Photos: Sharon McGauley
The trans-hemispheric quest to create a rhubarb bellini came to fruition on a recent afternoon in Martha's Vineyard, with a crystal blue sky and brilliant sunlight and an wedding by the sea. Discussions about and experimentation with the mythical bellini had taken place in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, then continued in Melbourne, carried on through Sydney, were picked up again back to New York and ultimately crescendoed on Chappaquidick. The version that coalesced that day was a bit different from what I'd imagined it would be a week prior, when I was across the international date line on the other side of the equator. Some brilliant scheming in Australia went a bit awry and never quite came to fruition in time for the wedding--as Joni Mitchell might say, 'things conspired.' But to paraphrase Julia Childs: you'll never be a great chef if you always follow the recipe. In the end working with available elements yielded charming bellinis that refreshed wedding guests parched from the intense rays of the sun with a a welcome sweetness. (The heat and the vivid sun were elements that we may have not considered on that rainy evening in autumnal Melbourne.) Below is the recipe I landed on that afternoon, and in the second half of the post some of the twists and turns that led to this iteration, for those who are interested in such cocktail questing. And while all the other variations certainly had their virtues, this one that came to be on the day that my longtime friends were getting married seems to have been exactly what was supposed to have been all along.
RHUBARB BELLINI, MARTHA'S VINEYARD EDITION1 cube demerrara sugar
3 dashes Peychaud's bitters
3 dashes Regan's Orange Bitters #6
3 dashes Fee Bros. Rhubarb Bitters
1/4 oz. fresh orange juice
1/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
Drop the demerarra cube into a tall flute, douse with all the above bitters. Add orange and lemon juice and fill-carefully, as it will be extra bubbly when it comes into contact with the sugar and the citrus-with champagne. Add a substantial orange twist, and one final dash of Fee Bros. Rhubarb Bitters on top for the nose.
THE CIRCUITOUS PATH OF THE RHUBARB BELLINI
In short, this concept had sprung from Jamie Oliver's recipe that used a medium-sugared rhubarb compote as a base, just a healthy dollop in the bottom of the flute topped with bubbles. Simple, pleasant, but lacking complexity. Mark Buettler's homemade rum-based rhubarb bitters were an interesting addition but their almost dramatic, bite-y spiciness contrasted with the compote too emphatically. Fee Bros. Rhubarb Bitters seemed too candy cane sweet. A week later in Melbourne, a night out with barmen Jason Chan and Hugh Payten Smith resulted in a scheme to try rhubarb sorbet, and a trial session was hatched in Sydney, the next leg of my journey. Hugh placed an order for some rhubarb sorbet from Melbourne, but due to a potent blend of techno-communication mishaps involving mis-entered contact numbers and wonky email accounts, the hand off never occurred (Somewhere in Sydney there are six containers (the minimum order) of unclaimed rhubarb sorbet sitting on a freezer shelf with my name on it, a misstep that shall have to atone for presently.) In addition, the bottle of rhubarb bitters I'd brought from the States seaped into my luggage during the flight between Melbourne and Sydney, and all but a few drops were dispersed onto my clothes. (Enough remained for Phillip Gandevia at Eau de Vie to request another batch for a cocktail he'd been envisioning, a sort of tequila Manhattan with Aperol and, of course, rhubarb bitters. New batch in production now.)
So it was back to square one, a pleasant enough square--Jamie Oliver's compote recipe. But during my 36 hour turnaround in New York there was an inexplicable rhubarb drought at every A list produce joint in town. I arrived on the Cape with a bag full of bitters and a dream, the mad dream to locate rhubarb locally. But roadside produce stands and grocery stores alike turned up nothing. No rhubarb to be found. So I tossed out 2 months and 2 continent's worth of planning and re-imagined the bellini as a twist on the Lord Ottenbottom, leavened with Fee Bros. Rhubarb Bitters. Essentially a champagne cocktail hit with 2 kinds of complimentary bitters-in that case Angostura and Regan's Orange Bitters #6. I would fuse the bitters with the Fee Rhubarb and make something brilliant, somehow. The occasion demanded greatness.
Then the final twist, and the one that would have made all the planning irrelevant: channels had gotten crossed somewhere and instead of a "medium dry champagne with crisp citrus and mineral notes" (I have these erroneous notes somewhere) that I'd been expecting, I was to work with Cravantine rose, a sparkling wine made from Cabernet Franc grapes with "strawberry and mineral scents are encased in a firm structure with a dry and spicy quality in the palate". Which actually worked better with the bitters, and probably would have made the entire sorbet approach misguided, as we'd been thinking dry champagne.
So it became a careful blend of bitters and citrus, with, since it was a wedding, the all-important garnish-a substantial orange twist. And it somehow all came together perfectly. As Mariel Hemingway says in Manhattan, "Sometimes you just have to have a little faith in people," to which I would add: as well as in twists of fate that lead you to unexpected pleasures, and in your own instincts.
The system works!
Many thanks to all who participated in Project Rhubarb Bellini, which, it must be said, is ongoing.