Since quitting the nine-to-five gig a couple of years ago, I like to feel I’ve become a more self-sufficient person by making as many of my own necessities (mainly wines and spirits) as I possibly can. Partly because I have more time on my hands, but mainly because I’m a tight-fisted Yorkshireman, My main tool in this quest for self sufficiency is the internet and it’s limitless fount of “how to do it yourself” information.
The Bitters tale started not on a dark and stormy night, but last April, when my son’s wife’s father, treated me to a glass of Hungarian Unicum Bitters, after a particularly boozy “gathering of the clans” Saturday lunch at their home in Tel Aviv. Quite taken with the taste, I mentioned to the memsahib about it and she said she had a recipe for bitters on her Kindle in one of those “Why buy it when you can make it” cookbooks, so beloved of Guardian readers and their ilk.
As fired-up as a young pup for a bone, I started checking out what i needed in order to make bitters and save LOTS of money. Most of these were herbs and spices which I Googled for their Hebrew translation. So far so good.
A few days later the memsahib had her monthly date with her hairdresser in Tiberias, leaving me a couple of hours to troll the spice shops of the old market for the ingredients for my brew.
A short description of Tiberias would not go amiss at this point in order to add some colour to the story. This small town, situated on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, 70 metres below sea level is a hellishly hot place in the summer and was designated the dubious honour by Mark Twain, in his journey to the Middle East, as being the armpit of the world. The population, all swarthy Middle Eastern types seem to be descended from one distant ancestor and the place exudes a slightly honky feel only relieved by the magnificent views of the Sea of Galilee. With a little imagination one could picture Russian spies meeting their counterparts in grotty little coffee shops down alleys smelling of backed up drains.
First stop, a fragrant little hole in the wall called Eliza’s Spices. List in hand, I managed without too much difficulty to get cardomon, allspice and cloves. Then things started to get a little more complicated when I asked for fresh vanilla and Juniper berries (gargaray a’arah in Hebrew) As well as being extremely difficult for westerners to say in Hebrew due to the word being made up of many guttural middle and back-of-the-mouth sounds, nobody in the shop had any idea what I was talking about and I left the store with the vague feeling of being seen as slightly retarded. Deeper into the bowels of the market I strolled only to get the same response and wary-eyed look from the storeholders. I swear all the spice vendors in the town SMS’d each other ….. “Pale skinned foreigner on rampage for “gargaray a’arah”…. do not approach–he has a list!”
Finally as the sun was setting and I was sweating like a horse in the 40 degree heat I checked out one last store. Hallelujah!– he had fresh vanilla beans. All I needed now was the elusive Juniper berry. I summed up my best Hebrew accent and asked “Yaish lachem gargaray a’arah?” (Got any Juniper berries?) “gargaray mah?” (what beans?) the shop owner asked with that same tone you would use to a five year old. This scene repeated itself a few times until, noticing the vendor had an I-Pad on the counter (a Hi-tech spice shop wot!) I suggested to him we Google “gargaray a’arah” in Hebrew as I couldnt understand how I was mispronouncing the word. As is common among Israeli’s, after a few minutes about twenty people were gathered around the I-Pad, some saying “Sure! gargaray a’arah – every shop sells them” while others held the opinion that there was no such animal. I’m sure if we’d prolonged the web search any longer, a fist fight would have broken out between the two camps–the Juniper berry believers and the Juniper berry poo-poo’ers. I beat a hasty retreat under the legs of the mob but in the general confusion, my presence or lack of was not noticed.
Later on after picking up the freshly coiffured memsahib I Googled “Substitutes for Juniper berries” at home and sho’ nuff there they were – Bay leaves, which grow profusely in our garden and Rosemary, which grows even more profusely in our garden!
As every tale needs a happy ending, I finally did make a very acceptable bitters which if you ever come to visit i will absolutely insist you taste.