My father used to tell me that I was born just in time for cocktails – six o’ clock in the evening. In Kenya, the sun went down every day on the dot at six and my parents would sit out on the verandah drinking ‘sundowners’ – gin and tonic (a colonial staple), or a variety of cocktails, Gin Slings, Martinis, or just ‘brandy with a splash’. When we ended up in Buckinghamshire, my parents ‘cocktail’ habits became far more mundane and British – a whisky with water for my father, a sherry for my mother.
I first discovered cocktails when I went to work at the BBC in Bristol. It was the early eighties and cocktail bars had suddenly become fashionable. I tried Mojitos, Margaritas, Bellinis, Bloody Marys, Daquiris (not all at once!), but found them a little too sweet, or too bitter, or too expensive, and all of them far too alcoholic. I much preferred wine. Invariably, an Australian Chardonnay!
Years later, living on the Welsh Borders with a houseful of small boys, I had a bout of nostalgia for the grownup glamour of cocktails prompted by a wintry weekend, curled up on the sofa with the boys, watching all the James Bond movies and hearing that legendary phrase, “Shaken – not stirred”. In homage to Mr. Bond, I decided to make martinis and invested in a cocktail shaker. Tracking down the vermouth was difficult but I finally found a bottle of Noilly Prat in a wine merchant in Hereford. As for the glasses – those fabulous flat cones perched on vertiginous thin stems – to my surprise, the china shop in Abergavenny came up trumps. My first few attempts were with gin martinis but neither my husband or I were keen on gin so we tried vodka martinis instead. I loved the rituals – crushing the ice, slicing the wafer thin peels of lemon, chilling the glasses, the frosting on the bottle of vodka just taken out of the freezer.
A few summers later, Thea, the seven year old daughter of one of my good friends came round. It was a sunny summer weekend and I was in ‘martini’ mood. Thea looked quizzical. “Fiona, what are you doing?”
“I’m making vodka martinis. Do you want to help me?”
Her jaw dropped, then she giggled. No one had ever asked her to make a vodka martini. Not surprising – given she was only seven. I told her how James Bond only ever drank his martinis ‘shaken’ and not ‘stirred’ – then I showed her how to do it. Crushed ice, one part Noilly Prat, three parts Smirnoff – not exactly Bond’s recipe, but good enough for me. Thea started shaking. But I’d forgotten to tell her to hold the lid on tight. It exploded off the shaker and martini and ice sprayed everywhere. We both collapsed in giggles – and started again…
Later that evening I got a call from Thea’s mother. “Fiona…?”
“Thea tells me you’ve been teaching her to make vodka martinis…”
“I didn’t let her drink them!”
“Yes, but really!”
I can tell you that took some explaining…
Vodka Martinis have featured in my life like Kodachrome snapshots. Not drunk every day, the occasions when I do drink martinis remain in my memory. In December 2009, Jack, my youngest son was celebrating his 18th birthday out in France with me and my French partner. We made vodka martinis and Jack told me how he wanted to become the owner of a nightclub. Fifty Cent was playing on the sound system and Jack was looking ‘bling’ and shaking his fingers ‘gangsta’ style. We giggled and drank and danced.
The next year, Jack was back over in France in July – this time for my birthday. His present for me was a portable cocktail mixing set. It had everything: two martini glasses, a shaker, a spirit measure for measuring the proportions, a citrus peeler, and a Hawthorne strainer for removing ice from the drink. But that September, I got a call telling me that Jack had been killed in a car crash back in Britain. My world exploded. A few months later I came across his cocktail set and burst into tears. I put it away and wondered if I would ever use it.
Two years later, I separated from my French partner when I discovered he had a mistress (so very French). After many nights of bitter rows there was really nothing left to save. On our last night I made vodka martinis and maybe I drank one too many. In my anger, I smashed all the glasses in the fireplace.
Time passes. Some wounds heal. Four years later, a china and glass shop in Albi was having a sale. I saw a set of four exquisite martini glasses in the sale. Cut etched glass, the classic triangular shape – crystal elegance. I knew I had to buy them. Not to use them, just to keep them in the box, waiting for when the time was right – a kind of promise to the future…
January 2018. Mr T. is here in Albi. It is a new year and we feel hopeful. The future lies ahead of us and some of the past we can leave behind. I decide it’s time to christen the beautiful martini glasses bought four years before. I find the citrus peeler from Jack’s cocktail kit and fish out the steel mixer that Thea used from the back of the cupboard. And for the purposes of this post, we do some serious research on the origins of martinis. When Google returns over 40 million entries and we realise this could take a lifetime, we decide to focus on the controversy surrounding “shaken, not stirred”. Interestingly, there’s a lot of criticism in the professional cocktail-making community about Mr. Bond’s ‘shaken’ martinis. The view is you should only ever shake fruit-based cocktails and not clear spirit cocktails. But then I do rather like the smoky opaque viscous liquid it produces. So we decide a tasting test is in order – a degustation of martinis.
1 bottle of Finlandia vodka (Finnish – made from barley)
1 bottle of Wyborowa vodka (Polish – made from rye)
1 bottle of Noilly Prat (French vermouth)
1 fine peel lemon – you need a good smooth lemon, not too porous or knobbly.
A jar of green olives in brine
Lots of ice-cubes
1 steel cocktail shaker
A measuring glass or spirit measures
Put the vodka bottles in the freezer at least 6 hours before drinking and chill the Noilly Prat in the fridge. I also like to put the glasses in the freezer, but it’s not essential. Peel a long thin sliver of lemon peel (you can use a potato peeler but it won’t look so pretty) and/or stick two rinsed olives on a cocktail stick.
When it comes to making the martini, measure out 3 fluid ounces of vodka and 1 fluid ounce of Noilly Prat. Pour into the shaker along with 4-5 cubes of ice slightly crushed (placed in a plastic bag, covered with a towel, and hammered with a rolling pin).
Put the lid on the shaker and hold both ends of the shaker in a tea towel (the shaker gets icy cold so it’s to protect your hands). Shake vigorously for a good minute then pour into the martini glass and add either the olives or the lemon peel.
For the stirred version, simply stir the mixture in the shaker using the long handle of a wooden spoon. Strain the martini into the glasses and garnish with lemon or olives.
This is what we discovered:
Shaken martinis: Mr. T. preferred the Wyborowa accompanied with lemon peel. I found the Finlandia version slightly bland. It was only as the drink began to warm up that I began to enjoy it. It had a rounder, less oily taste compared to the Wyborowa.
Stirred martinis: This time round, Mr. T. found the Wyborowa rather dull but found the Finlandia rather bitter on first taste. But again, as the drink warmed up, he found the Finlandia more complex with a nice aftertaste. We both wondered whether the lemon in the Wyborowa was too overpowering. I certainly thought it was.
Charlie Parker played his jazz and we sat and talked and laughed and made plans for the year to come, and in the end we decided that the Finlandia vodka martini, ‘stirred and NOT shaken’ (sorry, Mr. Bond), served with two olives on a stick, was pretty damn good.
And I also discovered…
That a drink can bring back memories, both sad and happy, but it can also create new memories.
And as for Thea (now aged 22), I asked her what she remembered. She told me: “Making vodka martinis with you is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. I remember feeling overwhelmingly grown up and glamorous – like I shouldn’t have been allowed to do it– but I was, and it was exciting.” Then she added, “The important thing is that it’s 100% in my top 10 childhood memories”.