Plain old curiosity led the Client plus household to leave the Big Smoke and head out to Berkshire last Friday to visit Highclere Castle, the Carnarvon family residence which is famously the setting for the much-praised television drama Downton Abbey. I knew of Highclere before she became Downton, for it was the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who funded the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. (I am sensing a preoccupation with ancient Egypt at present… I know not why…)
I have to admit to being slightly fascinated by the 1920’s. The discovery of the tomb in 1922 was a hugely influential cultural event, spawning new stylistic directions in fashion and particularly in jewellery. Cartier in particular was strongly influenced by such motifs as the scarab, the lotus flower and by the architecture of ancient Egypt. Many of their jewels, and those of other major houses from this period, reference the aesthetic brought to light in the discovery.
Other joys from the 20s include the early works of Agatha Christie, who’s first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles gave life to the much-loved Hercule Poirot and was published in 1920. My favourite AC novel is Death on the Nile (published 1937) and whilst not universally acknowledged as one of her best, does remind us of the grand tours undertaken at the time and evokes the glamour of travel in the jazz age – something that still resonates today with hotels such as Sofitel’s Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan reminding today’s guests that Dame Agatha was a guest there back in the day. P.G. Wodehouse was also writing at this time and his creations Jeeves and Bertie Wooster appeared in 1919.
One defining element of this period is the popularity of the cocktail, this being the era during which many of the concoctions we know and love today were created – or if not created then certainly given names and catalogued for wider reference. The defining tome for cocktail lovers everywhere is of course The Savoy Cocktail Book first published in 1930, with an absolutely cracking Art Deco cover design.
Speaking of cocktails, it was my great pleasure to dine with some chums at the Delaunay restaurant the other night and I must give praise for the absolutely delicious Sidecar they served up. Made with 1/3 brandy, 1/3 triple sec, 1/3 lemon juice, my benchmark for brilliance for this particular favourite is the one served at the Connaught Hotel’s Coburg Bar. I have to say the Delaunay’s comes in a very close second and I will need to return as soon as possible for another (for research purposes of course….) The food wasn’t bad either and I have to say the dining room, service and general all round experience was one I very much look forward to repeating, soon and often thereafter. It may well be my new favourite spot.
London is feeling decidedly autumnal this week and that puts one in mind of all the delicious treats that have been ripening and readying themselves for harvest. Of most particular interest to me are damsons and sloes, for these sweet amethyst-coloured jewels are the flavouring for my favourite winter tipple; Damson Gin.
It couldn’t be easier to make… but first of all you have to track down some damsons. They are not all that common but luckily for me a friend has them growing in her garden near Lake Windermere completely organically and watered by nature so no energy or chemically intensive processes involved! One needs to apply a rule of two thirds damsons, washed and de-stalked to one third white sugar, placed into a jar with a tightly sealing lid, and topped up to the brim with gin. Leave the remaining soup to steep, shaking the jar (s) occasionally to ensure the sugar dissolves. After three months, it is ready to enjoy. Strain, bottle and share!
One tip I was given to make the process of steeping the fruits easier is to freeze them, which causes the ripened fruit’s skins to burst and therefore negates the need to prick each fruit individually to break the skins. Also, once strained at the end of the steeping process, one can apparently dry the remaining fruits in the oven and add them to cakes and other festive bakings… although I personally haven’t tried that yet.
Without wanting to wish the coming weeks away, I am SO looking forward to opening the results of our brief labours to enjoy a taste which reminds me instantly of festive celebrations and the excitements which await us.
One of my birthday presents back in the summer was a beautifully wrapped and ribboned set of Nancy Mitford paperbacks. The thoughtful giver of said gift had mentioned his love of the Mitfords over a cocktail at the Connaught and following that delightful evening had (very generously) sent me a copy of The Mitfords : Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Moseley. It was with great enthusiasm that I began delving in to their gossipy world, first of all with the letters and subsequently Nancy’s novels. I started with The Pursuit of Love, followed by Love in a Cold Climate, The Blessing and finally Don’t Tell Alfred.
