Drink up! (part 1)

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In my next two posts, I’ll be pouring out my views on the wonderful world of drinks, and how they’re drunk in London and New Orleans. We’re staying soft this time round, but we’ll get on to alcohol next time…

Admit it. You’re secretly disappointed we’re not hitting the hard stuff. Aren’t all soft drinks all just water with various chemical fruity, syrupy or gassy substances stirred or squirted in, and pretty much interchangeable? I have to confess I’m not a big “soda” or, as we’d say in the UK, “pop” drinker – and until recently, I’d have always said if we’re not drinking drinking, I’ll skip the mixers and have coffee or juice, thanks. But recently I’ve started to look into soft drinks, and the more I find out, the more intrigued I am.

They may not pack as much of a punch as alcoholic ones, but soft drinks are often potent cultural symbols as their appeal stretches across ages, classes and genders. Coca-Cola is a metonym for America almost everywhere you go across the globe. In the early 80s, Andy Warhol, who was also fascinated by Coke, created a number of works of art based on the iconic Perrier bottle, and the French mineral water company is currently issuing limited edition bottles honouring the relationship, which I found out about when I picked one up from the fridge in my favourite of the many Turkish cafés in my neighbourhood.

Here in the UK I’d never dare get into an argument with a Scottish person over the merits of Irn-Bru, a scary orange potion known as “Scotland’s other national drink”, after whisky. And my favourite bonkers advert from my childhood is for the – now long gone – blackcurrant version of British orangeade Tango, that starts innocently enough with a letter from “Sebastian, a French exchange student” but quickly descends into a totally ridiculous but tongue-in-cheek patriotic frenzy on the White Cliffs of Dover.

To zoom in on London, I often write this blog in a very nice café near where I live, where they serve a fizzy beverage called Dalston Cola which is probably what first got me seriously interested in soft drinks a few months ago. As it’s named after my neighbourhood, and made here too, I had to try it – and was quickly hooked. According to its makers, it’s concocted from “juiced lemon, lime and orange juices, sultanas, fresh ginger root, nutmeg, cinnamon, star anise, lavender, and of course – bundles of fresh cola nuts” – and it’s absolutely scrummy.

Next, I made a good friend of mine who’s a big Coke drinker try some, and he absolutely hated it. But then, I get through more regular Coke cleaning my toilet than quenching my thirst. I guess the point is, it tastes a little like good old Coca-Cola, but not that much like it. I’d liken the taste to an extra-herbal sweet iced tea, which is a relative novelty over here, where we generally like our leaves best served in scalding hot water with milk.

The land of iced tea is also the land where cola as we know it today was born – Coca-Cola hails from Atlanta in Georgia, while Pepsi Coke has its orgins in North Carolina and even uses “Born in the Carolinas” as a slogan in its marketing to this day.

But while the South as a whole may be renowned for its soft drinks, as far as I can tell there’s no non-alcoholic beverage that can claim New Orleans as its birthplace – this is the town, after all, dubbed “the home of the cocktail” – of which more next time…

But consider this: cola nuts – a key ingredient in original cola formulas and what traditionally gives the drink its taste and kick – are from west Africa. The makers of Dalston Cola here in London source cola nuts from suppliers at Ridley Road Market catering to Hackney’s large west African community. And west Africa, its people and its cultures have had a hugely significant influence on New Orleans. “Obi divination” – telling fortunes with pieces of cola nut is a craft that you can find practiced in the Crescent City today.

But sadly there’s no “NOLA Cola” yet, though if there were I’m sure I’d love it as much as the Dalston version. What there is in New Orleans, however, is Jubilee Ginger Beer, the city’s very own small batch hand-crafted fizzy drink, from an outfit called Bywater Beverages.

Ginger soft drinks are certainly popular in London too – in fact, the Dalston Cola people also make a ginger beer. It’s called Raw Fiyah – the name a reference to London’s Caribbean community which, as in New Orelans, has left an indelible cultural print on the city.

The final link I’m going to draw between soft drinks in London and New Orleans is – what else? – food. When I was looking at Jubilee Ginger Beer’s Facebook page, someone was suggesting poaching some tuna in it, which sounded like an excellent idea to me, while at my aforementioned favourite café you can both buy Dalston Cola in the bottle and get wings marinaded in it to nibble on at the same time.

Mmm – fried chicken, Dalston Cola, ginger, west African nuts – these are just some of the ingredients I’d mix to make a drink to represent my two favourite cities – and with all this stirred in there’d be no need to add alcohol to make me want to drink it.