With Elizabeth locked away in her flat until she’s finished the first draft of The Book (I know I’m biased, but bloody hell it is SO GOOD), we put a date in the diary weeks ago for a catch up.
“Erm, do you fancy a vermouth tasting?” she said. I assured her that I am on board with pretty much anything that is suffixed by the word “tasting” and we duly booked, and headed off to the vermouth bar in the basement of Mele e Pere, an Italian restaurant on Brewer Street just across the road from the Glasshouse pub.
Now, let’s have a quick pause for you to sign up, because I haven’t encountered this sort of ridiculously good value in London in aeons. Mele e Pele’s vermouth masterclass is £15. FIFTEEN POUNDS. For reasons that will soon become apparent, this isn’t so much a steal as a giveaway by an incredibly courteous saint.
Ed Scothern, the multitasking Mele e Pele sommelier and general manager, handed round plates of the botanicals to smell, and started us off with the white and red vermouths handmade in Mele e Pele in 12 litre quantities each week. Vermouth is a fortified wine, with bitters and botanicals added to a white wine base. It gets its name from one of these, wormwood: “wermut” in German, and a key ingredient in absinthe.
“Zero green fairies here, you need the oil,” Ed said.
“Damn,” we all said, because we are all hilarious.
The white vermouth had a sweet edge without being toothrotting. Citrus calmed that down, and it was rather good. I loved the red best: it gets that dark colour from ingredients like rhubarb root, and it had a zing of anise about it which was delicious. I didn’t get on with the dark, branded vermouth at all. It was far too bitter for me and one of the reasons I can’t get on with negronis.
Ed next whipped us up a “Down the Apples”, made with white vermouth, apple vodka, pear liqueur and apple juice. It was an accidental discovery while trying to make an apple martini, apparently, and pear and apple together are gorgeous. A sexy pear drop.
Next up, delicious food. I KNOW. Seriously, I was envisaging a couple of tastes of vermouth and maybe some crisps. Instead, we had spicy ascolana olives made with nduja and lovely and crisp; deep fried squid with smoked aioli, and San Daniele ham with beautiful puffs of bread.
While Elizabeth and I talked about skirts, books, and writing, and booze, Ed also went on to make us a Martinez cocktail (£15! £15!). I’d had a very, very strong one a few years ago and wasn’t particularly overjoyed at the prospect of more harsh, bitter booze, but this was a sodding revelation. The curl of orange sat beautifully with the vermouth, and just enough gin to make the gin taste like the booze equivalent of an incredibly glamorous, elegant frock, instead of a violently bitter mess. Amazing. I also loved that it was served in a little Alsacien glass.
As if this wasn’t enough, Ed then announced that we would now get to have a go at making our own vermouth. Elizabeth and I started getting WILDLY promising flashbacks to when we mixed our own gins at the Ginstitute (seriously amazing evening: I bought tickets for my brother’s 30th this year).
Ed gave us glasses of slightly sweetened white wine, and a bunch of botanicals to pipette in. I duly whacked in a load of wormwood, some angelica because I remembered it being delicious at the Ginstitute, orange, rhubarb, some lemon, and then some gentian, which made both Elizabeth and I feel full Elinor Brent Dyer.
It was delicious. Did it stop there? Reader, it did not stop there.
A sorbet of the rather hardcore dark vermouth was duly summoned from the kitchen, by which point Elizabeth and I were feverishly muttering “Fifteen pounds! Fif! Teen! Pounds!” at each other and contemplating playing our many, many glasses like Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality. What an amazing ending to a completely surprising, delicious evening. Vermouth = delicious and way more than something to be chucked out of a glass before pouring gin in.
Mele e Pele’s vermouth masterclasses are £15 and announced two months in advance through the newsletter, although Ed said he is taking a break this winter to have a baby. Mazel tov! You can sign up on the website for more info. Did I mention this is the most ridiculously good value thing I’ve ever done in London?