There is a great deal of talk about the pretentiousness of Australians about food these days. People clearly miss the “good old days”. Days when pulled pork was a euphemism for sticky pyjamas, and hipsters were a style of undies. I suppose, being the person I am, constantly interested in food and talking about it, I must fall squarely into some people’s idea of this pretentiousness. I’d like to calmly but firmly assure you that I’m not pretending. I genuinely miss restaurants made from brown brick with no windows and murals on the walls, electric candelabras and all male waiters with moustaches and bow ties. I went to them as a child and always ordered t-bone steak. I like stew, I like pies. But fuck anybody that wants to tell me that soggy veggies and underseasoned meat are the be all and end all, that as an Aussie, I can’t set my sights any higher. The tall poppies taste better, or at least, they provide the kind of variety commensurate with living in one of the richest countries on earth. You can enjoy the last by having a two car garage next to your Aussie dream home with a Godzilla like environmental footprint. You can drive a new car every two years, order more than you want to eat, collectively desire that the unemployed and rural indigenous live on unlivable sums. Personally, I live in a rented home and drive a small car nearly 20 years old that my grandmother gave to me, but when it comes to food and booze, I’ll spend every last cent I have to ensure that I and those at my table eat and drink as well as I can allow them. That frequently doesn’t mean spending a lot of money, I pride myself on my frugality, but not on my stinginess. Some ingredients, overwhelmingly the boozy kind, can’t be had at bargain prices.

I have never been the kind to post pictures of truffles on facebook and I honestly found my one experience of watching masterchef like an extremely dramatic day at cooking school. Ultimately, though, I figure we live in a culturally diverse nation, one where the poor and wonderous cuisines of many nations intermingle. It’s a glorious playland for anybody that cares to play, and if the nascent interest shown by masses of people in the culinary arts is a little overzealous, and occasionally smacks of a less sophisticated past, it surely doesn’t deserve to be derided. We are just about the richest people that have ever lived. Surely one of the best things that people can do with all of that wealth apart from help the needy, is endeavour to enrich themselves culturally. Or perhaps it would be better for all if everyone had a hot HSV in the driveway and every known electronic device in the house, stuffing their faces with unpretentious fast food.
Masterchef might sell the idea of sophistication to the aspirational masses, but McDonalds sells the idea of community and belonging, the lost simplicity of childhood. The end result of the former pushes the price of pork belly above the price of fillet, but you have a better chance of getting a tasty meal in any given household. The latter is more likely to push up rates of obesity and a swag of other health problems.
It’s like chefs dissing Jamie Oliver. I realise that he may take some shortcuts, making one type of dough for several different types of pasta, but he’s not trying to turn people in to high end chefs. He’s just teaching the average Joe home cooking like the kind of person that can cook well. The casual attitude and techniques are exactly what people that can cook do at home, and if you cut a few corners because you have a screaming baby, or you’re coming down, or you got drunk after work and your girlfriend has a broken finger and can’t cook and is starving and flipping out, then you go right ahead and cut a few corners. The food still tastes great and everybody is better off if they know how to do that. Good chefs cook well and can feed a lot of people. They teach other chefs how to cook well. Turning into whiny, sardonic little bitches at the drop of Jamie’s hat on account of him improving cookery and eating on a massive scale is unbecoming and smacks of petty jealousy.

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Falling victim to the classic blunder

I read the news when I don’t really have the energy to do much else. That’s especially true of lifestyle pieces. If it’s early in the morning, or late at night, or Sunday, or I have overindulged the night before whilst writing blog posts, you can find me reading about how great Melbourne is, or how intelligent people like the stuff I like, or how one of my favourite cafes is awesome. Then, as is the wont of the barely compos, and buoyed by the speculative affirmations I have so comfortably imbibed, I barely notice that the article proper has ended and quite unwittingly find myself in the comments section. It could happen to any weak minded fool, one reactionary comment begets another and soon my ire is raised and I actually consider joining the fatuous discourse.

