Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Mahon, Xoriguer gin and a taste of British naval history

While staying in Mahon earlier this year, an unexpected treat was a visit to the Xoriguer gin distillery. I particularly like gin and I hadn’t realised Menorca had a tradition of producing it. I’d been familiar with Larios from southern Spain as I used to sell it back in my Oddbins days in the early 1990s, but Menorcan gin has been a very welcome recent discovery. I didn’t expect it to be so good or to have such an interesting history.

Es Castell at the mouth of the harbour, looking out to sea

For a number of centuries Mahon has been of great military significance due to its enormous natural harbour, and in the 18th century it became the capital of Menorca while the island was under British rule. The city’s distinctive Georgian architecture is an elegant legacy of this period, as is gin; while stationed on the island, the high-ranking naval personnel didn’t want to forego their favourite tipple, so distilleries opened locally in response to this market. (Port Mahon features in Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander from the Aubrey-Maturin series.)

An alley in Mahon leading down to the harbour 

A Mahon street

By the time British rule and naval presence came to an end in the 19th century, the taste for gin was well established on the island, although during the 20th century the number of distilleries dwindled and Xoriguer is the only one to remain.

Standing outside this historic building down on the quayside of Mahon, you immediately appreciate the vast scale of the harbour and how the city perches practically overhead, keeping watch for any unwanted visitors.

The Xoriguer distillery is worth a quick visit to see the traditional old stills and to taste the range that includes liqueurs (coffee: particularly good) and make purchases in the shop. Xoriguer gin is marked by its pure, aromatic style, dominated by juniper, with a ‘secret’ mixture of herbs. 

A couple of the old stills, with American oak barrels in the background

The tasting area in the shop

Unlike most gin, it is based on grape spirit and is made traditionally on a small scale of 500,000 litres a year (Gordon's produce over a million cases a year), without the use of any additives. It is easy to sip neat (at only 38° proof) and is served locally mixed with bitter lemon (pomada), lemonade or with a small splash of soda or tonic and a slice of lemon. In our case we had the privilege of enjoying Xoriguer and tonic with lemons freshly picked from my mother-in-law’s garden, who we were visiting at the time – bigger and more intensely lemony than any I’d ever tasted. Total bliss for such a gin and tonic lover. Now, where's my glass...

Destilerias Xoriguer
Anden de Poniente
91 Mahon (Menorca)

Monday, 14 June 2010

Summery all-in-one roast

So tasty and almost unspeakably easy, this is ideal for a weekday supper or a more classic Sunday roast dinner. I just love this recipe as you feel as though you literally throw everything together, pop it in the oven, check a couple of times and, low and behold, you have a really satisfying meal.

In this instance I had some free-range chicken thighs and drumsticks, potatoes, red and yellow peppers and celery. Just remember to cut the vegetables into quite large pieces so that everything cooks together happily at the same time. Once you've added the chicken and vegetables to a large roasting pan, pour over olive oil. Using your hands, turn everything around so that it's well coated in the oil. I also included a couple of lemons (quartered), sprigs of thyme, heads of garlic (sliced through) and plenty of salt and pepper to season.

Roast in the oven at 200°C for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until the meat is cooked through. It's best to check a couple of times and give everything a good stir so they don't stick to the bottom of the pan.

Dish up onto warm plates and enjoy (see opening picture). I also cook this dish with onions, carrots, courgettes, pork or lamb cutlets – whatever's handy. We had some gravy with our chicken, but a dab of mustard would be good, too. (By the way, this was the last proper meal we cooked in our old oven, so the colour does look a bit uneven.)

Wine recommendation

A ripe, oaked Mediterranean white would be a lovely choice such as Gran ViƱa Sol from Torres near Barcelona, or you could cross the border into France for some garrique-scented red from the Languedoc-Roussillon.