A blustery Saturday morning, in a series of seemingly endless blustery/gale force/wet days in early 2020, saw four female friends gather for coffee, a warm chocolate drink, churros and chat.
Hot Chocolate History
Drinking chocolate is a delight almost as old as the sun itself. It certainly dates back to The People of the Sun – the Aztecs.
They gave high-regard to cocoa beans for their culinary pleasures and traded in them too – using them as currency. During cultural festivities and ceremonies, they exchanged cocoa beans as gifts.
The Aztecs began roasting fresh cocoa beans and making a chocolate drink from it. But their recipe is miles apart from the drink we know today.
The Aztecs took their chocolate drink cold and blended it with chill peppers and even mulled wine. Indeed, chocolate with chill in it has become popular in recent years.
HOW DRINKING CHOCOLATE ARRIVED IN EUROPE
Back in the early part of the 15th century, the explorer Cortez, discovered chocolate and introduced it to Europe. In Spain they took the chocolate as a hot beverage, sweetened and without the spicy additions. For over a century the Spanish protected their drinking chocolate recipe.
The superiority of chocolate (hot chocolate), both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.” — Thomas Jefferson
NB: Los Gatos serve churro (one churro – multiple churros) on Saturday mornings from 10am – to about 11.30 am I think. After that it’s lunches. Dipped into a cup of hot chocolate, this Spanish spin on doughnuts is divine. It gets busy so go early.
And this piece from The Londonist details the history of drinking chocolate in London.
According to them, Samuel Pepys infamous diary holds an early record of drinking chocolate. He writes, after the 1661 coronation of King Charles II, he used drinking chocolate as a stomach settler following his liberal libations of the previous night.
‘Drinking chocolate was also available in the new-fangled coffee houses (coffee only arrived in London around five years previously), but this was often an inferior, watered-down version. Plus, most coffee house visitors were there for the caffeine, which cocoa didn’t offer in such quantities.’
Hello listeners. Here I am taking one for the team and continuing my tour round Swindon in 50 Drinks. If your perception of sherry is the dark, somewhat sweet stuff you remember your granny drinking in a schooner at Christmas – prepare for a surprise. Because there’s as much variety with it as there is with other wines. The fortified wine you associate with grandma and Christmas is more than likely Harvey’s Bristol Cream – or something similar. And you might be even more surprised to know that chilled is how you should serve it – according to them.
The merchant William Perry founded Harveys, in Bristol, in 1756. During the 19th C, Harveys turned themselves into one the biggest importers of sherry, from the Bay of Cadiz to Bristol.
In 1882, John Harvey II and his brother Edward created Harveys Bristol Cream from a blend of Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado and Pedro Ximenez grapes. If, like me, you can’t bear this stuff, rejoice! For there’s a world of sherry to explore. And the best news is that you can do your exploring right here in Swindon, at the Los Gatos tapas restaurant in Old Town.
What is Sherry?
A treasure of the wine world aside, according to Wine Anorak, sherry is ‘a fortified wine made from vineyards in the far south of Spain, where extreme heat—summer temperatures regularly exceed 40 ºC—is countered by cooling breezes from the Atlantic.’
With thanks to Los Gatos for some useful notes.
Sherry comes only from one small Spanish region. 50 million bottles are produced each year from 7000 hectares of vineyards. After the Spanish themselves the UK is the largest sherry consumer – 30%. No surprises there methinks.
Most sherries come from the Palamino grape variety. And doesn’t that sound like a horse? Only Palamino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximinez can be used for Sherry.
Every bottle has the Jerez or Manzanilla stamp and a unique number.
A Sherry Sampling Session
Myself and my chum Jo Garton, are both somewhat partial to a drop of the Spanish stuff. So not long back we two and a third friend headed to Los Gatos on Devizes Rd for a little libation. Or two. Chilled to perfection and with a bowl of salted almonds there are few things finer.
My friend Jo favours a Pedro Ximénez – the darkest one in the pictures above. That’s still too sweet for my palate. I like a Fino. Or, my fave, a Manzanilla – the middle one you see. I believe Amontillado is the third sherry in the pictures.
Sherry Tasting Notes
Los Gatos kindly gave me some tasting notes about sherry to use in this blog, so what follows is thanks to them.
Only produced in the town of Sanlucar
Very pale, straw-yellow colour.
Pungent, yeasty nose with hints of almonds and camomile.
Dry, fresh, delicate and nicely bitter on the palate, with salty notes.
Always serve well chilled.
Great with seafood
Amber to pale mahogany colour
Slightly pungent, with a deep, complex, nutty nose.
