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Category: Spirits

Cottons: Bringing the sunshine to Shoreditch

Cottons: Bringing the sunshine to Shoreditch

A seafood platter with rice and peas at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

Cottons is…sun drenched and rum drenched!

There are rare moments, when the British summer is playing ball, that London can feel fairly exotic. When the sun beats down and Londoners pour outside, noise levels rising, the scent of grilled meat in the air, music streaming out from cars and bars, it’s easy to pretend that you’re in an entirely different country. This is helped along with a spot of world cuisine from London’s diverse restaurant scene. I was recently transported to the Caribbean thanks to a balmy summer evening, jerk BBQ and copious amounts of rum at the new Cottons restaurant in Shoreditch.

When I first moved to London I lived around the corner from the very first Cottons restaurant on Exmouth Market. I had never tried Caribbean food before and, at that point in my life, it was both exciting and slightly intimidating. Curried goat? Oxtail? These were all things that I had never even thought about eating before – which meant that we were straight into Cottons for dinner at the earliest opportunity. Sadly, their Exmouth Market branch has now closed, but Cottons continues to thrive and have now opened their third restaurant in Shoreditch.

Sticky jerk pork ribs with fried plantain crisps at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

In true Caribbean style, we started our evening with a rum tasting session by Angostura. You may have heard of Angostura bitters already; that indispensable little bottle behind the every bar in the land. However, like me, you may not have realised that they also have a range of rum. To me, just the name “Angostura” conjures up images of sun drenched islands, lazy days and music-filled nights, so of course they make rum too! We sampled 6 different varieties – from the wonderful Amaro di Angostura with its Christmas-rich flavours of cloves and oranges, to their citrusy Reserva Blanca, their sweet and buttery 7 year old and and their caramel-soft 1824. I’ve never been much of a rum drinker and, if I do partake, it’s usually mixed in with something else. However, I would happily sip on a few of these rums neat and get very drunk in the process. Check out the Cottons website for their schedule of FREE rum masterclasses!

Saltfish fritters at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

The menu at Cottons is vast and diverse – and a great intro to Caribbean cuisine. I would easily walk barefoot over the scorching sand of a Caribbean beach just to get at their crayfish and lobster mac n cheese. Assorted patties and fritters are great to nibble on and the jerk pork ribs were sticky, spicy and easy to pick clean. You are totally spoiled for choice when it comes to mains; being able to choose from “Timeless Classics” like oxtail and bean stew, signature platters or a range of meat from their jerk pit. Oh yeah, and they do burgers too! The seafood platter was a particular delight. I loved being able to graze on a generous range of seafood, including huge juicy king prawns. The addition of a mini pot of octopus and squid stew was a lovely touch too. It’s easy to pretend that you’re on holiday with food like this.

As I’m very much a carnivorous sort of girl, I was surprised that I enjoyed the Ital vegetable curry as much as I did. “Ital” is a variation of the word “vital” and is a strict vegetarian diet followed by certain members of the Rastafarian movement – and something I had not heard of before. This is why I love doing what I do and – in fact – it’s the whole philosophy behind this blog! I’m determined to learn more about the world in which we live, and trying food from other countries and cultures is a great way to do this.  The curry itself was rich with peppery heat, as well as big chunks of veggies. I felt a thousand times more wholesome by eating it. Whether it cancelled out all that rum I had drunk, however, is another matter….

Vegetable stew at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

The British summertime is notoriously unreliable – you don’t need me to tell you that. Although we do have days when the sun streams down upon us, more often than not we get stuck with grey skies. Luckily we have restaurants like Cottons to provide us with an escape route to more tropical climes.

Cottons, 130-132 Curtain Road, EC2A 3AR

Many thanks to Cottons for inviting me along to sample rum and food at their Shoreditch branch. All views are, as ever, my own.

Boulogne Bar

Boulogne Bar

A few months ago I wrote about the “London bubble“.  How it’s easy to get complacent, shuttling along from home to work to home, rarely visiting new areas.  Or maybe that’s just me?  Anyway, as per previous post, I have lived in London for a long time but there are still parts of town that I have never been to.  One of these is Kentish Town.  Which is a bit embarrassing actually, as it’s not like it’s on the furthest fringes of the city, like Edgware, or in a public transport vacuum like most of south-east London.  Although, in my defence, I’ve never really had any reason to go there.  But then I was invited to a cocktail masterclass at Boulogne Bar.  Where I would make martinis.  And drink mulled vodka.  Three perfectly good reasons to head north of the wall.

At first glance, the Boulogne Bar is cunningly disguised as a pub.  It’s tucked away upstairs at The Bull & Gate on Kentish Town Road.  The Bull & Gate is a rather lovely Youngs pub, which has a modern gastro feel to it but still retains a suitably “pubby” atmosphere.  As I visited the week before Christmas, it was wonderfully festive, complete with huge Christmas tree, open fires and loads of people clearly enjoying the fact that there were only a few days of work left.  While The Bull & Gate is a great place to settle in for a few hours, preferably with a good bottle of wine and a roast dinner, my appointment was with their sexy little sister upstairs.

According to their website, Boulogne Bar is inspired by the gentlemen’s clubs of a bygone era, and the contrast to the buzzy pub downstairs could not be more dramatic.  Dimly lit, with jewel coloured sofas, chandeliers and bookcases, it feels like all sorts of mischief could go on here.  As the bar was closed for the cocktail masterclass, the space felt even more intimate.  The evening was hosted by Kentish Town local, William Borrell; owner of well known ex-public toilet bar, Ladies and Gentlemen, and – as I have just found out – brother of the lead singer from Razorlight.  He has also set up Vestal Vodka and our little soiree at Bar Boulogne was also our introduction to his product.

