THIS week, let us consider the aperitif. I find there’s something very nice, very civilised, about taking a special drink before a good meal.
Before the wine is poured, it’s pleasant to enjoy a sip or two of something refreshing and designed to stimulate the appetite. To this end, many aperitif wines and drinks are quite sharp or bitter in taste.
I’m a sucker for Campari, myself; that amazing crimson concoction of wine and herbs, which has a seductively bitter flavour, laced with rosemary and the fragrant, sour chinotto orange.
Poured over ice with a splash of soda water, it is a feast for the palate, and the perfect start to a meal. I’m also partial to a glass of dry sherry – the crisp, clean fino with its unique yeasty bite or the darker, aged oloroso or amontillado sherries.
Their intense flavours only need a few sips to spark the body into full ‘ready to eat’ mode.
There are plenty of other pre-dinner treats to try too, from a simple glass of cava or Champagne, to the blackcurrant-tinged kir.
But the aperitif world doesn’t always have to be an alcoholic one, and it’s here we have our recipe this week. We’re going to have a go at making one of the oldest aperitifs in existence, the almost forgotten shrub.
A shrub is a drink made of fruit juice, sweetened with sugar and soured with the addition of vinegar or verjuice. The name originated as the ‘sherbet’ or ‘Sharbat’ of the Middle East, and we still use the word occasionally to mean any drink (we had a few sherbets before going to the cinema) and is also the origin of the French word sorbet, which we have adopted into our vernacular.
Originally, sherbet was a refreshing alcohol-free cordial-type drink made with whatever local fruit was in season, sweetened heavily and made preservable for a long time by the addition of vinegar or citrus juices. It is still a very popular drink in the Middle East and East Africa, and can come in myriad varieties, from the ubiquitous orange and lemon varieties to those with more exotic ingredients like rose petals, hibiscus flowers and quince.
As trade routes from Persia opened up centuries ago, recipes and ingredients naturally began passing to and fro, and from the simple sherbet we begat the ‘Olde English’ Shrub, which today is undergoing something of a renaissance.
Many people are catching the wave, and starting to bottle shrubs made with all manner of fruit juices and vinegars, in tantalising combinations.
It’s a good way of using up surplus juice from all that home-grown fruit we’re getting into these days! I read recently of the rather splendid-sounding balsamic cherry shrub, which I must try when the fruit arrives late in the summer. Blackcurrants will also be on my radar, perhaps twinned with lemon juice and cider vinegar, to make a lovely cordial for sipping through the winter.
Shrubs can also be used to enliven stocks and sauces, and are great for deglazing pans after frying meat and fish.
In neat form they’re excellent for making dressings, or simply drizzling over fresh ingredients.
A drop or two of orange or lemon shrub drizzled over just-seared scallops would be incredibly fresh and tasty, or perhaps a few drops of blackberry shrub sprinkled over a gamey partridge breast? The possibilities are endless.
This shrub makes the most of the fruit that’s bang in season at the moment, albeit only in Italy and Spain, the blood orange.
Blood oranges have a very intense, tart juice, which sadly becomes unbearably bitter when heated, so a shrub is one of the few ways one can appreciate these wonderfully fragrant little beauties.
Finally, please note that, contrary to my usual advice, we’re using refined sugar here. Any potential impurities in the sugar may spoil the shrub, and all that squeezing of juice will be for nought.
A bottle or two of this delicious, unusual drink will last you way into the summer, and it’s a great conversation-starter as well as livening up that appetite. Aprons on!
For the shrub:
480ml blood orange juice
450g refined white caster sugar
350ml champagne or cider vinegar
A plastic sieve
A metal or glass mixing bowl
A few good bottling jars or bottles (large Kilner jars are best for this)
Sterilise your bottles with boiling water or sterilising fluid.
Juice the oranges (I used the attachment on the food mixer, which was a godsend!) into a large, clean glass or stainless bowl.
Add the sugar, and stir well. Leave for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has all dissolved completely.
When it is completely ready, stir in the vinegar, and bottle the shrub immediately.
To serve, pour a little shrub into a glass – you really don’t need much to get that lovely fresh flavour.
Add plenty of ice, and top with mineral water, fizzy or still, and enjoy a refreshing little sip of history.
You could add a bruised rosemary sprig or mint for an interesting flavour twist, too.