It’s been a couple of weeks since I last attempted to write anything, my time currently being hogged by working, commuting, falling asleep whilst commuting, falling asleep during Bake Off, looking at flats I can’t afford, frantically applying for jobs (which, right now, feels a bit like stuffing your CV, cover letter and as much portfolio work as you can into a thick envelope, duct-taping it up, attaching it to a balloon and sending it up into space), catching up on the Bake Off I fell asleep during, scouring the internet for holiday ideas (we’ve gone from Myanmar to Peru to Chile to Mexico to Jamaica and back to Mexico so far, the destination changing whenever we discover the price of the flights), and attempting to maintain some form of social life without having to actually go out because the likelihood is, I’ll probably fall asleep. How people keep up this life of staring at screens and painfully delayed trains and exercising at 6am I have no idea; I’ve already started googling the price of diplomas in wedding cake decorating to see if that would be a viable career option.
Having said this, I can’t complain. I did spend last weekend in a treehouse set in the field of an off-grid botanical farm and gin distillery in the middle of Cornwall, so it’s not all early mornings and sending emails. Don’t worry; I’m not going to bore you by boasting of my enviable weekend making artisan gin and sleeping under a mountain of blankets in our completely hidden treehouse (complete with outdoor bath and, even better, a real toilet) – I’m going to tell you what I’ve learnt about gin. Boasting about my enviable weekend is simply going to be the byproduct of this.
So the first thing I learned about gin; it tastes infinitely better if you set your scene right. Sat at a sticky table in the middle of a Whetherspoons, garnished with a soggy slice of lemon and accompanied by a plate of Spoons’ chips: perfectly acceptable, but just not quite fitting. Order a pint and save your g&t for a time when you’re stood in a hut, surrounded by what looks like the equipment an 18th century apothecary, the chill of the Cornish countryside chilling your bones and the proximity of the candles to the 100 proof alcohol (and subsequent fumes in the room which are also making you feel a little giddy) setting you slightly on edge, and it will taste unmeasurably better. Don’t have a gin distillery hut in the middle of Cornwall? Go to your shed, light some candles, open a bottle of vodka and take a big whiff and you’re pretty much there.
The second thing I learned; gin is surprisingly easy to make, even for the most cretinous of chemists. You begin with juniper berries, coriander seeds and angelica root (which smells surprisingly similar to the 350ml bottle of beefeater gin from the corner shop that became my regular fuel for going out, add some lukewarm Coop tonic and I’m back at uni), which is macerated in spirit until flavoured. Add in whatever botanicals you want – I think I had a duck/venison gravy in mind for mine as I went for blackberries, thyme, anise, peppercorns, citrus peel and calendula (purely because it sounded fancy and it looked pretty, which I’m certain is how Hendrik’s choose their botanicals anyway). After giving that a swirl, you add it all to your antique copper distilling pot along with some water and more spirit, before distilling slowly to produce your gin. In absence of an antique copper distilling pot, though if you’re without one of these I’m not sure where your priorities lie, you could simply leave it all to steep and you’ll be left with bathtub gin – very ‘on trend’ right now, according to our gin master. But let’s not delve back into my issue with food trends.
The third thing I’ve learned about gin; the cheap stuff is actually alright. After asking our master her opinion of Aldi’s own brand gin, deemed the best gin in the country, versus the posher stuff that my Dad swears by, she replied ‘I don’t know about Aldi, but Sainsbury’s own brand is fantastic with the right tonic’. Exactly the answer we were hoping for. Her advice for mixing the perfect g&t:
- Don’t show off; if you buy posh gin, get a cheap tonic. Posh tonics like Fevertree are made with botanicals just like gin, and so when mixed with the botanicals used to make the gin, they can confuse the flavour unless paired specifically to compliment each other. Don’t worry, your guests will be so impressed by your small batch artisan gin that they won’t even notice the hiss of the bottle as you twist open the Sainsbury’s basics tonic.
- Alternatively, save your pennies with Sainsbury’s own brand and splash out on more interesting flavours of tonic water. There are loads of interesting variations on tonic water right now so I think this is a more interesting (and way more economical) way of enjoying a drink. Syphon your gin into an unlabelled bottle and your guests will be none the wiser.
And the final thing I learned, or more realised, whilst at the gin distillery; there are so many jobs out there, and so many jobs that don’t require a laptop or a desk or an office or a bloody train. It sounds silly, but it was so refreshing to get out and learn about a business that I had no idea existed. Shonna and Ben (and Reg, the dog) bought their farm a few years ago and made their living distilling frankincense to sell to perfumers, as well as hosting gin making and candle making workshops. Guests could stay in one of their four home-built huts, with dinner and breakfast provided (steak and a full english in our case, 5* service doesn’t even come close to describing it). It was clear how much they absolutely loved their unconventional, niche, hidden gem of a business, and though it hasn’t convinced me to leave my internship and set up my own home-built distillery (probably a few licensing/health and safety issues there), it has reminded me that there’s a lot more to working life than office work. I’m still googling those cake decorating diplomas.
The recipe today is Autumn on a plate, both in flavour and in colour. Make it in bulk and have it for lunch the next day – it’s just as good cold as it is warm. I first made it in early September and so fresh broad beans were still available, but they can be skipped in the depressing months where they are not in season.
Spiced Roasted Carrots and Beetroot with Herbed Pearl Barley for 2
1 bunch carrots (I had those thin long heritage carrots which are perfect for roasting whole, but normal ones will be fine. Just go for the thinner ones)
2 whole beetroot
1 large red onion sliced into wedges
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/2 ground tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1-2 tsp honey
2 servings pearl barley (I haven’t done quantities for this because, like pasta and rice, you can have little or you can have lots and I’m not going to make you feel guilty for pouring out 50g and feeling sad)
Shelled broad beans (if in season)
Bunch of coriander
Bunch of parsley
1 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
Zest of a lemon
Handful of raisins
Handful of flaked almonds, toasted in a dry pan until browned
Salt and pepper to taste
- First, set up a steamer and steam the beetroot whole for 40 minutes or until tender. Take the beetroot off and wait to cool before peeling and slicing into wedges.
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees fan. Add the wedges of beetroot, onion and carrots to a large roasting tray. Mix the spices (which you can add more or less of depending on your taste, I usually add more nutmeg because I love it), honey and a large glug of olive or rapeseed oil. Season, taste, adjust, taste again. Pour all over the veg and stir to coat everything. Roast for 40 minutes or until soft and beginning to char, turning half way through.
- Whilst roasting, boil the pearl barley in water or stock until tender (about 20/25 minutes). Drain and add to a bowl along with the fresh herbs, vinegar, lemon zest, raisins and another glug of oil. Season to taste.
- In a hot pan, sautée the broad beans until the skin is glistening and beginning to blacken. Add to the bowl.
- To serve, I usually mix the roasted beetroot and onion in with the pearl barley and spoon into a bowl or plate, topping with the roasted carrots and flaked almonds. You can, of course, just mix everything together and spoon onto a plate.