Summertime and the livin' is easy. Unless, that is, family and friends are on their way round and your sunny afternoon is likely to be spent mixing and pouring all different kinds of summery drinks. Then the livin' can get distinctly less than easy. A campari soda here; an elderflower spritz there... Here's a better idea: make a big pitcher of something fun and delicious. A refreshing fruit punch or cup which – and these are the crucial bits – you can prepare ahead of time and to which your guests can simply help themselves.
That's got to be at least partly why, every summer, we turn to trusty old Pimm's and the like. Yet beyond those commercial blends are a wealth of recipes waiting to be rediscovered and show off how fruit cups could be so much more interesting – both to drink and to make. When you bring together for yourself the flavours of the fruits, herbs, botanicals and boozes it becomes almost like cooking. Just with drinks instead of food.
Punches and cups have so much in common that to me the two terms are almost interchangeable. Not just in the way they're made and what they're made from, but because they share an infectious spirit of conviviality. Serving pretty drinks from a big punchbowl or pitcher somehow elevates any event to an extra level of camaraderie. The society ladies and gents of the 1800s understood that very well. William Terrington's catchily named Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks; A Collection of Recipes for Cups and Other Compounded Drinks was published in 1869 and gives a fascinating insight into their popularity and the range of ingredients used.
Most of Terrington's recipes – and others from around the same time – are remarkably bang on the button for modern appeal. From the simplicity of fresh mint macerated in a glass of gin or whisky and then chilled with white wine; to sparkling cider with perry, chablis and maraschino liqueur finished with soda water and cucumber; via claret cup recipes that wouldn't look out of place if called "sangria" instead. If the Spanish can see the sense in chilling red wine with fruits and brandy to ease the heat of summer then that's certainly good enough for me.
The key ingredients of wines/spirits/fruits are buoyed by herbs and botanicals that contribute as much to the final flavour as to the look. If you can get hold of them, sprigs of lemon balm or lemon verbena get top marks on both counts. Release their flavour by rubbing gently with your fingers before using. Otherwise, thinly peeled lemon or orange zest can always be relied upon for zingyness. Cucumber and/or borage are staples for adding a cooling freshness. One recipe I've found suggests stirring the cup with a twig of sweet briar – so simple, so gloriously subtle. Don't underestimate the importance of making time for chilling. For you and the drinks, but mainly I mean the drinks.
Even the most delicious of summer punches will lose its va-va-voom if it's not cold as cold can be. The few hours in the fridge between the legwork and serving go a long way to achieving the coldness you need; and then when it comes out, the best thing is to sit your punch on a bed of ice, and/or have plenty of ice for the individual glasses. Ice in the pitcher or punchbowl (and by punchbowl I mean any bowl that holds punch – it really doesn't have to be some grand silver heirloom, unless you have one of those knocking around) will just dilute the drink and not in a good way.
In these recipes I've stayed close to these drinks' traditional roots, but don't let that stop you getting creative and adding the flavours that appeal to you. Maybe take inspiration from The Lido Cafe in Brockwell Lido. It does a "Poolside Punch" of Sipsmith gin, ginger beer, mint and lime juice (so far so trad), which is then taken in a different direction with fresh ginger and carrot juice in there too. There are no rules or rights or wrongs to making a punch or cup. That's part of the fun.
Drinks to chill with
Each of these makes 6-10 glasses but the quantities are easily multiplied.
Cider & Calvados punch
Mix 1l cider with 50ml Calvados, three pineapple slices cut into chunks, the finely peeled zest of a lemon and its strained juice. Add a few good gratings of nutmeg. Chill for a few hours and strain before serving. (Feel free to nibble on the now-boozy pineapple chunks, which have done their job.) Garnish the bowl/pitcher with sprigs of lemon verbena and whatever seasonal fruits you fancy. Serve as is or top each glass up with soda water if it's hot – or early in the day.
I'd go for twists of cucumber, too: cut thin slices on the diagonal, slit each one through half way to its centre, twist in opposite directions and the cut holds the cucumber in place on each glass's rim.
Claret cup – iced red wine with raspberries and spice-infused brandy
Put half a teaspoon of ground cloves and a dozen bruised cardamom pods into 150ml brandy. Chill for 3 hours and then strain. Add to the brandy a bottle of red wine, the strained juice from 1 lemon and 2 oranges, 2 teaspoons sugar and 120g raspberries.
Chill again until ready to serve. Finish with 500ml-750ml sparkling water, some lemon balm or verbena, and cucumber slices.
Champagne fruit punch
Put a sliced peach and a handful of melon pieces into a punch bowl with 50ml Grand Marnier or brandy, 50ml maraschino liqueur and a sprig of lemon verbena. Chill for a few hours and then remove the verbena. When it's time to serve, sit the bowl in ice to keep it cool and pour over a bottle of champagne. Garnish with borage or strips of cucumber peel.