It was a beautiful July morning in the Cuyahoga Valley – one of those summer days I want to bottle up and store in my memory for the inevitable January freeze. The Countryside Market at Howe Meadow is a weekly stop for me, and today I aimed to grab a few ingredients to complete a ratatouille pasta dish. Morningside Farm had a picture-perfect baby eggplant for the taking, and I couldn’t be happier.
I was also excited to attend a craft cocktail class right on the Howe Meadow grounds, taught by Spice Kitchen+Bar’s Lorilei Bailey. This particular class focused on gin, a versatile spirit with a strong taste. The spirit’s pine-like overtones (from the juniper berries used to make it) are unappealing to many. I’ve said many times that I don’t like gin but today’s class enlightened me to its potential.
Lorilei opted to use Tanqueray, a London Dry Gin (an important distinction) distilled four times, and therefore very pure and smooth. She said that gin-naysayers like me probably first sampled cheaper gin, which can dissuade one from giving it a second go. I had to admit she was right!
Lorilei’s first cocktail featured a refreshing mix of fresh cucumber juice (from pickling cukes harvested at Spice Acres), gin, lemon juice and simple syrup, poured into an absinthe-spritzed class. I was also unfamiliar with absinthe, a spirit shrouded in legend and mystery, which had been illegal in the U.S. until 2007. This refreshing combination could be adapted in several ways, she explained, adding soda water to lighten it up a bit, or garnishing with some savory herbs or a fennel frond. “Go wild and have fun. Use herbs growing in your garden. Adjust your proportions, and try different combinations.” I liked it just fine the way it was and felt it would be a terrific brunch drink.
The second cocktail made all of us swoon as it included nectar from Rittman Orchards Ohio-grown peaches. She rough chopped the peaches and pushed them through a strainer to collect the nectar; she’ll actually use the leftover pulp for another beverage. This was mixed with gin, lemon juice, and a simple syrup infused with basil.
Sidenote: If you are not keeping homemade simple syrup on hand, you should. This is easy to make (equal parts sugar and boiling water). Let the sugar dissolve, and then chill. You can add a teaspoon of vodka to the mixture and it will extend the shelf life in your fridge. Either way, it is convenient to have on hand for cocktails and iced tea. Infuse with herbs of your choice, by adding a few sprigs of basil or lavender for a few minutes and then removing.
Lorilei helped me move past any reservations I had about gin by showing how to use it in a light, flavorful cocktail. She also emphasized repeatedly that it’s ok to experiment to find what appeals to our individual tastes. Coming up with combinations that work is part of the fun. She also pointed out that making your own fruit juices or nectars eliminates the preservatives and excess sugar often found in the fruity mixers on store shelves, and tastes a whole lot better. With so much local produce available, there’s just no reason not to give it try.
About 20 people attended this class. Katie Widdows came with friend Jenny Chapman, both from the Akron area, to “expand our gin horizons.” Ann Vargo of Doylestown took last month’s vodka class as well, and has been experimenting with cocktails for a while now, especially learning how to infuse extra flavors in her spirits.
As for me, I’ll stop telling people I don’t like gin. Now I know that I probably need to drink “the good stuff” or let a celebrated bartender like Lorilei Bailey make me my drinks whenever possible. The good news – she’s often found at Spice Kitchen + Bar – where the bar menu is as fresh, local, and innovative as the cuisine.
If you’re not following all of the educational opportunities offered by “Countryside U” you’re missing out. Heather Rozsyck, education and marketing manager for Countryside Conservancy, says their mission is to educate and inspire eaters and farmers alike. “Our classes aim to take the intimidation factor out of learning new skills like canning or cheesemaking, or in this case, making creative cocktails, using market ingredients and supporting local food.”
All I know is I am inspired every time I go to the farm markets, especially at this time of year. The classes add another layer of experience that can’t be beat.
The next craft cocktail class is August 8 at Howe Meadow and will feature drinks made with bourbon and rye whiskey.
* I was a guest of Countryside Conservancy to share the Craft Cocktail Class experience with our Edible Community.