I vote because I like the idea that a lack of consensus and the pride in and lip service paid to the democratic process can rein in the worst excesses of power. I’m a marriage celebrant because, despite my cynicism, I believe in the romantic delusion, and care to facilitate it’s propagation. The asinine censure spewed forth upon commentary sections, however, is something that I cannot accept. If many people vote the same way, they can execute change in politics, albeit about as effective as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If you and your similarly deluded spouse continue to commit to one another and regard your difficulties as a work of passion it may be a work that sustains you for a lifetime. But no amount of commentary on an editorial before “comments closed” is written on the bottom will effect change. Generally, bickering ensues, interspersed with a few compliments and some derision. It makes for poor journalism, and poorer literature.

Anybody can theoretically hold power in a democracy, there’s no ruling class. There are, however, some that actually do hold power. Those that don’t, and wish to press their uncensored opinions upon the many via commenting on widely disseminated media, but don’t have the discipline or the clout to cultivate a voice through said media, are destined to obscurity.

So anyway, I was reading about the Auction Rooms being named “best cafe” in The Age Good Cafe Guide Awards. I was pretty happy. I had come across them a few years earlier when I happened across their menu. It became apparent, through reading it, that this was a great place. I went there several times in the following few years and found a venue of exceptional quality, and with really good coffee.

It seems gratuitous and possibly hypocritical to paraphrase the argument of one of the inane commentators and to systematically break down their arguments in a long and drawn out process, but surely you knew this was coming. Essentially, some nonce was bad mouthing the venue in question in its hour of glory based on the fact that they couldn’t get a coffee “the way they liked it” there.

I’m pretty sure that what the person in question wanted was a milky coffee served very hot. Their contention, which weathered scores of detractors, was that the Auction Rooms wouldn’t survive if they failed to provide the basic service that gave the customer what they wanted.

The vituperator in question, apparently left his meal untouched, and went to a cafe around the corner in response to being served a “tepid coffee”. As the guy pointed out that his local golf club, which was at least 40km away, served better coffee (because they served it the way he liked it), I’m choosing to assume he wasn’t there because it was merely convenient. Now, if the fellow was there because he works close by or was doing business in the area, I could forgive his upset. He wanted a breakfast nosh and a coffee and wasn’t getting his bare minimum standard from the local joint. Under any other circumstance, I call shenanigans.

Basically, what are you doing seeking out a really interesting coffee house if you want to have the same coffee you have in your regular haunt? If I go to a great place, I don’t want to order the coffee, I want them to tell me what the best expression of the coffee they make is and get them to bring it to me, then I want to try like hell to understand it. If I don’t, fair enough, but to make a fuss about it not having a McDonalds like ability to give you the comfort of your favourite coffee from your favourite cafe seems like pointless whinging of the highest order.

One of the most genuinely interesting innovations to come out of the coffee movement is cold drip extraction. It’s insanely complex, frustratingly temporal and always and necessarily served both black and stone cold. St Ali have been practicing long enough to get it right, so why would anyone drinking or dining there not want to try it? It’s like being rescued by a super hero without them utilising their special power.

There is no doubt that coffee culture has come a long way in the past twenty years. Here in Melbourne, the influence of successions of Italian migrants first made us aspire to the Italian example. Eventually that aspiration made us one of the progenitors of the coffee revolution that has spread to many parts of the world and has even influenced the coffee culture in Italy.

From that standpoint, I wonder what this character was doing at the Auction Rooms in the first place. If somebody coughs up $500 to go to Vue De Monde so that they can tell their mates they’d rather have been having a big mac, they’ve kind of wasted their money and missed the point. If somebody drops $700 to eat fish at Le Bernadin and sends the barely marinated fluke back to be deep fried, likewise, they’ve not only wasted their money, but they’ve wasted an opportunity rarely afforded anyone to be taken on a culinary journey by one of the very few restaurants in the entire world capable of doing so. Sometimes cost plays into these things. The two afore mentioned meals are really expensive, the price tag reflects their quality. As such, there are basically two groups that will eat there. Those that live passionately for food and regard them as the pinnacle of life’s experience, regardless of whether they can afford them or not, and those that have the money and want to spend it, just because they can.

