While I was at the neighbourhood goods market this weekend with the Nans, buying chicken pies for supper, I also picked up a bottle of pure pomegranate juice. The first place I ever tasted it was in Jerusalem, while on a promo trip with Mike and Peter from R.E.M – must have been 25 years ago. We were self-driving down to the Dead Sea from Tel Aviv, and decided to take a detour to see the Holy City. A couple of kids recognised the guys as we parked up and insisted on accompanying us – and one of their ‘must see’ stops was a street vendor who was pressing pomegranate juice from huge pink-golden fruit on a device that looked ancient. And, according to the fans, was as old as the city.
My first sip literally dried my mouth out completely – forcing me to take a second, which was, thankfully, delicious. I wish I still had the photo I took of the juice man – he was a short and slight …. with dark green eyes that had seen it all. He said nothing to us as we transacted the drinks, but as we left he said: “Losing My Religion, good song.” And then something in Hebrew. Turned out to be the name of a restaurant he thought we should visit – which was in Jaffa: Abu Nasser on the Hill. And we did. And he was right. Simple charcoal grilled meats with incredible salads and pulses to accompany it – the kind of food that is making Ottolenghi a fortune. All washed down by gorgeous mint lemonade I can still taste today.
As we left town we got lost and ended up driving into a militarised zone … the young soldier who turned us around couldn’t believe his eyes. And kept smiling and smiling, standing at the car – until eventually I fished out an album and had the guys sign it for him. He was thrilled – grinning as he hugged us goodbye … his arms around these two men from another world. We drove off into the sunset – Peter in the back, happy. Mike and me bickering about him not listening to my directions.
That whole experience made for one of my favourite ‘work days’ ever. We went back to Israel a few years later – R.E.M. played two stadiums shows, with Radiohead opening. One of our Jerusalem guides had become a journalist and grabbed me in a huge hug. Just two nights before that we had been in Catania, Sicily, with a great friend Federico, who loved the band so much, and who died of cancer a few years later. I remember him standing next to me – smiling, dancing, his huge sweet heart bursting with joy. These men from different religions, both living in countries that resembled the wild, wild west. Passionate, involved, connected people. Proud and determined. Linked by music, by a song, not separated by belief. Those were special times.
All of this ran through my mind as I was driving my lovely nieces and nephew to destinations various on the way home from the market. I couldn’t believe how quickly the tang of pomegranate juice had transported me back in time. My life has changed so much – but I am as thrilled to be living this one as I was to be living the other. Some of my friends have been in touch with me since my post the other day about feeling overwhelmed. Asking if I felt I had made the wrong decision? And did I want to think about ‘moving back? I haven’t, I don’t and that squeeze has passed. I couldn’t be happier.
So what to do with the pomegranate juice? I tried it out as a straight add to gin and tonic, and it worked ok but didn’t do the fruit any justice. So I hit the internet and found a great recipe by Jamie Oliver. Which I have made for our December 25th pre-lunch cocktails – to be served with a mixer of choice and lots of chinky ice. The combination of orange, cinnamon, peppercorns and star anise is all about Festive … and the house smelt gorgeous as the syrup was cooking. My brew doesn’t look like much at the moment, as it is still in the macerating stage – so I have borrowed Jamie’s picture here. But I sneaked a tester tonight – and, I promise, it tastes like Christmas.
Jamie Oliver’s Spicy Pomegranate Gin
(Makes about 725ml)
• 125g/half-cup caster sugar
• 125ml/half cup pomegranate juice
• 10 whole peppercorns
• 2 cinnamon sticks
• 3 star anise
• Zest and juice of 1 big orange
• Seeds from 1 pomegranate
• 500ml/2 cups good quality gin
Make your mix now… you’ll need at least two weeks for it to mingle … the longer you leave it the better.
- Combine all the ingredients in a pan, except the pomegranate seeds and gin.
- Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to a gentle boil then take off the heat and leave to cool.
- Add the pomegranate seeds and gin and decant into a large glass container or several glass bottles. Leave to macerate for 2 weeks, or as long as possible.
- Strain and pour into your pretty bottle (leave unstrained if you think it looks more interesting).
Your festive mix will keep in a cool, dark place for a few months. Not that I’m expecting it to last that long. Happy Cocktails to you.