Georgette McCready talks to author, chef and country publican Clare Liardet about her new book, dedicated to non-alcoholic cocktails. Our cosy, dry January never looked so good…
A visit to the Somerset village of Mells is like stepping into a Merchant Ivory film. Above and between mellow stone walls and avenues of mature trees, you catch glimpses of fine old farmhouses and the ancient parish church. You half expect a horse-drawn carriage to roll up in the lane, decanting women wearing buttoned boots, fur wraps and elegant hats.
This timeless English country scene is completed by the presence of a charming old stone pub – the former coaching inn, The Talbot Inn. Its coat of arms bears the noble hound himself on the pub sign, a breed of ‘good mannered’ hunting dog that’s now extinct, bred out by other hunting breeds. The owners, Matt Greenlees, business partners Charlie Luxton and Dan Brod and Matt’s wife Clare Liardet, have renovated the inn to create a welcoming and stylish, modern yet classic venue.The Coach House laid for diners at The Talbot Inn
Clare and Australian-born Matt met when she was managing The Engineer in Primrose Hill, back when the term ‘gastro pub’ had just been invented. Over the succeeding years, Matt spent time as general manager at über cool Babington House, while Clare’s career included a spell as a chef at the Bradford Photography Museum in Yorkshire, running her cookery school Kitchen Table Cookery with partner Jo Weinberg and, in recent times, being publican of this popular country inn. Clare has honed all those skills to write a book, Dry, dedicated to delicious non-alcoholic cocktails, cordials and clever concoctions.
This stylish little hardback is filled with recipes for imaginative, grown-up alternatives for people choosing not to imbibe, whether as a designated driver, a mother-to-be, or simply as someone who prefers not to drink alcohol. “I felt there was a gap in the market for a book of inspirational drinks for people who choose not to drink,” says Clare, of the book’s inception. “There are so many reasons why they may have made this decision – for health reasons and a dry January, for financial reasons or for religious reasons.“Imagine you’ve arrived at a dinner or a party and your host greets you with a delicious drink to sip, a drink with many more layers of flavour than a standard soft drink. What could be nicer? There shouldn’t be the feeling that you’re depriving yourself, or that the non-alcoholic drinks shouldn’t be as delightful. Set a big glass jug, with lots of ice, on the side and let people help themselves.”
Clare used her culinary knowledge to create her own cocktails, using everyday ingredients such as rosemary, fruit, spices and herbs. Mindful of the adult palate, she has come up with creations that have the taster wondering what the mysterious ingredients are that give it a pleasant kick, or a smoky back note. “I experimented with lapsang souchong tea and came up with a syrup – quite intense so you don’t need much – to provide a hint of the smoky, caramel taste of a Highland single malt whisky,” she tells me. That syrup becomes an ingredient in a Smoke and Ruby Tumbler, which combines the bright, citrus of ruby grapefruit juice with fresh lemon juice, all with that underlying hint of smokiness. As Clare writes in the book: “It’s delicious to drink by a bonfire when your cheeks are hot and your feet are cold.”
Another winning element of Dry is that the book itself is a pleasure to hold and to read, with each recipe accompanied by photography by Jason Ingram. There is an equipment list at the beginning and the good news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on shiny kit. If you don’t have a cocktail shaker, a large jam jar with a screw-top lid will do just as well. And fruit syrups made with herbs or berries, water and sugar, can be kept in sterilised jars in the fridge for a week or two.
Clare has set her recipes out according to mood or occasion. There are chapters for Friday nights (how about a blood orange and sage margarita served with lime and salt in a chilled coupette?) and for lazy Sundays (a cooling yet spicy watermelon Mary with a gazpacho vibe) or quiet fireside moments when you gaze into the flames, perhaps with an espresso mint Martini, served in a chilled Martini glass, naturally.
These drinks bring with them a sense of occasion and ritual lacking in the pouring of a plain old orange juice or a diet cola. But, as Clare says: “You can have fun with them. Use everyday ingredients to make those layers of flavour.”
She had a bit of fun with customers at The Talbot Inn when she was creating her Drivers’ Pimm’s Cup, whose hidden ingredients number black tea and a clever ginger and black peppercorn syrup. “We served this in a big jug with borage flowers, cucumber and orange slices and most people genuinely couldn’t tell whether it contained alcohol.”
To make a simple herb syrup, put 200g sugar into 200ml water in a pan and gently heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves. Bring the syrup to a simmer, add two sprigs of rosemary, then continue to simmer for 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. To keep the rest of the syrup, put it into a sterilised jar in the fridge. Combine the pear juice, lemon juice and rosemary syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake well. Strain into a rocks glass and top with a splash of sparkling water. Garnish with rosemary and pear.
Pour the pomegranate juice and cherry concentrate into a glass of ice, then stir well before shaking in the Angostura Bitters. The drink should have a bitter-sweet tang, so add more Angostura if needed. Twist the orange peel on top of the drink to release the oils. The cherry concentrate gives an extra layer, but isn’t essential.
Hot buttered spiced apple