We were welcomed with a “hot voddy”, which was kind of a mulled vodka made with warm apple juice and spices.  Perfect for a freezing December night.  We all then cosied up on the sofas while William gave us a brief intro to vodka – where I learned that most vodka is actually made from grain, not potatoes.  Vestal is, in fact, made from potatoes and its USP is that it’s a genuinely premium product, getting a score of 5+ from Diffords. In true Slavic style, we poured out shots of neat vodka but then used them to create something known as a nikolaschka.  This involved coating lemon wedges in sugar, perching them on top of the shot glasses and adding a few drops of bitters.  We then knocked back the vodka and sucked the lemon, in a more palatable version of a tequila slammer.

William then showed us how to make the perfect vodka martini, as well as imparting some nuggets of wisdom along the way.  For example, I had not realised that a dry martini is one with very little vermouth and that a dirty martini includes olives.  All I knew was that a martini generally tastes like firewater.  Of course, my friend and I didn’t do much to change that by adding far too much vodka to our martini – ooops!  Fortunately, William came to our rescue and we ended up with a lovely – albeit slightly strong – vodka martini each.

By this point we were pretty well sozzled and the rest of the group seemed to be heading in the same direction.  So of course, we thought it would be a great idea to do another nikolaschka before stumbling over the road to Ladies and Gentlemen.  But that is a story for another time…

It’s safe to say that we had an absolute blast at Boulogne Bar.  Their cocktail class was so much fun and, what’s more, everyone was really friendly.  I’m definitely heading back to see what the bar’s like during normal service, especially as their cocktail menu looks fantastic (Cherry Amaretto Sour? Yes please).  And, over the course of one night, I discovered three great venues.  I started off with three transient reasons to visit Kentish Town, but now I have three very firm reasons to go back.

The Bull and Gate/Boulogne Bar, 389 Kentish Town Road, NW5 2TJ

Many thanks to the team at Boulogne Bar for inviting me along to their cocktail masterclass.  All views are, as ever, my own.

Tequila, mezcal and all things agave

Tequila, mezcal and all things agave

Hands up if you have ever had a “bad experience” with tequila.  Ok, hands up if you think tequila tastes pretty nasty.  Just so you know – my hand was up both times.  I may like alcohol to bite back, but tequila has never floated my boat.  To me, it’s just firewater with about as much subtlety as a house brick.  Now, hands up if you have heard of mezcal.  Until recently, this drink wasn’t even on my radar, let alone my palate.  So when I had the opportunity to go to a festival celebrating all things agave, I jumped at it.  I would get to do some mezcal tasting and maybe even learn to love tequila.

Tequilafest was organised to educate us non-Mexicans about tequila and mezcal.  For most people in the UK, tequila is something that you slam down when you’re already pretty drunk.  Or perhaps when you need a helping hand to get pretty drunk.  Or for a drunken bet.  Whatever your motivation, chances are you’re not drinking it because you want to savour its flavour.  So the team behind Tequilafest want to help us understand that, actually, there’s more to tequila than just cheapo shots. For a start, it has appellation of origin status.  This means that its production is tightly controlled, so you can forget about those plans to set up a boutique tequila distillery in your shed.  Furthermore, there are three different classes of tequila: blanco (unaged), reposado (rested, i.e. aged for between two-twelve months) and anejo (vintage, i.e. aged for at least twelve months ).  I’ve only ever tried the blanco variety and, in fact, wasn’t even aware that there were other grades.  This was going to be a steep, and possibly very wobbly, learning curve.

Processed with Snapseed.

Mezcal may also be made from agave, like tequila, but we now start to enter the realm of all things artisanal.  For one thing, it was historically made in the poorer Mexican states where people were just distilling it for their own use.  So whereas tequila is traditionally more popular and is now mass produced, mezcal is much more niche.  It also tastes different – and I was actually pleasantly surprised.  It has a smokey flavour reminiscent of some whiskies.  This is because it is heated over a wood fire during the distillation process.  The process of making mezcal is steeped in tradition, with no two versions being the same.

Tequilafest was a celebration of all things Mexican, not just alcohol.  It coincided with the weekend after Mexican Independence Day and was aimed at demonstrating that there’s more to Mexico than pinatas, sombreros and tequila slammers.  The organisers want us to understand the culture of Mexico – the music, the history, the produce.  And I get that.  Having visited Mexico several years ago, one of my happiest memories is of sitting outside a restaurant in the main square of Merida, sipping on a turbo-strength margarita, listening to a mariachi band play while the locals danced.  It was one of those sublime moments that I wheel out whenever anyone goes on about how dangerous Mexico is and how you should never step foot outside your Cancun resort.

Processed with Snapseed.

Upon entering Tequilafest, we were given a wristband with ten tokens.  These were for the ten shots of tequila or mezcal that were included with the price of entry.  I’ll just repeat that.  TEN shots.  Fortunately, there was plenty of stodgy Mexican street food available to soak up the alcohol and prevent me from blowing a hole in my stomach lining.  Here is a quick summary of what I learned:

  1. There is nothing good about unaged tequila.
  2. If I’m going to make a sober decision to drink tequila then I’m going straight for the anejo.  It still burns a fiery trail straight through your digestive system, but it at least tastes slightly more palatable.
  3. There is such a thing as chili liqueur and it is amazing.  Check out Ancho Reyes.
  4. Mezcal is extremely interesting and I would definitely drink it again.  I’m a fan of whisky so I appreciated the wide flavour range and the craft behind it.

I think I got through, maybe, six or seven tokens before I had to admit defeat.  One esophagus-searing encounter after another just got a bit too much, so I  called time before I had another “bad experience”.  I may not have learned to love tequila but I do have a new respect for it.

Thanks to the team behind Tequilafest for giving me the opportunity to attend.  All opinions are, as ever, my own.