Crafting Libations is a new, regular feature on Halifax Bloggers. The hand-crafted cocktail movement involves the use of fresh seasonal ingredients, homemade cordials and syrups, small batch premium liquors, and good ice. Join writer, photographer, sommelier Colleen Thompson as she walks us through the seasons, making and shaking libations and telling stories.
An unexpected trip back home to South Africa left me wondering if I’d miss that critically important time in Nova Scotia from late May to early June. A short and defined time, it is as if nature knows it has a very limited time to be spectacular and impress us with her splendour – the very cusp of summer. As it turns out, it was as if someone pressed pause for me, and my return back to Halifax was perfectly timed.
Seemingly overnight, our garden and surrounding forest have already reached tropical proportions. An iridescent canopy of green now engulfs our deck, and the ferns are already comparable to those growing in a rain forest. A powerful combination of heat, long hours of daylight and rain have caused an explosion of growth.
It is a magical time for foraging and wild cocktails. Time to start infusing and imbibing concoctions that will become little souvenirs of summer. If we’re patient and manage to hold onto a few bottles, we will be rewarded as we sip them through the fall on chilly evenings, holding onto summer just a little bit longer. Fourteen lemons are zested for our yearly Limoncello stash. The scent of lemons coming from the kitchen immediately puts me in a summery mood. It will infuse vodka for almost 2 months, transforming it just in time for late August, when the sun is at its fiercest, the days at their longest and the colour of the lake below our forest almost violet. My ambitions have expanded this year to include an infused gin with spruce tips. The spruce trees look as if their tips have been dipped into bright green paint as the new shoots appear. A sunny morning spent popping the ends off the bough are more than enough for the gin – their tart, lemony flavour will remind us of growth and renewal when the caps are unscrewed.
A mini heat wave for three days in a row, with heat indexes around 35°C, has catapulted us into full-blown summer and it’s only early June. Warm African blood pumps through my veins and it’s hard to shake off summer rituals that have become entrenched, and have now been transported to our home in the north. I am a summertime person. I love everything about it…life seems simple and uncomplicated when days are long and warm and filled with light. The warm, humid days mean it’s already time for Malawi Shandies. It is for me the taste of summer in a glass.
A summer ritual started decades ago in a tiny place. Nestled in the majestic Riviersonderend (river without end) Mountain Range, about a two and a half hour drive from Cape Town in South Africa, at the end of a dirt road, is a speck of a place called Greyton. Flanked by two rivers, one of which originates in the mountains, resulting in ice-cold crystal clear water. I am not sure why Greyton really exists – it is not on any main road, it has no rail link, no mineral wealth, and no farming community to speak of. Yet it symbolizes much of what I love about South Africa and it reminds me deeply of my childhood and my Afrikaans roots and heritage. Its little narrow streets are lined with giant oak trees, whitewashed houses with thatched roofs lined up behind immaculately kept gardens. Lost in time, donkeys still pull carts down the main road and ducks swim in the water canals that run alongside the streets. Amidst a crazy world, and a divided, often anguished country, Greyton always stood still. My husband Cliff and I would escape here every chance we got when we lived in Cape Town, spending long lazy summer afternoons sipping Malawi Shandies on the stoep (veranda) of the quaint and quirky Oak & Vigne Café. The owner, Connie Visser, introduced us to all kinds of sweet things like slow living, impeccable taste in solo jazz artists, small town gossip and Malawi Shandies.
Malawi Shandies are found all over southern Africa, but what made this unique was the addition of passionfruit cordial. Passionfruits are found growing wildly in almost everyone’s backyard in South Africa. As kids we would pick the deep purple, gnarled fruit that grew along the fence of my aunt’s house. Slicing them in half and dipping each side in sugar we would suck out the sweet, sour stringy flesh, cracking the little black pips with our teeth.
Finding passionfruit cordial in South Africa is a simple exercise, finding it anywhere in Canada is almost impossible. You can however, find fresh passionfruits in almost every grocery store. They are expensive and this is indulgent, but if you want summer in a glass and the taste of Africa in Nova Scotia, this is a small sacrifice.
Part of the joy of creating craft cocktails for me, is making as many of the elements as possible of the cocktail from fresh ingredients, staying away from artificial mixers that create sickly sweet drinks that mask all the flavour. A well-crafted cocktail should isolate, condense, and amplify flavours. This obviously takes much longer and you can certainly speed things up by using mixers. A traditional Malawi Shandy is an alcohol free drink made with orange juice, equal parts Ginger Ale and Lemonade and bitters. This is my twist on the recipe and it is made every year at the start of summer.
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
4 fresh purple passionfruits
1 lemon – juice and zest
Piece of fresh ginger grated (I use approximately a thumb size).
Combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Dissolve the sugar and simmer for about 5 minutes. Allow the syrup to infuse for half an hour, strain, cool and store in a sterilized glass jar. The syrup will keep in the fridge for at least 4 weeks.
1-2 ounces gin
2 ounces passionfruit syrup
Slice of lemon and sprig of mint for garnish
Combine all ingredients over ice in a highball glass.
Add a few generous splashes of bitters.
Garnish with a slice of lemon and a sprig of mint.
Sip in the sunshine.