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Marcis Dzelzainis

(co-founder) 

Marcis’ bartending career spans the best part of 15+ years. He has opened some of the most iconic drinking spots in London (Zetter Townhouse, Satan’s Whiskers, Dandelyan), whilst also working at venues such as 69 Colebrooke Row and their development space - The Drink Factory.  He also managed Sager + Wilde, which went on to win a prestigious Tales of the Cocktail award in 2018. He is also co-founder of Fare Bar & Canteen on Old Street, which opened in 2018. He has spent considerable time traveling around Mexico sourcing unique small batch agave distillates and rum. Marcis has also been fortunate to travel the world hosting pop up events from New York to Stockholm.

He is believer in researching forgotten techniques and wild ingredients, as a way of connecting with our culinary history and a vehicle for positive ecological change.

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“It started with my grandmother, she ran a retirement home for Latvian ex-pats deep in the Herefordshire countryside, my brother and I would spend all our school holidays there, fishing in the lake, building dams in streams and generally roaming the surrounding countryside.

 

Latvia like a lot of Baltic and East European cultures has a strong relationship with nature and foraging is a key part of that.

 

Back in the 90’s, whenever we would go walking through the woods, my grandmother would regularly forage for mushrooms, berries and herbs (she was particularly fond of wood sorrel). Foraging wasn’t as prominent activity back then, and she would get some odd looks, not just from strangers but also family members, who saw foraging as a vestige of the old country, best left behind. I saw it differently, more as a link to our heritage, a way of passing on a knowledge not written down in books, something shown and understood rather than taught.

 

It instilled within me a deep yearning for finding nature in wild spaces, beyond cultivated fields and curated gardens."

"When I moved to London and would intermittently return to the countryside, I noticed a change, something was in the process of disappearing, but I could never quite put my finger on it. The train journeys of my childhood, where I would spend hours happily staring out of the window, admiring the passing scenery with all its wild secrets, were now a bit boring. As the train carriage hurtled past organised farmland and housing developments, I had a sense that the landscape was diminished in some way. At the time I put it down to simply getting older and acquiring a sense of nostalgia."

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(69 Colebrooke Row)

"In 2010 I went to work at 69 Colebrook Row and the Drink Factory (the development arm of Tony Conigliaro’s businesses). Tony was about to open The Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell and he’d approached me to help him bring the project to fruition. In the process of opening The Zetter Townhouse, I ended up managing 69 Colebrooke Row. I spent three and a half years working for Tony, and was introduced to all manner of fantastic gadgets and machinery, truly as close to having a real life ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ experience as one could ever have! Although, I’m sure Tony would hate me saying that. But this was when Ferran and Albert Adria were at the height of their fame, El Bulli was the most famous restaurant in the world and Heston was in the process of becoming a household name. Molecular and Mixology were two buzz words in vogue at the time, two words that would cause a significant amount of debate, as to what being a bartender in the 21st Century meant. Whether I agreed or not with those terms, it was neither here nor there for me. I learnt how to distill liquids in a vacuum with a rotary evaporator, to clarify all manner of juices for cordials in an industrial grade centrifuge, to freeze dry fruit and vegetables in order to concentrate their aromas, even how to make perfume! And I met a whole host of wonderful industry pioneers; Dave Arnold, Harold McGee, David Wondrich and Dale de Groff to name but a few. But most importantly I learnt how to develop recipes, record them and make them replicable, so that any drinks showcased in the bar were consistent day to day and serve to serve. For a while I forgot about those uncultivated wild spaces, that were so important to me growing up."

"By 2015 I had worked on few projects since then, namely opening Satan’s Whiskers in 2013 and then Dandelyan in 2014. By this point I wanted to get back to what I truly loved doing, which was creative development and drinks. So in August 2015 I started working at Sager + Wilde on Paradise Row, at that time called Mission. In the intermittent years between me starting to work at the Drink Factory and Sager + Wilde, a new chef had been making a name for himself. And his approach to food was radically different to that the Adria brothers and Heston Blumenthal. This chef was Rene Redzepi, and the restaurant was Noma."

(Satan's Whiskers)

(Macerating cherry blossom, for a cherry blossom Negroni)

"Two questions guided me. The first was whether I would be able to make drinks to the same standard as The Drink Factory without a reliance on the expensive gadgetry that was their calling card. I was determined to keep my reliance on machinery to a strict minimum. In doing so I realised one crucial factory. The missing element many overlook when using technology, is that time is a much more important influence on flavour than whether your rotary evaporator is correctly set up. I discovered that most of the marvellous things I had learnt, could be achieved with old (and sometime forgotten) techniques. Whether it was clarification, distillation, natural fermentation or infusions, all could be done if you factored in time."

"In fact many ingredients tasted better when left to sit for weeks or months. This really hit home the first time I made Bergamot Limoncello. I made two batches. For one I peeled the bergamots and added the zests to a vacuum sealed bag with neutral grain alcohol and cooked it sous vide at 42 degrees for an hour. The other, I zested the bergamot peel straight into neutral alcohol, sealed the bottle and left it to sit for 6 weeks. Exactly as they do in Italy. To both I added water and sugar to bring the abv to 32% and add sweetness. The sous vide method yielded a perfectly acceptable product. However, when I tried it against the traditional method, it was nowhere near as good. Time had enabled all the molecular compounds to breakdown and reform again, adding layers of complexity, whilst retaining the zippy earl grey freshness of bergamot!"

