Jägermeister at London Cocktail Week

I realise just how lucky I am to live in London when I'm choosing a place to go and drink with my girlfriends. It takes just a short tube ride for us to gather around a table and enjoy cocktails garlanded as the world's best at the likes of Dandelyan (please don't close down, thanks) or Bar Termini. In my opinion, there's nothing better than a well crafted cocktail to sip and savour while catching up with friends. It represents a moment of calm and indulgence in our otherwise frantic corporate weeks, a much-needed foil to harried cups of tea and time recording. We may have moved on a little from the Cosmopolitan, but the old Sex and the City formula is a classic for a reason. That said, a cocktail is only as good as the sum of its parts. So when Jägermeister kindly invited me to London Cocktail Week, I couldn't help but wonder - would Jäger work in a cocktail?

Jägermeister have popped up this year for London Cocktail Week at the Big Chill, a stone's throw from the main festivities at the Old Truman Brewery. Their pop-up is called "Der Wald", meaning 'the wood' in German, and the vibe is best described as "Blade Runner meets après-ski" - creeping ivy intertwines with fairy lights on the terrace outside, while inside is moody and loud, the instantly recognisable Jäger stag's head looming in neon out of the darkness, a modern twist on the typical taxidermied stag's head you might see mounted on the wall in Austro-German ski chalets.

Now, I must admit that Jägermeister is a drink indelibly inked on to the fabric of my university days, a relic of my teenage past in the form of - what else? - the Jägerbomb, a shot dropped into a glass of Red Bull and downed, not often tasted or savoured in any way. I was interested to expand my horizons and taste the digestif as the makers intended: ice cold at -18ºC, and this time in cocktail form. (Although this is no radical rebranding - icy shots are still served at happy hour from 7-8 PM!)

I chose one of the brand's signature cocktails - a Jägermeister Mule, topped with Fever Tree ginger beer, orange and lemongrass bitters and a slice of cucumber - and complete with its own little shot of Jäger, to be uncapped and poured into the drink. I suppose some things never change, though there's something a little more sophisticated about a miniature hipflask of Jäger (rather than its shot alternative!)

 I thought that the ginger beer in my drink really complemented the Jägermeister. It's an unexpected combination, but one that works well - its sweet, gently fiery qualities balance out the complex spices and herbal flavours of the digestif. 

Lukas, my partner in crime and hand model for the evening, chose a contrasting drink - a frothy Jägermeister Sour with egg white and lemon, in which the Jägermeister made a convincing alternative to the whisky element of the drink. While I can't say that I will abandon my favourite gins and rums in cocktails any time soon, it was a novelty to sip both Jäger-based cocktails rather than toss the drink back. These were definitely the most refined iterations of Jägermeister I've ever tasted - refreshingly, both cocktails tasted like drinks to be appreciated and not merely a conduit to get drunk.

 Our capable bartender was also highly entertaining, gamely practising his Tom Cruise shtick for the camera. 

We also took the opportunity to wander around the London Cocktail Week event over the road at the Old Truman Brewery, stuffed to the gills with more drinks brands we all know and love. It really reminded me of Taste of London - only here it was all alcohol and mixers. Which was not a bad thing by any means.

I particularly loved trying Real Kombucha - a darjeeling-based kombucha that tasted amazingly similar to prosecco, only non-alcoholic. I love the design and it was exactly what my cold-wracked body wanted.

Danke schön Jägermeister for expanding my horizons where it comes to the use of the digestif and for allowing me to attend London Cocktail Week. Consider my burning thirst for cocktails re-ignited just in time for the festive season - and on that note, I'm moseying over to Whatsapp to organise a girls' catch-up...

 I was invited to review the Der Wald pop-up as a guest on this occasion, but my opinions remain firmly my own.

Der Wald pop-up at The Big Chill (3-7 October 2018)
Dray Walk
London E1 6QL

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Sicily: Erice, Favignana, Sciacca

There's so much more to Sicily than pasta - but it's a good place to start. I truly believe that Sicily offers some of the best food in the world and in this post, part two of my travel diaries spanning the island's west coast, we're mostly leaving culture behind in favour of the simpler, more profane pleasures in life: sun, sea, food and wine. (And if you've missed part one, here it is.)

We begin in Erice, a charming honey-coloured medieval hilltop town. There are three ways to get up to the top: a road, a funicular and a path that veers dangerously close to the edge of the cliff, full of hairpin bends. Guess which one we took. Erice is a wonderful place to while away an afternoon. Here, you can shop for local specialties, like Trapanese pesto and salt, or chill out in the churches, one of which had a tiny display of Erice itself inside it, complete with little lights and figurines. Your thighs will get a good workout as you trek up the steeply inclined cobbled streets to the fort, taking a turn around the ramparts where you'll enjoy views of a small castle below, looking for all the world like a spoiled child has lost their temper, overturned a chess board and petulantly stuck a rook into the side of the cliff. 

