Friday, June 22, 2018

Make Your Own Tonic

                                                 Ingredients for homemade tonic water

Okay, my last Blog was on gin….so how could it not be followed up with tonic?  After all, I am in England.  Prior to coming to Europe, I actually studied how to make your own tonic.  As a medical professional I had long known that tonic’s base ingredient (quinine) had been used to treat malaria.  But, there was an entire body of knowledge about 21st century tonic I didn’t know.  For example, who knew that tonic water contains the same amount of sugar as a coke? 

I have a client who has long ordered a special tonic water online that is nearly impossible to find in stores.  She swears that it makes the best gin and tonic.  This got me thinking.  What makes a great tonic?  I always buy Schweppes or Canada Dry or whatever is on sale at the supermarket.  After a long internet search on the best tonics I now see that I have been way off base.

Most tonic water purchased at the supermarket is nothing more than carbonated water, processed sugar, quinine and artificial flavorings. The question of what makes a great tonic for gin, however, is subjective and depends on the individual’s preference.  Some tonics have floral nuances while others offer notes of citrus or even herbal notes.  There are definitely tonics that feel sweeter.   The more quinine tonic contains the more bitter the drink.  Some tonics advertise they are made with “botanicals.”  This is marketing-speak for plants.  Duh. 

I read several articles promising that homemade tonic beat out all of the store-bought competitors.  So, I was obliged to try.  I used the following recipe with a few tweaks.  First, I used a melange of three spices (allspice, star anise and cardomon totalling one teaspoon). Second, I steeped the cinchona bark alone in 2 cups of hot water, and then added it to the citrus mixture after it had been cooked in 3 cups of water.

Three of us blind tasted the following gin and tonics:

1.  Schweppe's diet tonic with Beefeaters
2.  Fever Tree Premium Indian Tonic with Beefeaters
3.  Home made tonic with Beefeaters

All ingredients were carefully measured and poured into identical glasses with exactly the same number of ice cubes.  All ingredients were well chilled prior.  A slice of lime was added to each.

One of drinks was a brownish color (like a cup of weak tea).  Having seen the color of the homemade tonic (brownish), I immediately knew which one it was.  As I had spent hours shopping for ingredients and making the tonic, I was really hoping this one would wow me.   It didn't.  Nor, did it wow the other two tasters.  While it wasn't bad tasting, it just didn't taste like a gin and tonic to any of us.  One person didn't like it at all, but two of us thought it could easily be offered as a cocktail by another name.  

The Fever Tree is more than ten times the cost of the Schweppe's tonic.  One person chose it as their favorite while the other two didn't feel there was an appreciable difference between it and the inexpensive Schweppe's.

Bottom line?   Making your own tonic may sound like a fun adventure.  It was.  I spent about $35 on the ingredients.  If anyone wants to make their own let me know and I'll ship you the quinine bark which was the most expensive ingredient.  (BTW:  you can buy the citric acid at Walmart in the canning section.)  

Friday, June 15, 2018

Let the Party BeGIN !

I'm preparing to board a flight from Nice to London and I'm contemplating my first gin and tonic.  Not only is it one of my favorite summer drinks, but four of my closest friends are waiting for me at Heathrow and I know they all love it as well.  I am already envisioning our nightly aperitif on the riverside terrace of the historic Cotswolds home that I've rented for the week.

                       Our Cotswold home was once an old mill...note the gin & tonic chairs

Gin's history goes back to the Middle Ages.  While many associate gin with Great Britain, this spirit has roots in the Netherlands where the mixture supposedly originated.  Once sold in pharmacies for the treatment of kidney, gout or stomach ailments. the elixir was also used by Dutch soldiers prior to battle to help decrease anxiety.

Gin became very popular in England in the 16th century.  During this period a heavy tax was levied on all foreign liquor by the British government.  Locally-made gin, however, was not taxed.  Overnight, gin became the alcohol of choice, especially among the poor since English gin was dirt cheap.  However, too much of a good thing became a huge social issue.  To reduce over-consumption, legislation was finally passed to tax British gin.  There were riots in the streets.

Ingredients of gin are closely guarded trade secrets among the distilleries.  While the main ingredient, juniper berries, is always present, each company offers their own spin with a melange of other botanicals.  Gin can have floral nuances.  It can have a citrus profile.  Or, it can tend toward herbal notes.

                                  These botanicals are a sampling of what are used in gin

Today, gin has come full circle in a kind of Cinderella story.  Once a drink of the impoverished, it is now sold in fancy packaging and a an impressive selection appears in swanky bars.  It's moved well beyond the local pub-gin-and-tonic, to a high end alcohol that can be served solo at the most exclusive of restaurants.  For example, the most expensive gin, Watenshi, sells for the equivalent of $3,000 a bottle in London.  In a smaller package than the standard wine bottle, Watenshi is one that should definitely be sipped at the end of the meal like a fine Cognac.

I will be conducting a blind gin tasting with my four friends.  Watenshi won't be on the list, but here are the contenders:

   ~ Martin Miller (made in England using water from Iceland)
   ~ Oliver Cromwell (supposedly a great bang for the sterling)
   ~ Hendrick's (made in Scotland)
   ~ William Chase  (made in western England near the Wales border)

Friday, June 8, 2018

Awesome Antibes for Food-Lovers

              Antibes has it all:  Picasso's Museum, glorious scenery & a food-lover's paradise

I took the Julia Child group this week to the glorious seaside town of Antibes to shop for dinner ingredients.  A super charmer surrounded with centuries-old stone walls overlooking the Mediterranean, it also offers a cornucopia of delicious culinary gems.    