(Bergamot Limoncello) 

(Fresh nettle tops, ready to be fermented into nettle beer)

(Tower Hamlet cemetery in Mile End - a truly wild space, where we would go foraging)

"I became fascinated with these old, traditional methods, buying up swathes of old countryside cook books, desperate for any information that might help me recreate these forgotten recipes, which alongside the team at Sager + Wilde, we would convene to work on, every week. Many of the early attempts, were plainly disastrous. I remember an early version of nettle beer that was one of the foulest things I have ever tasted. But we stuck with it and gradually things started to come together. We learnt how to make nettle beer taste fresh and vibrant. The secret was using only the freshest nettles tops, whilst also using ale yeast to ferment the brew. We learnt, that you cannot make a good shrub if you don’t use the best apple cider vinegar you can find (that being the vinegar from Oliver’s Cider in Herefordshire). We learnt how to make our own vinegars from scratch, fermenting leftover wine, how to distil hydrosols using an old alembic still and amidst all of this, we would take weekly foraging trips to source all manner of wild ingredients."

"For the team and myself, I think it was the most fun we had during our time at Sager + Wilde. I believe that a big part of that, was the sense of connection we had with where we were. We weren’t just buying products off the shelf, made miles away, these were ingredients and products that we were sourcing directly on our doorstep. We were creating a new palate of ingredients with which to re-invent drinks."

"During my time at Sager + Wilde, I was also fortunate enough to spend time in Mexico, helping source agave distillates for Destilado (a London based independent bottler). We spent most of our time traveling around Oaxaca and Puebla. What struck me time and time again, when visiting the palenques (the Mexican name for a mezcal distillery), was that the mezcaleros were able to create products of unrivalled complexity and deliciousness, with a sense of terroir unparalleled in any spirit I had tried. And more often than not, the more ‘basic’ the still, the more complex the end product. This was in complete contradiction to everything I had been taught by spirit producers. Whether it was whisky distillers in Scotland or the Cognac houses in France, they all emphasised the inherent importance and value of their stills. The more refined the still was, the more refined the spirit would be. This was the opposite. I was learning that clay pot stills gave a unique viscous oily character to the mezcal, that copper gave the spirit a more linear, clean taste profile, which I didn’t enjoy as much."

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"The mezcaleros where fermenting their wild agaves in the open air with wild yeast. Not the turbo charged, proprietary yeast strains that big distilleries use. They were using wild barks to control the fermentation process, rather than enzymes, and most impressively they were accurately (to 0.5%) able to gauge the abv of the spirit just by looking at the bubbles it produced when poured from a height. This amazing skill and knowledge was being passed down generation to generation, not through YouTube videos and text books, but through experience, applied learning and a strong oral culture"

"My mind came back from those trips, crammed full of ideas and questions. But there was one question in particular that I kept thinking about. Many mezcaleros where effectively foraging for  wild agave and those that were planting agave were doing so in a regenerative manner, allowing their land to generate a multitude of crops and maintain soil health. Both the wild and farmed agave, were grown in rich healthy soils, free from pesticides and fertilisers. Both examples yielded an organic product that was superior to the monoculture/cloned agave used in mass produced Mezcal. So why weren’t we seeing this approach in other spirits? Part of this I think comes from viticulture, whereby stressed vines produce fruit with higher concentration of flavour. But it certainly doesn’t hold true for grain, sugar cane or orchard fruits. The question that I kept asking myself; what would be the impact of using wild ingredients or ingredients from regenerative farming be on spirits made from orchard fruits and grain? What would wild botanicals taste like instead of intensively farmed ones? What would whisky taste like, made from barley, grown in healthy soil, or even semi wild as part of a rotational crop? The second question was, why was I travelling half way across the world to find these spirits? Why wasn’t I looking for unique spirits like these on my doorstep?"

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"It wasn’t until I read Feral by George Monbiot, that all these ideas began to coalesce into something concrete. That uneasy feeling that wilderness was disappearing from our countryside was made explicit. I was particularly shocked when reading about ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, which refers to the changing human perception of ecological systems, due to the loss of truly wild environments. Monbiot’s prime example is that of the Scottish highlands, which many of us uphold as the wildest environment in Britain. It is in fact the site of catastrophic ecological breakdown, characterised by acidic soil and scrub land vegetation. It is desperately low in biodiversity. It is only through human interference that it is maintained in this state, as  this environment is good for game husbandry (deer and grouse). In fact biodiversity is sometimes now higher in urban environments, rather than the countryside, because nature is left alone and not manicured into a human vision of wilderness, untrue to itself. 

 

Monbiot’s suggests that there is hope, that with virtually no intervention nature is adept at reclaiming these environments and healing within a remarkably short amount of time. Part of this rewilding process, is rediscovering our own connection to wild environments, through our interactions with the landscape and how we cultivate it. Monbiot writes about that uneasy sense of diminishing wilderness, but rather than despair he proffers a solution. It is a desire to be part of this solution that led me to set up idyll drinks, to be part of the rewilding process and support regenerative farming.”