Full and smooth on the palate, with a dry finish and a persistent aftertaste.
A good all rounder with cheese and meat
Extremely dark mahogany colour and dense, syrupy appearance.
Deep aromas of dried fruits (raisins), gaining complexity with ageing: toffee, liquorice…
Very sweet taste, with a smooth, velvety texture. Very long aftertaste.
Great with bitter chocolate desserts or poured over vanilla ice cream
This post forms an exception to a general rule, that this blog only covers the borough of Swindon, rather than extending into Wiltshire.
But I enjoyed this place so much that I decided to break my own rules. Not to be confused with Sarson’s the vinegar people, Sarsens restaurant in Marlborough is wonderful! Or at any rate myself and my companions thought so. And anyway, it turned out that one of the chefs grew up around the corner from where I live in Grange Park. So if the chef is from Swindon that’s enough of a link for me!
Visiting the restaurant was the idea of my friend and client Sandra. In her business capacity as Fabulous Functions UK – and more about them here– she had one of her Instagram posts ‘liked’ by Sarsens. We’d been looking for somewhere to go shortly before Christmas – but fittingly enough most places we tried had no room at the inn. As it were. But we got lucky with Sarsens. Oh boy did we?!
And we’d have known nothing about them had they not liked Sandra’s Instagram post. Proof positive of the power of social media.
Sarsens restaurant and baris almost a year old. It’s co-owned by Nathan, the chef I spoke of and Connor, who is front of house. They’re on Marlborough High Street – at the end near St Peter’s Church. Good to know what with Marlborough having a rather long High Street!
What they are is a British small plates restaurant. They serve plates designed for sharing that, as their website says, showcases seasonal, local and sustainable produce. Just as important as the delicious food in this eatery, is that the welcome is warm and the service exemplary.
We really can’t praise them enough.
As you can see from the footnote on the flyer, they won the Marlborough in Bloom best commercial garden award. On a night in December we were unable to see it – such a shame. But still! A reason to go back to Sarsens Restaurant Marlborough when the nights are lighter eh?
Not that one needs an excuse – we found the food sublime. All of it – everything we had – it was all consistently amazing. One of the plates we had was turkey. No Ghandi’s flip flop here! Oh it was so moist and so tender. It was to die for. As was the duck. And the salmon. And everything TBH.
There now follows – to give you a flavour (Ha!) of the decor and the food, a few photographs. I loved the glass panel/divider – from a cafe in France. That is gorgeous.
According to the Beerwulf website, lager is bottom-fermented – whereas ale is top fermented. So ALL lager is beer but not all beer is a lager.
Lager, the website tells us, is a collective name for many bottom-fermenting beer styles. The colour of them can vary from dark brown to light blonde and the alcohol percentage can range from alcohol-free to over 10%.
Origin of the wordLager: the word’s root is in the German word lagern – meaning ‘to store’. Bottom fermentation beers need a longer rest period after the main fermentation that occurs in cold conditions (around 0 degrees) compared to top fermenting beers. This rest period (or storage) is called lagering and that is why we call all these beers lager.
The difference between lager and Pilsner: Pilsner is a type of later. It’s named after the Czech city of Plzen. Bavarian brewer Josef Groll first brewed Pilsner in 1842, when the good folk of Plzen asked him to brew a good, stable beer. He brought with yeast from Bavaria – the yeast used to brew lagers.
Founded by Tom Gee, the brewery is based in Swindon and Cricklade.
The Pilsner that we drank in The Eternal Optimist is a special brew for the bar. And, I have to say, it’s jolly nice. I’m not an expert at all but I thought I detected a malty hint to it. Either way, I liked it a lot.
I have a confession to make. I loathe gin. And I’m not a fan of tonic either. Which is as bit of a bummer given that every bar in the land is awash with every variety of Mothers’ Ruin you can imagine. And, I daresay, some you can’t. So I can’t tell you how pleased I was when my good chum, Jo Garton, volunteered to take one for the team and write a few lines about her gin & tonic experience at Old Town bar, The Eternal Optimist.And more on that in a bit. Their Facebook page is here.
Meanwhile, I remain eternally optimistic that Sherry or Rum – two drinks I dolike – will soon have their moment in the sun.
I referred above gin’s other moniker: mother’s ruin. You’ll many of you be familiar with the famous Hogarth engraving of the baby falling from its inebriated mother’s arms. This article from Historic UK about Mother’s Ruin shows it. As the article explains – if you think modern drug use is bad it had nothing on the gin-drinking habits of mid-eighteenth century English society. The drink even started as a medicine – thought to cure gout and indigestion. But by far its biggest attraction was its cheapness.