And as a reward after all that walking, there's dolci - sweets from the fabulous La Pasticceria Maria Grammatico. Widely hailed as the most famous pastry chef in Sicily, the eponymous Maria set up shop in the 1960s after learning her trade as a baker during her residency as a cloistered nun in the San Carlo convent in Erice, and the shop is still going strong over half a century later - the tiny space pullulates with hungry visitors as we pick out cassatelle (little pasty-like packages dusted with sugar and filled with ricotta and chocolate), lingue di suocera (literally, "mother-in-law's tongues', little oyster-shaped pastries filled with cedro jam, a type of lemon), genovesi (hat-shaped domes of pastry liberally stuffed with ricotta and lemon zest), fruit tarts, and, of course, cannoli.

After pressing our noses to the cases full of pastries, we obey the call of our stomachs and head for lunch at La Pentolaccia. We have a dazzling array of pasta - busiate with Trapanese pesto, hand-rolled tagliatelle with pistachio, spaghetti allo sgombro (with mackerel), crispy baby squid, a uniquely Sicilian cheeseboard featuring thick ricotta dusted with pistachio, olives, panelle and glasses of rosé all round.

Inspired by our lunch, on our way back to the car we find finocchio selvatico (wild fennel) growing in abundance on the cliffside and pick some for that night's dinner, pasta con le sarde. (I'd happily eat pasta for every meal of the day.)

We wake at the crack of dawn (never has a phrase been so apt) to drive to Trapani so we can take a boat to Favignana, the largest of the Aegadian Islands. Be warned, if you don't speak Italian you either need to leave with a lot of time to spare or book your tickets in advance as the ticketing system is confusing and, as is to be expected, no one really speaks English at the Trapani harbour. Safely docked in Favignana, we take a taxi to Lido Burrone, a bustling beach pumping out club music. It's not really my parents' scene but we're all tired from our travels that morning, so we find a little cove away from the noise where we spend the day swimming, skimming pebbles, soaking up the sun and eating arancini and lemon granite. Another warning - make sure you bring plenty of suncream with you, as we run out and have to pay an exorbitant €15 for the pleasure of a fresh bottle.

Dried off, pink in the faces and smiling, we head back to the harbour and try a Favignana classic at U Bar di Marinaru: caffè al pistacchio, an espresso accompanied with sweet, silky pistachio cream, to be stirred and drunk standing up before you get back on your boat back to the mainland.  I love it - and as a rule, I don't usually like coffee. Not to be missed.

We arrive back in Trapani in time for sunset and wander round the city, where we buy limoncello and gelato. The next days are lazy, spent reading and relaxing in the pool - our trip coincides with Ferragosto (the feast of the Assumption), a day when Sicilians head straight for the beaches and all the local businesses close down. Excited, we drive to CONAD, our local supermarket, to stock up for the holiday. (CONAD is a wonderland filled with gigantic swordfish heads, wild fennel, wonderful wines and the most incredible choice of dried pastas, all at scandalously cheap prices. I really do think I need to live in Sicily.) We also spend a day at Marinella di Selinunte, a long golden beach with surprisingly frigid water and a milky clay pit which the Italians clamber into without reservation, joyfully painting their faces and bodies with the clay, which I imagine has magical rejuvenating properties. Obviously, Lukas and I follow suit.

The end of the trip approaches, and we drown our sorrows in wine on a tour of the Planeta vineyard in Sambuca di Sicilia. As you'll see from the photos, this is an intoxicating place - and not just because of the alcohol. The vineyards and neighbouring lake are steeped in golden sunlight, the grounds are home to ancient olive and fig trees, the buildings are painted a warm terracotta shade and the walls are draped in bougainvillea. This would be a beautiful place for a wedding. Our guide conducts us around the vineyards, explaining the mechanics of the wine-making process, which features lunar charts, cooled cellars and a laboratory filled with all sorts of gauges and distillation tools. Tour over, we gratefully sit down to be regaled with excellent wines. Lukas and I take what we believe to be detailed notes. On a later reading it transpires that these are progressively illegible drunken scribbles, starting with vaguely grandiose observations such as "smells like the aroma as you brush past a thorny bramble bush" and culminating in "most drinkable". 

We spend our final day in Sciacca, where we grab lunch from famous street food truck Paninoteca La Foccaccia dal 1990, which you'll find in the old town. Lukas and I have pani stuffed with fried aubergines, panelle and crocchette (that's right - triple carbs!) while my carnivorous family have theirs with various meats including milza (spleen). And we buy extra panelle because, why not? I gain a good five pounds on this trip - I regret nothing, particularly as I don't have to wear a bikini again until the next calendar year.

For dessert, there's exemplary lemon granite at Bar Roma, run by the charming Zio Aurelio. Icy and sweet, these are just what you need on a boiling hot Sicilian day.

Zio Aurelio's granite are great because the lemons he uses are the best. They're a world away from the little puckered yellow ones you'd find in the supermarket at home - large, fragrant and so sweet that when Zio Aurelio gives my mother a half lemon with a little sugar she eats it on its own with relish. Simple, cheap and delicious - surely one of the greatest sweets in the world.

I hope that you've enjoyed these travel posts and that if you're planning a Sicily trip, you're considering making time to visit the west! The western side of the island doesn't receive nearly as many plaudits as the east because it doesn't have the post-earthquake Baroque architecture of well-known Taormina, Siracusa or Noto, but it's still beautiful, and because it's less touristy, the food is authentic and affordably priced. So if you're seeking sun, sea, great food and a respite from the madding crowds, west Sicily is a great bet. 

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