Whoever knew that the people of south Wales were so thirsty for Martinis? I certainly didn't several months ago, when I arranged to conduct a Martini-making demonstration at the Abergavenny Food Festival. When I've done things for this event in the past, at the "fringe" venue of the town's Hen & Chicks pub, audiences numbered somewhere between 10 and 20. This time, all 50 tickets for my event sold out well in advance. Perhaps it was the promise of a free taste that drew them in.
Whatever the reason, the occasion was daunting. I'd never done anything like this so the whole thing was as new to me as to my listeners, but all was well. When you're speaking about something you love as much as I love Martinis, and when your subject contains endless possibilities for jokes in both good and bad taste, you can talk all day. Simplicity and complexity were my themes: the Martini is the simplest of cocktails but hard to get right for precisely that reason. And the choices involved in making it - selection of spirits and vermouth, proportions, serving options - make it far more complicated than the essential simplicity of the drink would suggest. I wanted people to trust their own judgement, and to reject the authoritarian urgings of self-styled purists who think there's only one way to make a Martini.
I began by setting out the essential points of Martini-making. It must be cold, strong, and minimally diluted. It must be made with the best spirits, served in the appropriate glassware, and properly garnished with lemon or olive. The proportions of gin or vodka to vermouth are variable, but you must understand the differences. And finally, you must respect the strength of the drink: drink it at the right moment in your evening, don't drink too many, and don't drive afterwards. Don't even try to walk too fast down steep stairs, such as those my audience had to negotiate on leaving the pub.
Much as I love the sound of my own voice, I was under no illusions that the paying guests had come there to share my love. They were there for a taste. And they got it, thanks to generous donations from the makers of Beefeater, Plymouth and Hendrick's gin, and - in my second performance, hastily arranged the day before the festival began - a new brand of vodka called Reyka. I made three pitchers of gin Martinis both days, and a pitcher of vodka Martini on the second day. Each pitcher had a different gin, and in proportions ranging from 6:1 (Hendrick's) through 8:1 (Plymouth) to 10:1 (Beefeater).
With each pitcher, we talked about what they were tasting and I got the crowd to cast a vote for each drink. This wasn't scientific polling by any means, but it showed that every combination had its own adherents. The classic, unyielding dryness of 10:1 Beefeaters had more fans the second day than the first, but remember: this is the Martini at its most demanding. Plymouth and Hendrick's both won new fans, with the unusual flavourings (cucumber and rose petal) in Hendrick's wowing each crowd. Most important, the audience on both days saw the differences between one Martini approach and another, and between one gin and another.
Most gratifying of all was the response to the question: "Will you go home and make your own Martinis?" There were lots of raised hands for that one, even among people who had little experience of Martini drinking. I felt that I had succeeded in letting them know that Martinis exist to serve the drinker, not to make the drinker serve some absurd ideal of perfection imposed by purists - a group I dubbed "Martini Nazis". In a very small way, I felt that I had done some good for the cause of the Martini. And in Gwent, of all places. *
Camel Valley Brut 'Cornwall' 2003 ( £14.95, Waitrose or www.camelvalley.com, 01208 77959) Yes, from Cornwall. Apple-fresh flavours and youth make this an apéritif of distinction.
Green Point ZD 2003 ( £12.99, Waitrose) ZD means zero dosage, ie, no sugary "liqueur de dosage" to soften the acidity. Delicate Australian fizz, sealed with a crown cap.
Diebolt-Vallois Blanc de Blancs NV ( £167.40 a case including delivery, Seckford Wines, 01394 446 622 or www.seckfordwines.co.uk) Great value champagne with zingy citrus flavours.Reuse content