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Sweet hearts

Liqueurs for valentines
In the garden of a French restaurant last spring, I was served a house aperitif that looked like pale green champagne. It was, indeed, a decent bubbly, but laced with the herbal liqueur made by the monks of Chartreuse.

The green, sparkling potion looked pretty in the leafy garden. The toastness of the champagne blended with the dry, aromatic, herbal character of the Chartreuse to make a drink more appropriately appetite-arousing than similar blends such as Kir. I might try it with a romantic dinner for St Valentine's next Friday. Maybe I should also dig out a long-forgotten LP. Perhaps Mel Torme's In a Mountain Greenery?

Classic liqueurs are among the standards of the drinks world. Every sophisticated drinker knows them, but they tend to get left in the cupboard from one year to the next. One reason is that we cannot think what to do with them.

Chartreuse is the greatest of the classics and, especially in its dryish green version, the most versatile. I have seen the green presented in a shot-glass on a bed of ice, as an aperitif, and in endless cocktails. Both the green and the sweeter yellow can be used (sparingly) in recipes for pates, souffles and everything between. And the yellow is typically served as an after-dinner drink. My favourite flippant use is to melt chocolate ice-cream, stir in a good lacing of green Chartreuse, then put the dish back into the freezer to set.

The greatness and versatility of Chartreuse lies in its complexity of aromas and flavours. It is said to contain 130 herbs, which is surely more than in any other such drink and, unlike many liqueurs, it is aged - in wood.

The custom of monks making drinks began with Italian abbeys, which grew wine for their table and to raise money to support their communities. There was also the tradition of drinks as medicines, and the role of monasteries as places of (scientific as well as artistic) study. When holy men began to seek tranquillity in the Alps, they used mountain herbs to make elixirs, usually based on local brandies. The abbey of Chartreuse is in a sub-range of the Alps, near the borders of Italy and France, not far from Grenoble.

As with most such drinks, the recipe is secret. In her 1979 Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs, Pamela Vandyke Price suggests that sweet cicely and saffron might be important ingredients. I find tree-bark and piney aromas, citrus-rind, lime and vanilla, but the fathers' lips are sealed. Many drinks made from herbs and spices employ angelica and iris roots, camomile flowers, quinine bark, coriander seeds, and Curacao oranges, for example.

Had Napoleon not closed so many abbeys in continental Europe, we would, no doubt, have many more such monastic liqueurs. The producer of the Benedictine built his own interpretation of an abbey to support the drink's story of monastic origins. Benedictine contains many of the typical herbs and spices, ranging from cardamom to yarrow.

Given that their makers go to great trouble to grow, harvest or import delicate and exotic ingredients, why does mention of liqueurs often evoke little more than a wry smile? Perhaps it is embarrassment: many drinkers are unsure what a liqueur is. While the word "liquor" is applied to the demon drink in general, and usually to distilled spirits, a "liqueur" is more specific. I would define it as a sweetish drink flavoured with herbs, spices or fruits, based on pure alcohol or a spirit such as brandy of whisky (as in Drambuie, for example), but usually at a lower strength, and most often served after dinner.

That sweetness contributes to an image problem. Rather more people have a sweet tooth than will admit to such an indulgence. Sweets are for children; grown-ups are supposed to have more adult tastes. Perhaps we can be ooey-gooey sweethearts on Valentine's Day.

The best-known herbal liqueur is probably the fruity Galliano, as used in the Harvey Wallbanger cocktail. Close behind comes the slightly more leafy Strega, which makes a good gin sour. Both of these are excellent on ice-cream. A more unusual example is Izarra, a blend of herbs from the Basque country and Armagnac brandy. This is typically served frappe, in which form it is less giggly than creme de menthe.

If you want to be seduced by something French, order Cointreau. There are endless such orange drinks, and other fruit liqueurs, often wrongly described as brandies. Peach Schnapps, essential for a fuzzy navel, is also really a liqueur. So is eggy Advocaat (the Dutch bless new babies with a version spiced with vanilla, cinnamon and cloves). So are coffee concoctions like Kahlida and the drier Tia Maria and an ooze of post-Bailey's "Creams". The latest, "from the unique fruit of the Marula tree", tastes of melted Caramac bars in condensed milk.

Clearing my drinks cupboard, I found a bottle shaped like an ingot of gold; it contains a liqueur of Swiss chocolate. Another bottle, labelled with a drawing of naked lovers, held a coconut liqueur from Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean. Then there was Cock on a Tree Stump. I found this citrus and caraway potion in Estonia.

It contains a rock of candy-sugar. This attracts the sugar already in the drink to crystallise, thus making the liqueur stronger and drier. Just when the drink is dry enough not to be ooey-gooey, the growth of the rock breaks the glass. Cal1 it an Estonian orgasm.

Cocktails for St Valentine's

(All shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass)

Fuzzy Navel

Equal parts of peach schnapps, vodka and orange-juice. I prefer it drier, with the flowery Beefeater gin.

Between the Sheets

An old standard, despite its overt name. An ounce each of Cointreau, brandy, white rum and lime juice. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

Chocolate Savoy

A recipe from the Savoy Cocktail Book. A teaspoon of grated dark chocolate, an egg yolk, 2oz yellow Chartreuse, 112 oz port.