Thursday, 30 August 2007

Cocktail Memories

Tired of the substandard cocktails on sale at most of the bars we frequent - which are admittedly not known for their cocktails, but are in walking distance of the house and have a happy hour - I asked my husband to do something about it.

So for my recent birthday I received a collection of professional cocktail-making equipment; proper Boston Shakers, ice strainers, muddler, ice-crusher, shot measure, fine strainer and most of the main spirits and some of the syrups necessary for a nice repertoire and most importantly, a copy of the latest Diffords. (Diffords is the definitive guide to cocktails. Every recipe will make the BEST version of that cocktail that you've ever had.)

My baby brother lives in a tiny village in the mountains Switzerland, not far from fancy-schmancy Gstaad, but not within walking distance. When he moved out there, he decided that the posh cocktails of his native London would be too hard to miss, so he decided to learn the art himself. And boy does he make a mean cocktail! (But don't help yourself to the pineapple juice from his fridge or you'll get yelled at for using a cocktail ingredient!). He acted as the authoritative consultant on what to buy, strictly advising the proper equipment, even if it takes a bit of practice to use a Boston Shaker.

For my birthday party we invited a select group of four people (I didn't want to spend the entire evening mixing cocktails after all), I made a menu of about 20 cocktails I was prepared to make, and we went for it.

And Diffords came up with the goods! Simply by exactly following the instructions I was able to make amazing, yummy cocktails including Daiquiri, Pina Colada, Ron Collins, Cosmopolitan, Maple Leaf (bourbon, triple sec, maple syrup), Dry Martini, Coolman Martini (vodka, triple sec, lime juice, apple juice).

It turns out not to be so hard. Like all cooking, the secret is to use top notch, fresh ingredients, have great recipes and follow them.

One of my friends offered to hire me for her birthday party. Yay! A backup career!

Anyway...I was swapping cocktail reminisences with my agent recently and thought it would be a fun thing to blog.

Here are my top five cocktails ever tasted (not counting the ones I made t'other day...) Please let me know yours!

1. Daiquiri in Floridita London.
Straight-up, not frozen. Dizzyingly strong and refreshing. I made a mistake on the second and went for the Hemingway. Stick to the Classic.

2. Margarita in San Angel Inn, Mexico City
Straight-up, not frozen. We visited this restaurant, once one of Mexico City's most elegant and expensive, during a big local recession which made it very cheap for us. The place was almost empty. The margaritas were served inside metal cups containing dry ice to keep the glasses cold. Ahhh...

3. Dry Martini in Japp's Martini & Cigar Bar in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I was there on a business trip and I SWEAR the guys from that software company were trying to see how drunk they could get me! But what a martini. Later we went dancing to a swing club. Dancing the Lindy Hop, a guy tried to do an air-step with me and I ended up flat on my back. I DON'T DO AIR-STEPS AND YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO ASK! Luckily I was so drunk that I was very relaxed.

4. Frozen Daiquiri in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba
Like smooth, lime+rum flavoured, cool silk.

5. Pina Colada at the poolside bar of the Acapulco Princess, Mexico
Made with fresh pineapples and fresh coconut cream, the fruit all piled up at the bar. I read "The Da Vinci Code" whilst addled by a long afternoon drinking these.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Professor Pete

One of the best things about staying in Oxford years after you've failed to escape the gravitational pull of the University is the fact that once in a while you get surprise phone calls out of the blue from friends who used to study or work here, wanting to drop by for dinner while they are in town giving a seminar/visiting a library or a lab.

In the next two months we're due a number of these visits, but yesterday we were thrilled by a pop-in from our old friend Professor Peter Simpson, who I believe I have mentioned at least once on this blog.

Pete teaches philosophy at the City University of New York and is self-confessed Aristotelophile. We became friends many years ago, in fact Pete is one of the many dear friends I inherited from my mother. Back when he was a young graduate student trying to impress my mother, he took my sister and I to movies and introduced us to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Nowadays Pete is high on my list of the cleverest people in the universe. He wrote a book about Pope John Paul the Great in which it was clear to any reader that he actually understood all that continental philosophy stuff...! (Not me; I'm more comfortable with the writings of the current Pope Benedict, whose work is at least couched in language and concepts I can follow...)

I told Pete how I'd fallen under the influence of his beloved Aristotle when writing the second of the Joshua Files books. (Fellow writers, if you haven't read the Poetics yet, I can't recommend it enough.) I mused aloud how it was possible for one guy to be so incredibly prolific as Aristotle apparently was, dominating his contemporaries across both natural sciences and political philosophy, as well as knocking out a 42 page masterpiece in which he explained and laid down the principles of western drama, principles which stand to this day.

Pete's answer was very interesting. "It's because he was such an empiricist. He used exactly the same technique as when he analysed the world of animals - he first collected data, looked for patterns and governing principles. He collected all the Greek plays he could get hold of, especially the award-winning ones. He had his students help him complete the analysis."

