A night out in Pamplona and the perfect G&T
After an indifferent meal in a poor quality city restaurant my wife and I wandered the back streets of Pamplona late into the night, enjoying the ring of shoes on cobbles echoing against old basque apartments. Eventually we found our way back to nightlife and came upon an underground bar, approached from a steep set of poorly lit stairs. We had walked off our meal, and we wanted a drink in a good bar.
Inside was a a busy warm hubbub, some solitary gentlemen, some half cut blue collar workers, several groups of young friends; it felt comfortable to enter and we found a couple of stools at the bar. Immediately the busy barman pulled up a small bowl of olives for us, and offered us a smile. Behind him a girl in her twenties stared at us. The two of them were working a busy bar, we thought they were lovers.
We waited patiently for service, taking in the clientele, and keeping an eye on the servers, looking for a moment to put our order in. The young man was extremely busy and very efficient. In contrast the girl struggled with taking the simplest order. Her eyes were glazed. She started pouring a beer and left the tap over flowing. She was flustered but in an almost somnambulant fashion. At first she refused eye contact with us, even after I leant over and pulled up the overflowing tap.
Her partner juggled several groups of customers and conversations with the professional competence of a young man sure of his coordination and mathematical dexterity.
He carried on righting her wrongs, operating two customers at once and eventually stood in front of us and took our order for two gin y tonica. As this was happening the girl gave up the intent to work and leant back against the counter, still staring. Her eyes were black limpid pools, possibly drug induced, she wore a black sleeveless t-shirt and jeans, she had small breasts, and wore no bra, she had dark, dark hair, cut short, a little dirty and long over her eyes. She showed little emotion, interest or guilt in her inability to work.
He delivered two sharply clean, short stemmed water glasses to his workbench, filled them with clear fresh ice, took a bottle of Larios Gin and free poured the glasses half full, then topped up with tonic water, finally, he took a large lemon and cut two long and generous arcs of skin from the fruit. He took his knife and scored into the peel criss-cross, then holding the slice by either end with small tongs twisted the lemon over the glass allowing zest and oils to drop onto the fizzing drink, then he pushed the lemon under the surface.
It was like watching a well made tea ceremony and we delighted at the barman’s gentle skill and determination. He pushed the glasses towards us, and I studied the rising of fizz effervescing through ice and the meniscus of tonic water, giving off a smell of ozone, juniper and citrus. a small plate of almonds appeared from below, crisp, and crunch-squeak.
We swallowed a generous glug and watched the girl almost dozing against the worktop, she couldn’t focus on the many customers attempting to order. The barman carried on effortlessly taking large requests and fulfilling the customers with a friendly professional demeanour. He had no problem with her and her inability to work, he would just slip around her, help finish her order as he made his own, joke with her. He left her leaning on the workbench as he took yet another order. She stared at her hands, and then at us. We stared at our gins.
Eventually she rose and opened the lid on an old fridge, pulling out a bottle of beer, watching us as she did so. She opened it with the back of the lemon knife over her thumb knuckle, then slurped up the spume. Her eyes never left ours. Haughtily she flicked her hair and walked towards the exit, at the steps she took a swig of beer, a last look around the bar, and walked up and away.
‘Is she difficult to work with?’ I asked the barman.
‘That was the boss.’ He replied, and started pouring us another pair of very good gin and tonics.
A short History
This quintessential english long drink has been enormously popular for many years, originally concocted to ward off or immunise against malaria by the East India Company because the gin eased the bitterness of the quinine in the tonic water. Since then the quinine has become much less prominent but helps bring out the flavours of the botanicals in the gin. Lime was the original fruit addition in india, but with more lemons available in europe, a good slice has become the UK’s ubiquitous sharpener.
I’ve always enjoyed the mineral herbiness of a good gin and tonic, and have experimented widely with gins, tonics, fruits, vegetables and bitters. Somehow I had never felt like I had experienced the perfect measure. Sometimes in a pub they will ask if I want ice and lemon with that- does anyone not?
I think you need a large gin with a standard small bottle of tonic, you need plenty of cold ice and you need a decent strip of fruit, some establishments slice their lemons as slim as possible, this is a travesty.
Gins come in many different flavours but the traditional London or British gins have remained popular since the days when they were the cheapest alcohol available. A sweeter Dutch gin or genever is also available and best drunk neat or over ice. There is also a style of gin between the two called Old Tom, still available and named after the practice of having a figure of a black cat mounted on the outside of a pub wall with a small pipe between it’s feet. On the deposition of a penny between its eyes the barman would pour a measure down the pipe for the drinker to suck on.
Of London or British style dry gin, Plymouth is one of my favourites, although the scottish Hendricks has grown on me if served with a slice of cucumber. Bombay sapphire has a delightful floral aroma, and mixes very well with lime. Beefeater and Gordon’s remain classic London gins of high quality. The Spanish enjoy Larios which is a slightly sweeter London style, very popular in Spain, inexpensive with a unique recipe of botanicals. We drink it at home because at 8.50 euro a litre, you can afford to be generous with your measures.
The queen mother took Gin with a drop of Angostura bitters, hot black tea remains popular with some, and in Devon & Somerset a mug of piping hot cider with a generous glug is the classic winter warmer.