The same is true of the finest wines. Those that spend their lives dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge about wine and developing the palate necessary to really appreciate truly fine wines will occasionally have the opportunity to taste truly fine wines. As with the meals, only some will be able to afford them. Frequently though, the really fine wines have had their prices driven very high by the prestige associated with them, so, more often than not, they are drunk by those that crave only their high price tag, and not their exquisite contents.

In the world of coffee and breakfast, however, no such distinction seems apparent. The Auction Rooms, despite their acumen and the prestige afforded by the Age award, are priced to accommodate every fucken schmo. It makes it difficult for a person to understand, but why should people who genuinely dedicate their lives to excellence compromise that for someone ignorant of their craft? Fortunately, the Auction Rooms are good enough to weather this kind of criticism.

In short, the customer is wrong. Thankfully, happily, not all the customers are wrong. I sincerely hope that I speak for every place that truly seeks excellence when I say that one cannot create in a vacuum, input is necessary, criticism is necessary in order to improve. But, silly criticism, based on ignorance, or parochialism, or misguided self-righteousness, deserves to be cast forever into the ignominy of the comments section.

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Game, Set, Match

I conducted an in-store wine and beer tasting last night at a suburban bottle shop. The manager there was a young fellow, and a boozer of some distinction. He was well travelled, concerned with all things palatal, and had a penchant for left of centre YouTube comedy. As it was a rather quiet night for trade, it turned out a peculiar good fortune that we had a good three hours to engage in spirituous discourse. As he was leaving, he proudly held aloft a shopping bag and proclaimed that he was going home to enjoy one of his favourite pairings: A robust Pinot Noir and the cheapest white bread and sausages that money can buy. He recommended a minimum 20:1 price ratio of Pinot to food. After espousing this as a great match, he surreptitiously admitted to me that it wasn’t necessarily superb according to the conventional understanding of pairing, but there is something about the idea that boosts the experience for him. Perhaps it reflects a search for excellence on a limited budget. Perhaps the incongruity of poorly conceived commercial stodge and truly fine wine is approbate to a YouTube mentality. Either, or both ways, the concept immediately appealed to me.

It made me want to write about one of my favourite food matches that is, as far as I know, an unknown delight. It think that a really good Bavarian hefeweizen and battered fish and chips. The contrast of the sour lemony beer and the greasy battered fish, the compliment of the yeasty lees in every cloudy hefe and the beer batter. It’s kind of a gimme.

I can’t stop there though. When I was first learning about wine in a formal sense at cooking school, the instructor, a lovely and respected taster with an unusual humility for his trade, told us that a great pairing for champagne was onion rings. I would caution the naive reader against the offerings of some widespread hamburger restaurants, mainly because you want a yeasty, freshly fried, onion experience to match the highly acidic, leesy, yeasty wine. Also it has bubbles, those old familliar companions to the grease fest.

Ooh, ooh! I just remembered in trying to pair the white marinated anchovies that we commonly call boquerones, I realised, that like mussels and oysters, they are lovely with a glass of porter.

When I was little, my mum had an old cookbook that extolled some form of recipe exotica to the comparatively parochial, but nonetheless adventurous cooks of yore. In it was a recipe for Salchichas Panameñas or Panamanian sausages. They were a forcemeat of pork, onions, cinnamon and clove that were cooked in a mixture of red wine, Madeira and brown sugar until the poaching liquor became thick and coated the sausages. They were sticky, meaty and spicy. Really not bad, but I have rarely recreated them (though I transcribed the recipe before the book was thrown out).
The Poles have a drink, based on porter beer which they aptly name “Porterówka”. It is made by boiling porter with sugar and spices until it is quite thick and flavoursome. It is then mixed with pure rectified spirit (95.4% ABV) until it is vodka strength. After a period of maturation, a bittersweet herbal liqueur is born. I used to regularly buy a version from an Australian pole that, in the absence of a good European porter, would make it from Guinness. The result was lovely, though less bitter than the original. It did taste rather like an overblown fortified wine, though a little stronger and spicier. Something about it reminded me of the little salchichas Panameñas, so it fell naturally to me to pair it with cevapcici, spicy skinless Balkan beef sausages. The meat was different, but the shape and texture very similar. With the Porterówka in the glass serving as the sticky coating, I was transported back to my youth and forward on an adventure simultaneously.