What is gin?
Well according to that fount of all knowledge (sort of) Wikipedia – ‘gin is a distilled alcoholic drink that derives its predominant flavour from juniper berries. Gin is one of the broadest categories of spirits, all of various origins, styles, and flavour profiles, that revolve around juniper as a common ingredient.’ They also say:
‘The earliest known written reference to jenever appears in the 13th-century encyclopaedic work Der Naturen Bloeme (Bruges). The earliest printed recipe for jenever dating from 16th-century work Een Constelijck Distileerboec (Antwerp).
The physician Franciscus Sylvius was falsely credited with the invention of gin in the mid-17th century. That said, the existence of jenever is confirmed in Philip Massinger’s play The Duke of Milan (1623), when Sylvius would have been about nine years old. It’s further claimed that English soldiers who provided support in Antwerp against the Spanish in 1585, during the Eighty Years’ War, were already drinking jenever for its calming effects before battle. It’s thought the term Dutch courage stems from that.
According to some unconfirmed accounts, gin originated in Italy.’
Back to Gin & Tonic at the Eternal Optimist
On her experiences at the Old Town bar Jo writes:
Do you like your gin and tonic in a European style glass with an unexpected blueberry in an achingly hip environment? If so, then The Eternal Optimist may be for you. Well, I say ‘achingly hip,’ but I’m a dumpy, 55-year-old in comfortable shoes and an anorak, so you could be correct in thinking I may not be the best judge.
Perhaps I should offer some evidence for the hip credentials. Firstly the beard count: fourteen bearded to four unbearded men. It seemed churlish to count the women. The Eternal Optimist is up well-worn wooden stairs, nothing so suburban as stair carpet.
Then there is the decor, which is a blend of vintage 70s- breadfruit plants for example and the, very now, industrial lighting and jumble of empty gin bottles. The walls are grey with arty swirls of black, which might put you in mind of your stomach lining if you drink too much.
They have an impressive range of craft beers on the wall,as they are partnered with the Hop Kettle Brewery. More to my taste they have some interesting gins, many off the beaten track. I went for Boe Violet, but I’m keen to explore more of the range. they also have an extensive range of tonics, no bog-standard here. If I might make one small criticism, a black plastic straw is not in keeping with the ecological zeitgeist. My beloved, very much a creature of habit, went for the house wine, which he found extremely acceptable.
A somewhat, as is fitting, blurred photograph of a G&T with ice and a slice and a glass of house red at The Eternal Optimist.
The seats are, as you might expect, very random. Long tables with wooden chairs for larger parties and a couple of very comfy winged armchairs for a more intimate conversation.
All this and they offer home baked pizza three nights a week from the relocatedPizza Man – Timber’s Pizza. I’m sure they are, as Born-Again Swindonian tells me, delicious, but I fear I must avoid them in order to avoid my beloved’s lengthy conversations with said Pizza man, about the relative benefits of varieties of dough. Not a problem that most of you will have in this quirky hideaway bar in the midst of Old Town.
What a tonic
And finally a word about tonic water. According to Medical News Today, tonic water is a soft drink containing quinine. It’s that which gives it a bitter taste. Quinine is a common malaria treatment – thought also to help with leg cramps and restless legs syndrome.
‘Prosecco, like it’s big sister, Champagne, takes its name from its place of origin. In this case the village of Prosecco, a suburb of Trieste. Even if you knew that you may not know that, as this Vine Pair blog all about the stuffpoints out, ‘the name ‘prosecco’ is actually Slovenian, from prozek, or “path through the woods.” Prior to being called Prosecco, the region was known as Puccino. Today, Prosecco production extends beyond the small village, but that’s where it all began.
DOC and DOCG
DOCG and DOC are quality classifications. Italian wine law states that DOCG – Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantia – is the highest quality designation.
DOC – Denominazione di Origine Controllata – is an Italian assurance of quality for wine and food. To get this label a product must stick to the quality assurance rules and the location defined in the rules. Since 2009 Prosecco has had to have at least DOC accreditation.
The difference between Champagne, Cava and Prosecco
For the full lowdown on the above read this blog here: https://www.myrecipes.com/extracrispy/whats-the-difference-between-prosecco-champagne-and-cavabut the key thing to remember is that for a sparkling wine to call itself Champagne it HAS to be made in the Champagne region of France with the Méthode Champenoise – thought to be the invention of a monk by the name of Dom Perignon. And later refined by the widow (veuve) Cliquot. Two names that remain the most famed of all the Champagne houses. I’ll drink to that!