Summer cocktails: celebrate the fruits of your labour

There’s nothing better than these deliciously decadent drinks that combine fruit and berries grown in your garden with fine liquor.

What kind of a day can’t be improved with a cocktail? That combination of sweetness, with something sharp to cut it, plenty
of ice and a good slug of strong alcohol just opens the happiness valve a little wider.

Many of the best cocktails use fruit that is perfect for picking right now. Although standing over a jam pan may be the ideal occupation for a wet weekend or a chilly evening, when the sun’s out, I want a long, cool drink to enjoy in the garden.

I want to be refreshed, cooled and mildly incapacitated. Now is the time to sit and enjoy the garden, rather than get busy – and cocktails are perfect for the job.

Pick a peach

Picked fresh from the tree (or preferably caught as it drops), nothing betters a perfect peach at its most aromatic and succulent.

They are easy to grow in most of the country but need a warm, sunny spot and shelter from winds – train them against a south-facing wall, protect them from spring rains that can bring the dreaded leaf curl and use a soft brush to dab pollen from flower to flower if pollinators are few in spring. You’ll have every chance of fruit in mid-late summer.

In my experience, ‘Peregrine’ is the best variety for flavour, followed by ‘Red Haven’ and ‘Rochester’.

Dwarf varieties are also available, perfectly suited to growing in a pot so you can move them indoors until the warmer weather arrives.

Don’t be tempted by ‘Avalon Pride’ – sold as offering good resistance to leaf curl, my 40 trees became riddled with it from year one and have never really recovered.

Don’t go entirely on softness when deciding when to pick – the smell will develop a day or perhaps even three after that softness is reached.

Any you can resist eating under the shade of the tree will be perfect in a bellini. Wash, stone and whizz the fruit in a processor, sieve to remove any skins or stringy bits and mix one part fruit purée to three parts sparkling white wine.

Traditionally, white peaches and prosecco are used but the bellini works beautifully with a purée of most stone fruit and berries.

One of the consolations of a fairly unsunny summer is that the bellini is forgiving of any peaches, apricots or nectarines that don’t quite fully ripen – just add a little sugar to sweeten after sieving.

Strawberries with zest

If you have an excess of strawberries, do keep picking them, as leaving the fruit on the plant to rot encourages disease.

By all means, freeze them in a single layer on a tray before tipping them into freezer bags to use as required, but if you’re feeling sociable, strawberry punch (or Erdbeerbowle, in its native Germany) is as good a cheery welcome as I know. For a dozen or so, with a few top-ups for the enthusiastic:

1kg strawberries, halved

75g caster sugar (adjust to suit the sweetness/variety of the strawberries)

1 lemon, preferably unwaxed

1 bottle dry white wine, chilled

1 bottle sparkling wine, chilled

Few sprigs of mint and/or lemon verbena

Put the strawberries in a bowl and sprinkle with sugar. Grate around a quarter of the lemon zest, peel the rest in thin strips and squeeze out the juice. Add the juice and grated zest to the strawberries and place in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Pour off the juice that leaches out of the fruit and reserve. Spoon the strawberries into a large jug and pour over enough still wine to cover, then refrigerate for another two hours.

As your guests arrive, add the reserved juice, the rest of the still and sparkling wine, the strips of lemon zest and the mint and/or lemon verbena. Serve from a punch bowl.

At the risk of impairing Continental relations, I’ve tried this with tayberries, raspberries and a mix of fruits and it’s been equally delicious.

Blackcurrant liqueur

Blackcurrants are approaching the last few weeks of productivity but if you have some in your garden, you can harvest and prune at the same time, giving you the ingredients for crème de cassis, that most lovely of liqueurs that turns a glass of dry white into a visit across the Channel.

When the fruit’s ready to harvest, get in with the secateurs and chop out the oldest third of the plant, snipping back close to the base. Pick any ripe currants from the rest of the plant. Put the cut branches in a vase of water to give you a little extra time to use the fruit and (for crème de cassis) the leaves.

As with most fruit, patience in allowing blackcurrants to ripen fully on the plant is rewarded in the flavour. Let them hang on the bush until deeply dark and a few days beyond, if you can, but if you’re losing them to birds, you can take them slightly early for making crème de cassis.

Wash 1kg blackcurrants, pinch off the stalks, dry well and put them into a large glass jar with a couple of dozen blackcurrant leaves (which add depth to the flavour). Pour in a litre of gin and leave until at least the beginning of December.

Strain the gin into a large jug, remove the leaves and blast the blackcurrants in a food processor. Sieve the fruity pulp and mix with the gin. Over a gentle heat, dissolve 650g granulated sugar in 140ml water, then increase the heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes until the syrup thickens.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Add the reserved fruit syrup gradually, stirring and tasting regularly until it is a strength you like – it should be strong and syrupy. You may well add it all.

Pour into bottles (it makes around two litres in total) and seal. Your crème de cassis will improve with age and keeps indefinitely, but it will be delicious immediately – ready for Christmas and New Year festivities.

Do keep some for next summer, too – a centimetre in a glass topped off with a crisp white wine gives you the perfect kir and if you fancy something deliciously different on a warm day, try a Tod’s Cooler: mix two thirds of a measure of crème de cassis with two thirds of a measure of lemon juice and two measures gin, add soda water to taste and pour into tall glasses filled with ice.

Blackberry in a bottle

If you’ve even more patience, the finest way of enjoying blackberries out of season has to be blackberry whisky. Although it tastes neither obviously of blackberries nor whisky, the resulting drink is quite fantastic.

Put 1.5kg of blackberries and 250g caster sugar into a large, sterilised jar or bottle and pour a litre of whisky over. Seal and for the next month or two, when you remember, tip the bottle upside down and back to mix the ingredients.

After three months or so, strain the fruity alcohol into a sterilised bottle and leave it for at least a year. It may seem like a long time to wait, but the Christmas after next, you’ll be very grateful for what you started this summer.

• Mark runs Otter Farm. He is also head gardener at River Cottage, where he runs booze courses (among others) with Steve Lamb.

• Order a nine-week strawberry collection for £24.95 incl p&p. Call 0844 770 4653, quoting TL895, or send cheques payable to Telegraph Garden to Telegraph Strawberry Offer, Rookery Farm, Joys Bank, Holbeach St Johns, Spalding, PE12 8SG. Delivery from Oct, in 28 days.

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