Though I am generally unbowed by the usual conventions of literature, I will make a point of ignoring one here. The passionate exploration of gustative synergy ought not to bear a conclusion.

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Take that chocolate away, it’s fish!

In Thailand exists an ancient condiment. The precursor to modern fish sauce. It is made by taking freshwater fish and salting it for a few days, then placing it in a sealed earthenware pot, in brine, in the tropical sun for many months. The result is, rather unsurprisingly, fermented fish. It is the piscine equivalent of extremely ripe blue cheese which is as worrying a concept to us as a seriously rotting milk product is to the Thai.

It is rather remarkable what some people will and won’t eat. I had the pleasure to know briefly a rather obdurate young gentleman, unbowed by popular sentiment that had a singular dislike of all things fish. I say “all things” as there were a remarkable number of things that prior to meeting him, I hadn’t specifically recognized as fish. Chocolate was a notable example; it was fish and he wouldn’t eat it. Fish, too, was fish. In fact, I suspect that anything that was not entirely to his taste was actually fish. I do, however, remember him being rather partial to gyoza, he taught me to bite one end of the dumpling open so that the sauce would soak into it. It’s a double-dipping nightmare from the start, but one that I thoroughly recommend.

When I was a boy, I didn’t refuse to eat fish, but to be perfectly frank, I didn’t really enjoy it. I’m even talking about well prepared, fresh, white-fleshed fish. Something about it didn’t float my boat. Of course, I had a thing for fish fingers, which probably hid a multitude of sins from a child beneath a thick veil of greasy crumbs.

I would occasionally order anchovies on a pizza, probably just to prove to myself and anyone else that was around, that I could. The reality of those intensely fishy and rather over salted morsels was a bit more intense than I really cared to admit.

It all changed when I discovered store bought puttanesca sauce. I had tried a friends version, which contained no tomato, just the strong flavours: garlic, chilli, capers, anchovies, and oil with pasta. The store bought version I tried had a very subtle amount of anchovy, I couldn’t taste it specifically, but it had a dramatic effect on the flavour of the sauce. It deepened and widened and showed me a path to umami enlightenment that lay theretofore undiscovered. From then on, it was merely a question of degree.

A slip with the salted anchovy, here and there, and my tolerance gave way to liking. Realizing the role of fish sauce and shrimp paste in Thai dishes commonly beloved of Europeans and their ilk, made me curious, to want to experiment. I began to use them more and more, though I kept the open containers away from my nose at all times.

In trying to recreate two sauces I had tried in Chiang Mai at a barbecue, I bought my first jar of fermented fish. It was a challenge. The first jar I opened was like being punched in the face by a wheelie bin at a fish market on Monday morning. The intensity overshadowed any culinary merit I may have sought. However, I had already learnt the lesson of the anchovy, and judicious application would surely elevate my dishes. After that experience, I have always felt comfortable, and been able to analyze and enjoy the smell of both fish sauce and shrimp paste, still just a question of degree.
One day, perhaps, I will reach the insane heights of some northern Thai who eat straight grilled fermented fish, or the Sardinians who brave the culinary frontier of Casu marzu (maggot cheese). In the meantime, however, I merely acknowledge that the people who enjoy those most challenging of delicacies are not fundamentally different to me. It is almost certain that they universally started out not liking the crazy things they eat now.
I think what I’m really getting to here is: if chocolate is fish, try to like fish!

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The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of Fergus

Fergus Henderson is the fellow whos book “Nose to Tail Eating: a kind of British cooking” seems to have coined the phrase and with it contributed to the rise of the concept. It’s a lovely concept, not new but newly popular. That’s not what this is about, however, I just wanted to introduce Fergus Henderson.
He is a considered trencherman, and rightly for a fellow seminal in the rise of the tasteful preparation of pig’s faces, something of a boozehound. His writing is both original and engaging. I recently read his rather unflattering treatise on the speciousness of detoxing, which ended with a breakdown of Fergus’ ideal drinking day. My first thought was to imitate it.