Discovering that another friend of mine is a devoted Mitford fan, I arranged an afternoon tea at the Wolseley so that the two of them could meet. What better than to sit and chat about these delicious books over a glass of champagne, some delicious scones and a pot of Jasmine tea? It really could not have gone better. From our original three we became five, two of whom were unknown to me until meeting that afternoon. It was so enriching to be among both friends and strangers alike, each bringing their own knowledge (dwarfing my own) and perspective on a shared interest.
I have decided that afternoon tea is the perfect interlude to conduct such an enjoyable few hours discourse and henceforth shall make a point of arranging such gatherings more frequently. I quite understand why all the big hotels make such a fuss of it – The Berkeley with their “Pret a Por-tea” fashion-themed offering, and Claridge’s of course setting the benchmark. Apparently The Ritz has rather gone off of late… ever since they allowed photography according to my friend in the know who described the scene recently as like “feeding time at the zoo”.
Nancy would not approve.
The small gesture of saying hello and remembering a person’s name in a shop or bar you visit frequently is a custom so often overlooked in London. The pace of life means we often forget about manners in a bid to get things done a bit faster and without the possibility of actually engaging with our fellow citizens. I am firmly convinced that taking the time to get to know your customers is one of the best ways to not only retain their future custom (and stop them from going to a competitor) but to massively enrich their experience for absolutely no cost.
Last night I was reminded of how important this is in our electronic, anonymous age.
A genuine tonic in life is sinking into a deeply upholstered chair and imbibing some delicious cocktails or glass of champagne, and there is nowhere in London that beats the Coburg Bar at the Connaught for complete pleasure and excellence. The team here are the friendliest and most welcoming of all the luxury hotel bars by far, making a point of welcoming you by name after a few visits. The intuitive, thoughtful service is delivered in an unhurried manner which enables the personality and nature of the people who work here to infuse the atmosphere with welcome. They take the time to care, genuinely, about your experience in their custody.
The decor (by India Mahdavi) is darkly seductive and invites intimate conversation to flow freely over the homemade crisps and huge succulent olives. My favourite cocktail from their excellent list is by far a Sidecar, and this is truly the best I’ve ever tasted anywhere. Their cocktails are made with the sort of affection and attention to detail which evokes a genuinely bygone era of glamour, when such things really mattered. They still do.
Carlos Place, London W1
020 7499 7070
Some close friends introduced me to the delights of Plymouth Gin and in particular Plymouth Sloe Gin. If you’ve never tried it, I urge you to do so immediately (or perhaps better still when the next cocktail hour is upon you).
Plymouth Gin’s distillery has been in operation since 1793 and their sloe gin recipe dates from 1883. The Uncommon Client is averse to any kind of additives and unnecessary tampering and their unique recipe is free of any added flavourings or colourings. The sloe berries are pricked and soaked in a mixture of Plymouth Gin, water drawn from Dartmoor and sugar. The process takes four months and the resulting dark, plum-coloured liquor is the perfect winter warmer served neat in a small shot glass.
In summer it can be enjoyed long mixed with cloudy lemonade and ice in a highball glass. Don’t use the very sugary clear lemonade as a mixer as the resulting drink becomes far too sweet and quite ruins the flavours. The sweetness of the sloe berries is best cut with the bitterness of the cloudy stuff.
We were heartened to see Plymouth Sloe Gin on the cocktail list at The Press Club in Melbourne, but that in itself raised the point that thousands of miles from Plymouth, this brand is present and thriving. Referencing one of the principles of this blog as being anti-ubiquity I am minded to argue that sometimes a good, local and historic product deserves to be made available to everyone if done in a responsible and market-sensitive way. I hope that the owners of Plymouth Gin, the huge beverage powerhouse Pernod Ricard, continue to support this British brand internationally whilst being sensitive to the brands already established in local markets. The big conglomorate saving and keeping alive the cherished heritage brand is indeed a double-edged sword.