Sex on the Beach
After a day’s stint in the library, honestly, I need a stiff drink. Roy Roebuck, commenting on my last post, thought that Oliver Cromwell, the old Puritan, would have approved of my Christmas work regime. Well the day of labour, maybe. But he’d have been a bit less happy about the evening’s entertainment.
What I like about cocktails is their total artfulness. There is nothing remotely “natural” about them. In fact the whole point is to get as far from the appearance and the taste of the “real” ingredients as you can. I mean there is no purpose whatsoever to blue curacao, except to turn some other innocent spirit that glorious shade of luminescent blue. Of course, it adds to the alcohol content, but it didn’t need to be blue to do that.
There is also something wonderfully democratizing about cocktails. OK some mixtures are more naff than others. Those who fancy a nice dry Manhattan might well turn their noses up at a Tijuana Taxi. And a bit of snobbery comes into the making of Martinis (though even the latest Bond movie pokes fun at the “shaken or stirred?” obsession). But there’s none of that pretentious wine mythology involved. You don’t have to sniff them or discuss the year. You just drink them. If you like the taste you have another; if not, you change the mixture.
The history of the cocktail is a bit of a mystery. It certainly doesn’t go back beyond the nineteenth century – and there’s a strong hint that disguising the taste of the foul home-brewed spirits under prohibition had something to do with their popularity. It struck me, in the middle of my second Margarita the other evening, how much the ancient Romans (the rich ones, at any rate) would have enjoyed the art of the cocktail if only they had thought of it.
Romans were refreshingly uncultured when it came to alcohol. They mostly mixed their wine with water and/or honey, and they didn’t much care about vintages (except when they fell on an important political anniversary). So far as I know, they hadn’t invented spirits -- for drinking that it is. With uncharacteristic innocence, the only use the ancients found for distillation was industrial cleaning.
But it’s the colour of cocktails that would most have appealed to those (bad) emperors who put such efforts into dining. The emperor Domitian hosted a marvellous “black dinner” in the 80s AD – with not just the food colour coded, but the skin of the waiters too. Even better were the excesses of my own particular favourite Elagabalus, emperor between 218 and 222 AD. He did all you could hope a bad emperor would do (he is even said to have had a surgical sex change). But one of his specialities was banqueting. Apart from the famous trick with the rose petals (they were sprinkled so profusely that they smothered the guests), he was said to be especially keen on the “themed” dinner party. Every day of the summer he gave a banquet in a different colour, now a green one, the next an “irridescent” one, then blue.
Just think what fun he could have had complementing all this with Blue Lagoons, or a glorious green St Patrick’s Day – a daring concoction of crème de menthe, Chartreuse, whiskey and Angostura bitters.
(By the way, if you were drawn to read this blog by its title, I guess you will now realize that I was referring to the cocktail, Sex on the Beach: 1 oz. peach schnapps, ¾ oz. vodka, topped with cranberry and orange juice . . . )