Ritual is terribly reassuring to the drinker. I once met a rather scary alcoholic in Brooklyn that had been visiting the same AA meeting in Hell’s Kitchen for some ten years. He didn’t go for the meetings, he went for the coffee, gossip and ranting he shared afterward with the other recovering drunks. His point of view was that, beyond the pull of the drug itself, it was the lifestyle that kept sucking one back in. By the time I met him, he was bellicose and sober at 3 in the morning in a surprisingly packed local bar somewhere in Brooklyn. Clearly missing the company wasn’t going to knock him off the wagon. However, as Fergus aptly mentions: “Another wise soul, Michael Caine, once pointed out that the trick is to never do anything to the point where you have to give it up.”

I’ve occasionally been the kind of drinker that haunts bars with relative strangers, way late at night, but the expense, the loneliness, and the extreme lack of romance generally put me off these days. Drinking in fine company is certainly wondrous, but when drinking to excess in public all the time, albeit having a really good time, the novelty wears thin. So what is left to us, we bold and outlandish drinkers of quality? How may what the Americans like to describe as our “disease” be rendered beautiful?

One way is surely through the calming matrix of ritual. During what was likely the most dipsomaniacal period of my life, when I was working with the Poles, and swilling vodka like water on a daily basis, I started to take very seriously the practice of looking into the eyes of my companions before each shot. I was rather draconian in my approach and diners would sometimes be a little startled as I yelled “EYES, EYES” fervently at my colleagues! To my addled mind, drinking for its own sake would have been gratuitous, but drinking as part of a long human tradition, one that included kings and artists and from which a deal of our culture was derived, seemed another matter entirely. Observing the protocols associated with such an ancient practice linked our debauchery via an unbroken chain to the debauchery of our ancestors.

A hackneyed addiction becomes a well worn preoccupation when it finds beauty in someone else’s ritual. I read a politically based commentary from the Balkans, it focused on several people, all interviewed at various times during a tumultuous period in their recent history. One fellow, an ageing Farmer known for his good cheese gave his two cents. The book described his morning ritual. At 5am he drank a measure of very strong homemade rakia and the equivalent of an espresso before going out to milk his cows. He repeated the ritual at 11am and drank nothing for the rest of the day. I was transfixed by this world where the old people drank strong booze at 5am. The next day, when I started my own morning’s work at 4pm in the bar, I drank a very strong slivovitz and an espresso. It was rapturous. I just failed to stop at two.

My family, many of my friends and I all eat turkey and ham at Christmas, unless we don’t and we eat prawns. The French sometimes have up to 7 courses including: soup, shellfish, foie gras, poultry, salad, and cheese. When the feast day is upon us, the familliar tastes are a joy. Even if life isn’t going so well. Even if we’re fat and feasts are the norm, the dishes we remember so well, and the good preparation, make us happy. Knowing this, we can eat French, Chinese, Thai, or Mexican feast dishes, and even though we couldn’t eat the stuff in a lonely cave and be reminded of Christmas, we take it on board. Like watching the World series baseball in New York City, or the world cup in Brazil. The feeling of the crowd, plus our willingness to be entertained, sweeps us along. Some of us try to recreate the Mexican feast dish at home. Some of us buy a Vietnamese shuttle cock to play with when our holiday is over. Some of us spend a day drinking the way Fergus does, just to see what that would feel like.

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The tragic beauty of angry chefs

Food is love, right? So how can beautiful food come out of the infernal hellholes of commercial kitchens? It’s a reasonable question, albeit riddled with assumption and likely to provoke more questions than answers.

What does it mean anyway: food is love? Does it imply that some kind of universal life force, sensitive to our intentions while we prepare the food, affects the flavour and nutritional value of the finished product? Or even that, in the beautifully imagined manner of Like Water For Chocolate, our intentions can affect the emotional state of the consumer?