So Poetics wasn't just the work of a guy who sat musing and philosophizing about what he'd seen down the Greek theatre - it was a scientific approach to the understanding of dramatic structure.

The benefits of a scientific education, hey? I can't say enough good things about one. (Although I also wish I'd been trained to think with the razor-sharp logical clarity on philosophical matters as Professor Pete. He could argue the hind legs off a snake! First he'd argue the case for the legs...)
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Monday, 20 August 2007

Mi Swing Es Tropical

Watching the latest Jason Bourne movie last night, I was delighted to see the new ad for iTunes+iPod. It's a little salsa song, with terrific dancing.

Re the Bourne: I enjoyed it but later realised that I'd never once really felt as though Jason was in any real peril. He's just so ruthlessly efficient that instead of worrying about him I was admiringly problem, Jason can handle anything.

There's a lesson there...

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Gabo vs Haruki Part 1: The Genius of Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I don't see why one has to have a favourite writer. If I'm ever asked, how could I choose between Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Nope, it's not a fair question. I cannot choose.

However, I can differentiate. Haruki moves me and Gabo astounds me.

(And Haruki also astounds and Gabo also moves, but each marginally less than the other...)

Garcia Marquez has these unforgettable openings, like the famous one in "One Hundred Years of Solitude":

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

The power of that ending can only be appreciated much later in the book, when the reader realises (in my case with a shout of joy) that the Colonel, presumed dead (by the reader), only takes his full place in the story later on...And the way that the novel's ending resolves the opening section with the gypsy's manuscript is beyond genius, one of the few times in my life I remember being left literally breathless with admiration for a writer as I read him.

And that's not the only time he uses the 'Many years later' formula. In his novels, linear time and cyclical time coexist; the stories are often simultaneously related at two levels.

I read recently probably the most influential Mexican novel of the last century, Juan Rulfo's 'Pedro Paramo', a book allegedly adored by Gabo. Not only is Pedro Paramo an early example in Latin American literature of a novel told in two different time streams (the narrative alternates between a first-person narrator who visits the town where his father had lived, and a first-person narrator from the town's past), but it includes this passage, which strikes a chord with any aficionado of Garcia Marquez:

"Years later Father Renteria would remember the night his hard bed had kept him awake and driven him outside. It was the night Miguel Paramo died."

Rulfo's 'Pedro Paramo' is brief yet dazzling. I myself have written whilst under its spell and can attest to its mesmeric hold.

I am reading the first volume of Gabo's autobiography, 'Living To Tell The Tale'. The opening, as ever, is delicious:

"My mother asked me to go with her to sell the house. She had come that morning from the distant town where the family lived and she had no idea how to find me."

What follows is an account, related with the characteristic shifting time streams, of young Gabriel's visit to the old house of his grandparents in the distant town of Aracataca, from where his early childhood experiences were to inform the creation of his fictional town of Macondo and all its inhabitants. And the older Gabo now recognises with the trained eyes of the writer he has become (not yet a successful novelist, but definitely on the path), the material which has lain dormant within him all these years. It's a moment of thunderous import and it shakes him to the core. The past, present and future collide during that visit. When finally he returns (some 100 pages later) to his cosy literary hangouts in Baranquilla with Colombia's literati, he knows, even at 23, where this can take him.

I just read this great passage where Gabo relates showing a rough draft of his manuscript to a man highly respected within his writers' circle: Don Ramon. Don Ramon reads two pages without change of expression, then makes one or two incisive technical comments. But as Gabo leaves him that day, Don Ramon adds:

"I thank you for your courtesy and I'm going to reciprocate with a piece of advice: never show anybody the rough draft of anything you're writing."

So, so, SO true. And Gabo followed that advice TO THE LETTER.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Bound proof in Lugano

Bound proof in Lugano
Originally uploaded by

Well blog readers, all five of you, I'm back. Two weeks of driving across Europe close to the Swiss/Italian border in the canton of Ticino, where it's all Swiss, but Italian style.

For example - they speak Italian but serve fresh Swiss muesli for breakfast. For example, where you can hire a motorboat without a licence and drive across the lake but the minute you moor it, a taxi-boat driver comes beetling across the lake, brow all furrowed and tells you off for going too near the rocks which might damage the engine. Yeah, we noticed that too...were taking care and everything... For example, where you get Swiss efficiency but instead of cheese fondue and raclette they serve yummy Italian food with pasta al dente and everything. See how it works?

The publishers of 'The Joshua Files' kindly sent out a couple of bound proofs of the book for me to peruse. Here I am holding my first copy of 'Invisible City'. Bit of a thrill, actually. I was so excited at breakfast that I forgot to eat and the waiters were clucking at me, trying to get me to hurry up and finish that croissant and just go, already...