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A Day at the Races

The Festive Pimm's Cup Cocktail Is a Winning Combination

June 15, 2003|HEATHER JOHN | Heather John is a senior Style editor at the magazine.

The beginning of summer, when I was a kid, was marked by my mom breaking out a bottle of Pimm's No. 1 and making a mint-filled pitcher of Pimm's Cup, the traditional English cocktail of Pimm's liquor, Schweppes lemonade (a lemon soda), strawberries, cucumbers and orange slices. Though the contents of Pimm's is a secret guarded by six people, or so the label tells us, it's essentially a combination of liqueurs and fruit extracts. The practice of adding ginger ale or lemon soda and fruit has been around in various incarnations since the stuff was invented by Londoner James Pimm in 1840.

It's a practice my parents continued, as they sipped these marvelously colorful cocktails in the back garden of our tiny "semidetached" cottage in the Cotswolds. For my sister Claire and me, a nonalcoholic version was available, and these evenings were the only occasions on which we were allowed to take the Lord's name in vain.

"For heaven's sake, Jesus!" we would yell, and then collapse into fits of laughter. We'd picked up this lingo during Eights Week, so named for the eight-man rowing shells from the various colleges at Oxford University that race down the Thames River during the fifth week of the Trinity Term each May. We'd watch from the boathouse of my dad's college, St. Catherine's, in the Christ Church Meadow, where ivory marquees were set up with tubs of ice and bottles of champagne. A large punch bowl was filled with Pimm's Cup, which was ladled into beer mugs. The students wore straw boater hats and the striped blazers of their respective colleges--ivory and purple for St. Catherine's, yellow and blue for Lady Margaret Hall, blue and red for Balliol, green and ivory for Jesus College. From the clothes to the cocktails to the language, Eights Week was a colorful affair.

Oriel (blue with silver stripes) and Christ Church (solid Oxford blue) were the ones to watch--and not just because they had the best outfits. Neck to neck, their hulls raced past as students ran along the banks cheering them on. Inevitably Jesus College brought up the rear. "Come on, Jesus, catch up," a disgusted bystander yelled, knowing in his heart that there wasn't a prayer. Claire and I listened as insults and expletives were tossed at Jesus, convinced that God Himself would strike the offenders down. When no lightning appeared, we got into the spirit and joined right in.

Our family later moved back to the States, leaving behind the marquees and boats and blazers. Before long our accents disappeared. But my mom continued mixing pitchers of Pimm's Cups and, after playing with the recipe a bit, realized that the addition of blueberries with the strawberries makes for a patriotic-looking cocktail that is a perfect, if ironic, accompaniment to a Fourth of July barbecue. These days Claire and I get the leaded versions, and we try to keep the profanity to a minimum.



Serves 1

1 ounce Pimm's No. 1

4 ounces ginger ale

Very thin slice of cucumber

Several small strawberries and blueberries

Very thin slice of orange

Sprig of fresh mint

Fill a highball glass with ice. Add Pimm's, ginger ale, cucumber, fruit and mint. Stir gently and serve.



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