There's more to vermouth than just a bit-part in a classic Dry Martini

Fashions come and go, but neither gin nor vermouth have ever quite left the party. Where they were, and what they were doing, is a matter for quietly closed doors and drawn curtains. Their love affair was in more allusive times. Suddenly, they are back on the scene.

Fashions come and go, but neither gin nor vermouth have ever quite left the party. Where they were, and what they were doing, is a matter for quietly closed doors and drawn curtains. Their love affair was in more allusive times. Suddenly, they are back on the scene.

People knowingly asked for "Gin and It". That meant London Dry Gin with a more or less equal proportion of Italian vermouth - a wine aromatised with wormwood (vermut) and other herbs. It may have been the grassy-tasting, oily, long, Extra Dry from Cinzano. Or the more lemony-tasting Extra Dry made by Martini and Rossi.

The existence of the latter product leads to much confusion. Ask in Britain for a "Martini", and you may be given that company's vermouth on the rocks, probably with a slice of lemon, or even a swoosh of soda, but sadly innocent of gin.

This is a fine way to drink any vermouth, especially a good one, as a refreshing aperitif, but it is not a Martini in the American sense. To be sure of that classic, ask for a "Dry Martini Cocktail".

It should comprise just a hint of vermouth, not necessarily from Italy, with a far greater proportion of well-chilled gin (never vodka), stirred (not shaken, whatever Bond says), served straight up, with either a twist of lemon or a green olive. (If you have other opinions on this matter, kindly keep them to yourself). The Dry Martini Cocktail may take its name from the vermouth, but probably doesn't. A famous bartender called Martini? A town called Martinez? There are as many theories as revisionist recipes.

All vermouth has its origins in the days when wine-makers masked a wine's defects with herbs, berries, fruits and tree bark. The most delicate herbs came from the Alps.

On the Italian side, Turin is the centre of production. The best-known vermouth in France, created by the families Noilly and Prat, began in Lyons, moved to Marseilles, and is now in the city's distant offshoot, Marseillan.

Most of my bartender friends defer to their customers and use the milder-tasting Italian vermouths in Dry Martinis, but privately, several prefer the more assertively fragrant Noilly Prat.

Some merely rinse the glass with vermouth; others stir the ice in it. Some add none, but begin the ritual of Martini-making by allowing the sun to refract through a bottle. The bibulous Dean Martin was reported simply to bow three times in the direction of France (despite his Italian origins).

I agree with his orientation, but not his restraint in the matter of vermouth. For him, the magic of the gesture was enough, but the fact is that he was drinking chilled gin when he could have been enjoying the world's greatest cocktail.

After decades of less flavoursome, and drier, Martinis, there is now a counter-revolution. People are asking for a Wet Martini, which requires more vermouth. It is only a matter of time before we rediscover the "Gin and It". Or, I hope, the "Gin and French".

Marseillan is on a coastal lagoon among reedy marshlands in the Languedoc. Its famous drink is assembled from two varieties of white grape, grown in the immediately surrounding villages: Picpoul, cultivated in flat-land, and Clairette Blanche, grown on hillier terrain.

In 19th-century buildings set round a cobbled courtyard, the wines are blended with 20 ingredients, ranging from camomile, coriander and cloves to veronica, in a progression of galleries and cellars, each with a different style of barrels or tuns. Small dosages of sweet wines and distillates of raspberry and lemon are also added to flavour and fortify. Another part of the process is a year's outdoor maturation, influenced by the sea air.

My appetite aroused, I hardly needed the glass of chilled Noilly that was served straight like sherry with a dozen of the local oysters. The sauce for the local sea-bass was aromatised with Noilly. There was an amber version in the crême brulée; a medicinal red variation as a digestif. Even without the gin, one can be seduced by vermouth.

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