eventually they had to smile and even laugh at our chirping.
So many drinks, so many memories. Our youngest sister Maria married a blues band drummer (yes, really) and went to live in the southern US. Think hot and stuffy — think “dangerously high levels of discomfort”. There she got to know the delicious, refreshing, sweet and sour “shrub" and taught us how to make it. She called it “skrop" and the name stuck.
It's a drink from days gone by that has become popular again as a homemade version of a sports drink. The basis is vinegar, preferably unfiltered, flavoured with fruit or herbs and spices, and a sweetener. Vinegars such as apple cider vinegar, champagne vinegar or rice vinegar are a little milder, while white balsamic vinegar and white wine vinegar provide a stronger vinegar taste. Spirit vinegar will not do and will not mellow with ageing either.
Shrub needs time to develop. And if you have patience, you keep it in the fridge for months while its flavour mellows and deepens. A perfect shrub's taste is sweet and sour; it quenches your thirst and stimulates your appetite.
You can experiment with different fruits; and because the fruit can be slightly bruised or overripe, you can use all the fruit you might otherwise discard on the compost heap. Fresh herbs such as mint, rosemary, lemon mint and basil, and spices such as cinnamon, aniseed and pepper, contribute to interesting undertones.
1. Rinse the fruit, peel and seed where necessary. Press slightly (by hand) to increase the surface area for flavour extraction.
2. Use the ratio of 1 cup fruit, 1 cup sugar and 1 cup vinegar.
3. Cover 1 cup of fruit with 1 cup of sugar, stir and keep in a cool place for a day or two to macerate. Shake occasionally.
4. Add the vinegar to the jar, shake well and keep in the fridge for a week.
5. Strain the syrup and press the fruit slightly to squeeze out the juice. Use the fruit in fruit salad, yoghurt, iced tea or baked goods.
5. Taste! The shrub's flavour and aroma will no doubt be strong, but remember this is just the beginning. Over time, you will obtain a light sweet-sour syrup with a rich, fruity flavour.
It is served by diluting it with cold or sparkling water. And if you want it to beat the most stubborn late-afternoon heat, add a dash of gin as well.
Here are two recipes you can experiment with: a blueberry shrub that can serve as an introduction to the genre, and a more traditional strawberry shrub.
Blueberry and rosemary shrub
- 1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
- ½ cup honey or sugar (or a combination)
- ¼ cup vinegar of your choice
- a sprig of rosemary
1. Put the berries in a mixing bowl and press them slightly to break the skins. Pour over the sugar or honey. Leave for a day.
2. Add the vinegar and rosemary and shake well. Let rest in the fridge for a day or two.
3. Now strain out the syrup and use.
- 2 cups strawberries, cleaned and chopped
- 1-1 ½ cup sugar or more to taste
- 1 cup vinegar of your choice
- 6 peppercorns
1. Pour the strawberries and a cup of sugar into a jar and stir well. Leave to macerate.
2. Stir in the vinegar and peppercorns. Screw the lid on the jar, shake and leave in the fridge for five days.
3. Taste and add more sugar if needed. Stir to dissolve and refrigerate for two more days. Remember, the longer the resting time, the milder the taste.
4. Strain the mixture when the shrub is to your liking and press the fruit pieces with a spoon to extract as much juice as possible.
5. Serve on ice, diluted with water or sparkling water. The shrub keeps well in the fridge for many months.
Pisco sour (for good laughs)
I can't let you go before I tell you about the pisco sour I was introduced to on a horseback ride in Chile and which played a part — okay, a big part — in turning that holiday into an unforgettable experience. Because the pisco sours made it a journey of laughter and conversation — and often of pure relief that at the end of a day crossing Chile's mountains and valleys I was still in one piece.
The main player in the drink is pisco brandy, which is distilled from specific muscat grape cultivars that give it a certain fruitiness. The brandy is not aged in wood.
And although the drink is named after Pisco, a city in Peru, it is the national drink in both Chile and Peru, with local variations of preparation.
Here in South Africa it is hard to get hold of pisco brandy (I see Copeland Spirits makes one now), but three-year-old KWV will give you a good idea.
Pisco sour for guests:
- 1 cup fresh lime or lemon juice
- 1 cup three-year-old KWV, or of course pisco brandy
- 1 cup sugar syrup (1 cup water and 1 cup sugar, boiled and cooled)
- 1 cup crushed ice
Shake the ingredients briskly and divide into four glasses.
Two glasses of pisco sour:
- 90 ml (3 tots) three-year-old KWV
- ¼ cup fresh lime or lemon juice
- 1-2 tbsp icing or castor sugar
- 1 cup crushed ice
Pour into a cocktail mixer and shake briskly until the sugar is dissolved.
Serve in two tall, thin glasses, sit back, turn your face to the summer sun and know that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well".
♦ VWB ♦
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