Food & Drink | The Mojito - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time
And where to get one in Nice: LA HAVANE at 32 rue de France - Review below.
Okay, scurvy and dysentery aren't the problems in my neighbourhood that they were in the tropics 500 years ago - nor in your’s, I expect - but that's no reason for us not to enjoy a nice limey Mojito. And we do: a survey by an international market research company found that in 2017 the Mojito was the most popular cocktail in Britain and in France. Over recent weeks in this column we have looked at some of the Mount Rushmoresque icons of the mixology world: like the Old Fashioned from the 1860’s, the Martini from the early 1870’s, the Manhattan from 1874, the Cuba Libre from 1900, the Negroni from 1919 ...but the Mojito’s early years were way back in the 16th Century and involved legendary English sea captain Sir Francis Drake in the Caribbean. More on the history below.
As with many of the best cocktails, the Mojito is easy to make. It requires just a handful of ingredients, most of which are fresh and may even be roosting in your kitchen right now - so it’s the perfect beginner's drink, even for those without a fully stocked bar. Rum, mint and lime are the essential elements: the lime and mint should be fresh and this zingy freshness, slightly sweetened by the sugar syrup, with the mint lending aromatic menthol coolness and the rum an alcoholic punch, have all lead this mix to become a standard - even a cliché - on cocktail bar menus in recent decades. And if done properly it certainly is a stellar bevvy: an invigorating combination of grog and garden with a whack of Caribbean.
2 pts White rum (i.e. clear, transparent)
6-8 Mint leaves, or 4 if they're big. Plus a generous sprig for the garnish.
¾ pt Simple sugar syrup
1 pt Freshly squeezed lime juice
Sparkling water, like Perrier or a Club Soda
Put the mint leaves and the sugar syrup into a highball glass. Muddle gently to release the flavour of the mint - but not too aggressively as this will cause it to break up and become bitter. (Muddle means bruise or gently squash with a blunt-ended tool)
Add the lime juice and drop a quarter of a squeezed-out lime into the glass.
Add the rum, and stir well.
Fill the glass with ice cubes.
Top up with the sparkling water.
Garnish with a generous bouquet of mint to ensure plenty of aromatics with every sip, and drop in a straw or two.
Rum is the only liquor in the Mojito, so don't be a cheapskate: use a premium rum, like Bacardi’s Carta Blanca from Puerto Rico, HSE’s Rhum Agricole from Martinique, or Havana Club from Cuba. The quality will show through in the final taste of the cocktail.
While white rums are most often used for a Mojito, you might also consider an amber reposado or even a darker añejo (aged) which, due to their longer maturation in oak barrels, will add complexity to the flavour of the drink. But avoid spiced rums like Captain Morgan as the spices fight with the freshness of the mint and the lime.
Serving a Mojito with a straw(s) is not cosmetic, its functional: the mint leaves often rise to the surface of the drink along with the ice, so a straw allows you to drink the drink from the bottom of the glass and avoid getting leathery mint leaves in your mouth.
Give thought to the sparkling water too: if this constitutes about a third of the drink you don't want to skimp on it: a specialist craft soda in your Mojito will make a noticeable difference. So spend a few extra pennies on a fizz from Fever Tree or the award-winning 1886 Soda Water from Franklin & Sons of London.
There are several theories about the origin of the name Mojito: one refers to Mojo, an old Cuban salsa-type food seasoning made from lime and mint. Another is that the name Mojito is simply a derivative of mojadito - Spanish for ‘a little wet’, the diminutive of mojado, meaning ‘wet, watery, soaked &/or sodden’ - due to the strong influence in the Caribbean of immigration westwards from the Canary Islands and mainland Spain.
Sir Francis Drake, the dashing and heroic admiral and explorer (if you're English) or the unscrupulous pirate and slave trader (if you're Spanish), while kindly relieving the Spaniards of the burdens of treasure ownership in the Caribbean and Central America during the second half of the 16th century, urgently needed to find a solution to the scurvy and dysentery that were ravaging his crews. It was known that the indigenous peoples of the region had remedies for these tropical illnesses so, in 1586, after a successful mercy mission to Cartagena (Spaniards would say ‘raid on Cartagena’) on the Caribbean coast of what is now Colombia, Drake's ships sailed north to Cuba for some R&R. A small boat party went ashore and came back with a tray of Mojitos… No no no, they didn't; they came back with ingredients for an effective medicine: aguardiente de caña (a crude form of rum made from sugar cane) mixed with local tropical ingredients: lime, sugarcane juice, and mint - and they named this concoction “El Draque” after Sir Francis Drake. Lime juice on its own would have significantly alleviated the scurvy and dysentery; and the mint, lime and sugar would have helped to hide the harsh taste of the rough spirit as well as providing some much-needed nutrition. While this tonic was not called a Mojito back then, it was the original combination of these ingredients. El Draque was hailed as a cure - although perhaps only for the terrible affliction of sobriety, since Drake died of dysentery in 1596.
Sugarcane was one of Cuba’s main crops during the colonial era of the 16th to 19th centuries - the other being tobacco. The slaves working in the fields - later ‘waged labourers’ - would take their cheap homemade sugar cane distillate and, like Drake and his men, muffle its harshness with additions that were readily available: citrus, mint and guarapo (sugarcane juice). Thus the proto-Mojito was a drink of the rural poor.
