The vanguard for creativity these days in the culinary world is behind the bar. With the farm-to-table movement firmly established in regional cuisine, and chefs everywhere as well-versed in molecular gastronomy as in how to correctly poach an egg, that leaves potables open for experimentation.
I have seen bars at which artisinal tinctures flavor concoctions in shades of amethyst and turquoise, garnished with a globular ice cube the size of an ostrich egg. I've enjoyed tastings of spirits made in small batches. I've played around in my own kitchen with herb-infused syrups, to be added to fresh lemon juice and fine vodka, and shaken.
Recently in Winchester, I ordered a cucumber martini at Caf Del Sol, which announces itself as a California pizza kitchen but is more diverse. The appetizer portion of house-made potato chips is nearly dinner. Order it as a crab nacho and the chips arrive draped in creamy crab-based dip. You won't want anything more.
Except the aforementioned martini. It's refreshing but also bracing, and I determined I would try to formulate its duplicate at home. My first stop was the Internet, that wonderfully vast repository of recipes that has made cookbooks nearly obsolete. You can look up sixteen different ways to make just about anything. And that's the problem.
Some cucumber martini recipes call for vodka and some for gin. Some include mint, and some lemon. Some are infuriatingly complicated.
But bartender Damien O'Boyle's recipe is simple. O'Boyle, who created the drink for Caf Del Sol, said "the ingredients pair pretty nicely with each other," and that makes the drink a snap.
"Sometimes, the most simple ingredients will provide the best flavor," he said.
O'Boyle begins with three skinned slices of cucumber, which he muddles in the bottom of a shaker. Add ice, then an ounce of agave syrup and two-and-a-half ounces of London gin. "And all the ingredients are given a hard shake," he said.
Then the drink is strained and served.
The cucumber tames the sting of the gin and the gin provides aromatics to the cucumber. The agave makes the whole thing extremely palatable.
O'Boyle said his research on the drink pointed towards honey as the sweetener, but agave is less sweet and less viscous, and therefore mixes better. For those who want to try the mixture at home, he said, the measurements "really need to be exact."
The result is a gin drink that even gin-avoiders like. I'm not a lover of gin, myself, and figured that at home, I'd make the drink with vodka. But that would erase its complexity. O'Boyle said he has challenged patrons to try the drink with gin, and he'll buy it back and make one with vodka if it isn't a hit.
"Every person that's had it with gin has enjoyed it and come back to get it again," he said.
O'Boyle enjoys the interaction with patrons that a bartender gets to have, and he likes a good challenge. When a regular requested a Peppermint Patty and the bar was not stocked with Crme de Menthe, he took a couple of chocolate-mint hard candies, crushed them, added water and cooked them for a quick simple syrup and used that for the drink.
The customer approved and that's the way he makes it every time now.