Antibe’s outdoor covered market was a must visit first stop.  The olive selection was mesmerizing with an endless parade of sizes, shapes and preparations (e.g. tampenade in every imaginable flavor).  Vegetables included fava beans, tomatoes, fennel, zucchini, leeks, peppers in several different colors, an array of ten different types of radishes, and a mélange of jaw-dropping lettuces.   Fruit vendors offered an enticing array of intoxicatingly fragrant products.  The strawberries and raspberries were sublime, as was the local Cavaillon melon which you could smell ten feet away.   

Close to the outdoor market was one of the Holy Grails for foodies.  Fabre (whose moniker is “the master of meat,”) has been in business since 1899.  This boucherie was Julia’s favorite meat purveyor.   After visiting I now understand why.  Fabre’s showcases featured milk-fed veal and Kobe beef among a gorgeous array of meats that could have walked the red carpet at the nearby Cannes’ Film Festival.  This place is the real deal for serious meat-lovers.

Not far from Fabre’s butcher shop was a killer boulangerie by the name of Veziano.  Even though I went to buy their late-bake breads for breakfast, I couldn’t resist the pissaladiere, the French Riviera’s version of pizza with carmelized onions, niçoise olives and anchovies.

With a few blocks was another tempting place.   La Ferme au Foie Gras was the perfect foodie emporium offering a huge array of culinary gifts for friends back home.

Need wine?  The Julia Child group did so we picked up some great wines at the city's well-stocked wine shop,  Cave La Trielle d'Or.  In addition to a terrific collection of Provence wine, there was a superb selection of Bordeaux, Burgundy & Champagne.

Table linens or items for the kitchen?  No problem.   Old town Antibes was a maze of pedestrian-only streets filled with the best that France has to offer for your home. There was one problem, however, that most of the women I brought to Antibes had.  Where was the luggage store to buy an extra suitcase?

Friday, June 1, 2018

Charming Hills Towns of the Riviera

                                   Minutes away from the Riviera's beaches...but another world

I've just arrived on the French Riviera.  Many people think beaches or film festival when they think of this area.  While I love the beach and the glitz and glam of Cannes or Cap d’Antibes, I actually prefer the hill-top villages a few miles inland from the Mediterranean.  Many of these perched villages are filled with day-trippers from Nice, but I especially love them in the evenings when these stone hamlets revert back to the locals.   Children play in the park, beret-touting men gather to play petanque (bocci ball), and cafes are filled with French drinking pastis.  Below are my three favorite villages.


Fashionable Mougins is so picture-perfect that it feels like a movie-set.  It’s no wonder that Catherine Deneuve, Yves St Laurent, and Christian Dior have chosen to live here, as have Winston Churchill and Pablo Picasso.  With perfectly-coiffed backstreets, this tony hilltop town exudes a refined air of elegance and sophistication.  Only 15 minutes from Cannes, Mougins feels a world away.   

                                            Mougins' charms are irresistible

No cars are allowed in the old village, requiring visitors to park in lots around the outskirts.   Although the immediate area surrounding the ancient village has grown dramatically in the last 40 years (drop-dead gorgeous villas appear in every nook and cranny), the actual hilltop town remains untouched from centuries past.  

Wandering the cobblestoned streets you’ll find several art galleries, along with high-end boutiques and antique stores.  The center of the town has a pretty center square ringed by numerous restaurants and outdoor cafes catering to those with a big wad of Euros in their designer wallets.  But, the entire package is one of a quiet refinement that is friendly to visitors.

                              The feel of Biot is a local's village ...devoid of the Riviera's bling

Also an ancient hillside village, Biot is the antithesis of Mougins.  Biot’s main street offers resident services such as a city hall, post office, bank, teensy supermarche, and a boulangerie.  There are a few tourists shops sprinkled in between, some featuring the city’s famous glass and others offering the usual Provencal goodies made from the area’s brightly colored fabrics.   

Like Mougins, no cars are generally allowed in Biots narrow cobblestoned streets.  A walk through its backstreets is like a step back in time.  Whereas impeccable Mougins’ buildings are perfectly coiffed, Biot offers a slice of reality....a few stray cats, old olive oil tins that have been turned into make-shift geranium planters, and clotheslines strung between buildings filled with laundry.  It feels like an authentic village.  

                                        Biot glass is available in every shade of the rainbow 

An added bonus for Biot is its artisinal glass blowing factories where visitors can watch artisans making the city's famous bubble glass.  Although there is a Michelin star restaurant in Biot, my favorite is Les Arcades.  This small hotel-restaurant offers a rare slice of life from the old Provence.  The family that owns Les Arcades has been renting rooms and feeding diners for over a century.  As it was also one of Julia Child's favorite places, I am bringing both of the Julia cooking groups here for dinner.

St Paul de Vence

                         Art galleries throughout the village feature paintings such as this 

The stunning pedestrian-only village of St Paul de Vence has it all: one of the Riviera's top modern art museums, chic boutiques, pretty squares filled with fountains and stone bougainvillea-dripping buildings, plus a plethora of gorgeous restaurants with attractive outdoor dining.  It has that je ne sais quoi that defies description. 

One of the oldest medieval villages on the Riviera, St Paul has only 3,500 lucky residents (like most of the Riviera hilltop towns, however, the majority of the population lives outside of the old town in swanky villas).  This is an art lover’s paradise.   There’s an endless array of galleries filled with eye-popping paintings of the beautiful town, and the Maeght Museum along with Chagall’s nearby masterpiece wow even the most discerning art lover. 

Foodies will appreciate an assortment of shops filled with everything from hand-dipped chocolates to high-end olive oils from the region.  One of my faves is La Petite Vigne which offers a killer selection of the best of Provence's culinary specialties.  The shop also has a 50-shades-of-pink selection of Rosés.