As a small child following my parents round the supermarket during the weekly shop, my eye was always caught in the juice aisle not by the shiny foil packs of Capri Sun or the cartons of Um Bongo, but by the truly bizarre creation that is Clamato. Combining tomato juice with clam broth seemed like the most revoltingly fascinating thing I had ever heard of. Those glass jars taunted me as I half hoped my parents would buy it, but feared I would have to actually drink this weird fishy beverage. Then the independent supermarket we visited closed in the mid 90s and was replaced by a Sainsbury’s and so trips to buy groceries became much less exciting and I forgot all about Clamato…
An adult obsession with the Fifth Taste or umami reminded me of my childhood fascination with Clamato and suddenly the idea of shellfish infused tomato juice ceased to be scary, but in fact became oddly alluring. Imagine my disappointment when it turned out it had become incredibly tricky to get my hands of this bivalve infused nectar here in the UK. It may form the basis of Canada’s favourite cocktail, but the Brits are a lot less keen. I was tempted to pay vast sums of money for a bottle of the stuff online, but instead I was excited to find a quart bottle of Clamato nestled amongst the other treasures at Sawers Deli in Belfast last week. Mister North and I were definitely sampling a Caesar this weekend!
I was momentarily disheartened to see that the tomato base of Clamato is from concentrate instead of fresh juice, but since I’m not a particular coneissour of tomato juices, I figured I’d still enjoy it. I was less convinced though by high fructose corn syrup being the third ingredient on the list. The HFCS along with a dose of onion and garlic powder and only dried clam broth to add that extra umami kick makes me think Clamato isn’t as high quality as I thought it was. With a mounting sense of disappointment akin to discovering Father Christmas has the wrong house, it was time to actually sample the product.
I dusted down my best martini glasses, crushed some ice and enlisted the help of my mixologist friend G and got cracking with a round of Caesars. This is basically a Bloody Mary made with Clamato for those of us who like our cocktails to be a good substitute for brunch! They are as easy to make as a Bloody Mary, but because we were nervous about the taste sensation awaiting us we had decided to go for a smaller glass rather than the traditional long style of a Bloody Mary.
Feeling fancy, we dipped the rim of the glasses in celery salt and then shook a shot of Russian Standard vodka together with the same amount of Clamato along with a shake of Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco. This was poured into a glass rinsed out with fresh lime juice and garnished with a celery stalk since I couldn’t get either Mister North or G to join me in the apparently common addition of a prawn…
There was nothing left to do but to taste it. First impression was of celery salt. Lots of celery salt in fact. But the second impression was that it was pure umami heaven. The clam broth isn’t distinctly noticeable in its fishiness, but simply adds a rich base note that perfectly compliments the smooth tomato-ness. Once I’d brushed some celery salt off the rim of the glass, I couldn’t stop sipping this and enjoying every wave of glutamate goodness I got from it.
Mister North seemed less enamoured, but admitted he isn’t a huge fan of Bloody Marys at the best of times. Both G and I love them (especially the morning after the night before) and we rattled through our Caesars much more quickly and enthusiastically, going back for seconds before we went out for dinner. I was delighted to fulfil a childhood ambition by finally sampling Clamato (although I didn’t dream of vodka in it then) and even more chuffed to discover I hadn’t carried something so heavy home in my suitcase for nothing!
I have enjoyed a Caesar or two on several occasions since then, rather enjoying reintroducing cocktail hour in my house. In fact, so pleased clam-rich enjoyment of Canada, I decided to try out Mexico’s Clamato cocktail next in the shape of a Chelada. It sounded odd, but then hadn’t I thought that about Clamato itself?
It turns out mixing beer, Clamato, lime juice and hot sauce isn’t just odd. It’s repulsive in more ways than I thought I could experience in just one mouthful. Maybe it’s because I used Meantime London Pale Ale instead of the recommended Budweiser or maybe it’s because this combo is so disgusting that I find it hard to believe that even the most determined middle of the night drinkers could come up with this concoction and actually stomach it. To me it tasted of like the shame and acidity of a really bad hangover. I barely managed one mouthful and then threw the rest down the sink, running the tap as keenly as you might when faced with a massive spider and then removed the taste with the rest of the bottle of Meantime.
At £5.99 a bottle I won’t be buying Clamato again, but despite the hideousness of a Chelada, I am rather hooked on this umami-tastic drink. So I’ll be experimenting with making my own version of this drink with a better quality tomato juice and some shellfish liquor whether that be from cooking my own or simply adding a dash of bonito to oomph it up. Once you’ve gone to this level of glutamate joy, you’ll find it hard to go back…