Perhaps the question is if all of that yelling and palpable fear, the bullying, suffering, stoicism and frequently early death are entirely necessary in order to produce good food? They do, on paper seem rather more at home in a 19th century workplace than in an environmentally friendly, Google blender-bike and mini-golf in the office era.

Let us examine the first interpretation of the question. Even assuming that food is love, can be transformed by our emotional state and intention in its preparation and confer those elements to the final consumer, why do we assume that the consumer wants to be rendered into a serene and caring emotional state by their high-end restaurant food. There may be exceptions, but how often do we seek out music about happy times, movies about idyllic families where everything always goes along comfortably, or art which portrays stability and contentment? It may be argued that a great restaurant meal should taste of high-art, borne from the heat, tension and suffering of the kitchen only through the passion and determination of the chef. That is the kind of tragic beauty that makes a great work. The kind of beauty that is worth the devotion, the duration, and the untimely sacrifice of a life.

Then again, maybe the question simply implies that kitchens are unconscionably nasty places to work and the practices that persevere in them would be unacceptable in almost any other form of modern employment. Whilst this is no means a universal indictment of the catering trade, it is reasonable to say in many cases. There are some extremely good restaurants, however, in which there are very little fear and yelling, which prompts the question: do they have a place in any kitchen?

In the kitchen at Gordon Ramsay’s Petrus they certainly have a place, whether it is deserved or not, and the fear there could be carved from the air with a meat slicer. The kitchen is mostly quiet, interrupted only by the constant invective from the head chef or the growling of his sous – barely audible the timid but compulsory responses. In the cool room, with the door closed, one line chef to another makes a half-hearted attempt at humour, then almost immediately a look of dread comes over his face as he hastily and breathily retracts his gag and they both scurry silently and nervously back to the line. It is a thoroughly unpleasant working environment, but the food is produced impeccably with military precision. If Ramsay is not a particularly ground-breaking chef, he is a master of discipline, an extremely hard worker, and knows how to motivate his entire broad employ to work just as hard. The high level of control works, as it has done for centuries. He has been trained by a string of genius arseholes like Marco Pierre White and Joël Roubichon, he has adopted their disciplinarian style, and their extremely high level of technical proficiency, but has not transcended either.

Another alumnus of Roubichon is Chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin in New York City. He too runs a three Michelin starred restaurant and several others in different cities. His cuisine and management style are both innovative, and the atmosphere in the kitchen at Le Bernadin is markedly different to that at Petrus. The level of attention to detail is just as high, but there is no constant fear. The chefs there are universally motivated by their passion for their craft and the inspiring guidance and passion of Ripert. Of course, it’s still a commercial kitchen, and there are sometimes frayed nerves and raised voices as constant short deadlines have to be met with impeccable quality and consistency. The faith shown in the dedication of the line chefs, is rewarded by the constant vigilance of those chefs. It proves that in an inspiring situation, one can produce some of the best food in the world in a reasonably pleasant environment.

There is another kitchen, just down the road, where pots fly and plates smash every night. The kitchen hands, all of whom are recent migrants from developing countries, didn’t want to grow up to be chefs. The apprentice has barely grown up at all, and is scared, but has started to take it out on the kitchen hands, who over weeks have moved from bemusement, to chagrin, and finally to the same defeated deference they show to the angry head chef. The food is reasonably consistent, much of it comes from the freezer and goes straight into the deep fryer. The Tuesday night parma and a pot is a steal at $12. The head chef yells because he has to, it’s what head chefs do. He wants the food up on time, and he wants it picked up on time. There is a lot of yelling at waiters, though in quiet times, the Chef and apprentice relax and throw light hearted personal jibes at the floor staff. The future for the staff in this side of the industry is one of long antisocial hours, low wages, high-stress, poor diet, damaged relationships, cholesterol, alcoholism, and a steady descent from youthful exuberance into middle-aged bitterness. They can’t suffer in the knowledge that they work for one of Britain’s most famous chefs, that there may be a big future ahead for them. They can just look forward to learning from a baselessly hubristic fool, without the intelligence or motivation to self-evaluation enough to understand his own behavior.