Fast-forward to the Prohibition era in the US (1920-1933) when Havana became America’s favorite offshore cocktail lounge: the Mojito migrated from rural farms to the bars of the Cuban capital itself. Here it was tarted up with the addition of carbonated water, lots of ice and a tall glass. Sloppy Joe’s, a famous Havana bar that revelled in the tag “The Crossroad Of The World”, first coined the name Mojito in their 1934 bar menu. But another Havana bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, now lays claim to having invented the cocktail - but since it only opened in 1942 that can't be true. These days, however, all agree that La Bodeguita is the spiritual home of the Mojito. I hesitate to mention yet again Nobel prize-winning author, journalist, big-game hunter, marlin fisherman, war reporter and one-man-cocktail-promotion-machine Ernest Hemingway in connection with a cocktail - he has already loomed large in the stories of the Martini, the Bloody Mary, the Cuba Libre and the Daiquiri - but he did undoubtedly down more than his fair share of Mojitos while living in Cuba during the 1940s and ‘50s. Along with other cultural and political influencers like poet Pablo Neruda, artist Josignacio, singer Nat King Cole, Chilean socialist politician Salvador Allende, Hemingway helped to make La Bodeguita del Medio famous when he became one of its regulars. His bar bills didn't do any harm to its turnover either. This bar still proudly displays a graphito by Hemingway on one wall:
Not quite sure why they're so proud of this though; it is a bit like saying I'll pop in here for a Mojito but they're rubbish at Daiquiris.
The popularity of the Mojito with its fresh mint and lime juice dipped during the 1960’s as the US and like-minded European countries became more interested in industrially produced and mass marketed foods and drinks. But mercifully the 1990s saw the ‘Nuevo Latino’ dining trend take off - initially in Miami but then spreading all over the US - and this was a perfect vehicle for the Hispanic Caribbean Mojito. Then... in 2002... the absolutely best thing that could ever happen to a cocktail happened to the Mojito: it appeared in a James Bond film. A seaside scene set in Cuba in DIE ANOTHER DAY in which Halle Berry sashays out of the sea and into a beach bar where 007 (Pierce Brosnan) is casually sipping on a leaf-filled highball. “Mojito?” he proffers, “You should try it.” And from that moment on the Mojito’s popularity soared again because, let’s be honest, if someone as cool as Bondie is drinking a Mojito we all want to be drinking a Mojito.
There’s a reason why the Mojito recipe originated in the colonial Caribbean - apart from the scurvy and the dysentery, obvs. It's ingredients have a strong sense of That Place: close your eyes, take a big sip and let it transport you to a hot scented tropical island.
In Nice this Cuban bar-restaurant serves great authentic Mojitos, and some mean Daiquiries and Cuba Libres too:
LA HAVANE at 32 rue de France, 06000 Nice
Tel. 04 93 16 36 16
Their standard Mojito is made with Bacardi Carta Blanco white rum which is perfectly respectable, although not thrilling. The measure was generous and you could really taste the rum alongside the mint and the lime juice. I enjoyed it. Must admit I was a tad concerned when told by the deeply Spanish-sounding waitress* that they top up with lemonade rather than soda or Perrier - but honestly I didn't taste any difference. It was not sickly sweet. Just superfluous calories then.
[*It turns out the ‘deeply Spanish-sounding waitress’ comes from Estonia :-0 ]
Prices: These classic cocktails were €10.80 each and there's a half-price Happy Hour from 5pm to 8pm.
We were less impressed with the food, however. The two ‘tapas’ starters we chose were Okay - the guacamole in fact pretty good. The allegedly Havana Rolls were rather tasteless. But there were plenty of other tapas to try another time. Main course salads were very average though.
They regularly have live Cuban music and there's a dance floor. You may even be lucky enough, as we were, to rub shoulders with the great Ernest Hemingway himself, who seemingly pops in to top up his levels with a dozen Daiquiries :
Access: There are two nearby Vélo Bleu ranks: one on Rue du Congrès, the other outside the Musée Masséna just down Rue de France.
Parking: A multi-storey carpark next to the Hôtel Westminster, accessible from both the Rue de France and the Promenade des Anglais ; 2 mins walk away.
Verdict: Go there to enjoy a drink and some niboles, some Caribbean atmos and maybe some live Salsa music. But dine elsewhere.
Variations on the Mojito
The classic mix is well nigh perfect in its standard prescribed form, but mint-&-lime isn’t the only herb-&-citrus match made in heaven. For example, the Lemon & Basil Mojito: Muddle basil leaves with the simple syrup and then add freshly squeezed lemon juice along with the rum & ice ...and then imagine yourself enjoying a summer afternoon in Menton or Amalfi.
Likewise the Orange & Thyme Mojito, but use soft fresh thyme leaves not dried ones, as dried thyme sprigs are spiky and would need to be strained out.
The Rosemary & Cranberry Mojito: Put a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary into a jar and muddle them with the rum. Screw the lid on and put it in the fridge for an hour for the flavours to infuse. Get some cranberries - can be frozen; could also be other red &/or purple fruits - and if frozen leave them to thaw. Then begin the Mojito in the normal way: muddle the berries with the cranberry syrup in a highball glass. Add the rosemary-infused rum & ice and stir well. Top up with soda water or Perrier and garnish with a rosemary sprig for scent with every sip.
The Prosecco Mojito : Prepare the mix in the normal way but then top up with prosecco instead of soda water.
The Mojito Diablo: Replace the rum with tequila; replace the sugar syrup with Crème de Cassis (black currant liqueur). Muddle mint leaves with the Crème de Cassis and a pinch of brown demerara sugar; add the tequila, lime juice and ice cubes and stir. Top up with soda water. The resulting deliciousness is a mint-lime-berry fusion with an underlying caramel richness from the demerara.
And finally a healthy option: the Green Tea Mojito. Make it in the usual way but top up with brewed & cooled green tea in place of the soda water.
Next week : We travel 1500 Kms north from Havana, to Kentucky. Continuing with the mint but changing the spirit from rum to Bourbon whiskey, for a classic Julep. Join us for another drink.
The Classic Julep
Next Week on Chrystal.eu