So great food can come from difficult environments, perhaps the environment is even a positive contributing factor in some exceptional cases. Cases where there is passion, hope, and unerring dedication to food and the craft of cookery. In a kitchen where there is no passion, only irascibility and mediocrity, there is no sexy food, no great chef, just a bad lover with no idea and no future.

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April 2, 2013 · 21:20

Shaken, not stirred. The dilute legacy of Mr Bond.

Working in a cocktail bar, making the drinks but rarely interacting directly with customers, I am constantly surprised by the number of vodka martinis ordered shaken. I spoke recently with a colleague at Borsch, Vodka and Tears, for whom I wrote the cocktail recipe book they use behind the bar. He told me that martinis were regularly being ordered shaken and then being returned for being “too watery”. I firmly blame James Bond for presenting a shaken martini as a drink of great sophistication without disseminating a commensurate understanding of how the different martini options will affect the contents of your glass. I will attempt to elucidate:

A martini is created when two basic things happen. Firstly, gin or vodka is tempered with the addition of a varying amount of vermouth – almost universally dry vermouth, though sweet vermouth has been used in the past. Secondly, the drink is both cooled and diluted when it is stirred or shaken with ice. In order to effect this transformation, it is essential to start with room temperature booze. At a more naive stage in my life I worked at a bar where all the vodka was kept, with no small measure of pride, resolutely frozen. As nobody working there had really thought it through, our custom was to pull the vodka straight from the freezer to make martinis. I used to frequent other cocktail bars and always marveled at how much liquor they were prepared to put into a martini. Sometimes, I would go into lengthy diatribes with foreigners about how our liquor taxes were particularly high here and so a double measure was all we could afford to put in a martini. One afternoon, I had a man order two martinis for himself. I made them with frozen vodka as usual. A while later I passed his table and asked how his drinks were. He mentioned that they were a little strong, and to the delight of his companion, I suggested that he was the kind of fellow that, upon visiting a chicken farm, was inclined to complain of the smell of chook shit. Feeling very smug, I returned to the bar with his credit card and charged him. As I swiped the card, I realized that I recognized his name – a famous music industry scoundrel. “Good,” I thought to myself, “He’s fleeced so many of my favourite artists…I’m glad he’s put out!”

When I returned to clear the table after their departure, however, I was dismayed to find one of his drinks still on the table. Suddenly, it hit me. The frozen vodka was ruining the drink. It may be a double shot of awesome vodka, but the very concept of a martini, is to smooth out the liquor, by cooling and diluting it.

When the gin or vodka is stirred, it gradually melts ice into the drink as it is motivated around the mixing vessel, until homeostasis is reached when the liquid reaches freezing point. The resulting strained drink is crystal clear and still and the dilution has almost doubled the size of the drink. This requires thirty seconds to a minute of stirring, the mixing vessel turns very frosty. A shaken martini involves vigorously shaking the mixture, which not only moves it toward homeostasis, but also physically batters the ice to pieces. As a result, the mixture is cloudy with incorporated gases precipitating into tiny bubbles, and a whole lot more water ends up in the drink.

Fleming’s character first mentions a martini in Casino Royale and it is a variation of his own invention now known as a vesper. Bond then goes on to say that he likes a very strong and very cold drink before dinner. As Fleming died fairly young of a heart attack, and the drink mentioned by Bond contained four and a half standard measures by today’s standards, we can conclude that neither Bond, nor Fleming were shy of a tipple. However, and this must be stated unambiguously, Bond ordered his martinis the weakest tasting way they could come. When people order what they know from popular culture to be a sophisticated drink, they should also bear in mind that it was the preference of a very pernickety drinker who was, by his own admission, extremely fussy about his eating and drinking preferences, as he often dined alone and being particular made it more enjoyable. I would say that the man and the drink were products of a bygone era, where both booze and people were of a rougher sort, and stoicism was maintained through various means: rigidity, obsessive compulsion, and alcoholism.

In short, try a stirred martini. They’re bloody good.


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