Dry January is behind us but the Covid winter of discontent rumbles on. Whilst bars remain closed we all need inspiration for lockdown libations. This month guest writer and gin expert Julian Vallis walks us through the ultimate three Martini lunch in the form of an imaginary tale, which celebrates both hospitality and the majesty of this timeless cocktail, complete with recipes and food matching ideas.
The Aperitif (Cardinale Bianco)
As I enter the house, my coat is deftly taken by my hostess to the nearest newel post, accepting that London prices mean cloakrooms are a rarity. I’m ushered into the sitting room with small talk followed by a polite “Excuse me one second, while I get you a drink”. I think of the great Edwardian tradition as I prepare myself for the onslaught on my stomach with a cheeky aperitif. I look around and marvel at the surroundings envious as to how she can both be more well-read and have a tidier place than mine. I take a seat and my hostess wafts back in. She presents me with a delightfully satisfying glass full of liquid. It is heavy and cold.
I look at it. Extremely pale straw in colour, served in a tumbler with ice fit for an American whiskey drink, but no aging anywhere to be seen. I take a short quick sip to prime my palate. It’s a dry drink with a tart and bitter note and medium strength, but there’s more to it. Intrigued, I take the glass to my nose, and detect a light but rich mix of citrus freshness. I rack my mind as I expect lemon, but it isn’t; instead, a divine medley of bergamot and white grapefruit combine with an underlying juniper on the nose. I take a second, more generous sip. Confirmatory notes of bergamot and grapefruit meet my tongue. The gin also has some citrus, but then its coriander seed and juniper fire my senses, closely followed by a bitterness from wormwood. The alcohol burn isn’t there, as the mouthfeel is expertly moderated by the vermouth. As the wormwood and juniper fade, the gin continues to linger with its more earthy and spicy flavours on the finish.
I wonder what the drink is. It’s not a Negroni – it has no red aperitif and it’s not as sweet as Negronis normally are. It’s obviously not a Martini as it’s got too much citrus, it has bitterness and it’s too wholesome. Confused, I ask my hostess.
“It’s a Cardinale Bianco. The Cardinale is a Negroni made with dry vermouth, and this is a white version”.
“Oh wow!” I respond, letting out some of the exasperation to prevent myself turning green inside at the double twist on the Negroni my hostess has presented me. This makes me even more secretly impressed at her hospitality credentials as I begin to ponder what she has in store for the meal. I’m now salivating.
Cardinale Bianco Recipe
2.5 parts Dry Gin
1 part Italicus Bergamotto
1 part Dolin Dry
2 dash Grapefruit bitters
Build in a tumbler with 1 or 3 olives on a stick.
The Starter (Sherry Martini)
I sit at the table perfectly laid with silverware and a small plate, mysteriously without a wine glass but a full glass of chilled filtered water. I carefully unfold the heavily starched linen napkin, admire its sharp creases from the obviously laborious ironing beforehand. I carefully place it on my lap and admire the level of preparation my hostess has undertaken.
The table is already host to some lightly toasted sourdough and slightly salted butter and a dish full to the brim with a terrine. My hostess quickly excuses herself to nip back in the kitchen. She returns promptly with some frozen glasses and a frozen bottle.
She cuts a thick bread-slice sized slice of terrine, serves it on my small plate and passes me the bread bowl. I oblige by taking a couple of slices. The frozen glass is placed where you would expect the wine glass and my hostess holds the bottle from the base with panache considering the immense finger strength required to do so. She tips the bottle and a completely clear but viscous liquid slinks into the glass. Then a quick squeeze of lemon zest and dropped into the drink, she sits down and lifts her cutlery.
I take that to mean she is ready to start eating and reciprocate by taking the outermost small knife and fork. I take a bite of the terrine, butter and sourdough. It’s a simple but satisfying starter, with a twist… is that sherry? I take a second bite to confirm. It is. Oh, my!
Mouth dried from the bread; I take a sip of the still frozen Martini. The zest meets my nose, followed by the ubiquitous juniper from gin underneath, and I smell a bit of grape, but quite dry and pleasant. I take a sip, citrus meets – not from the zest but the gin. It’s the same gin as the Cardinale, so I get the same experience of coriander seed heating up the juniper. But the climbdown is different to the Cardinale – there’s no bitterness. I feel a little more burn but not offensively so as I realise this Martini has no vermouth, but fino sherry, which isn’t as mouth filling and silky as vermouth. As the juniper tapers, I realise the sherry starts to complement the sherry in the terrine lingering in my mouth and gin helps clear away in the greasiness, while working with the peppery spices in the terrine. I repeat, engorged as the drink slowly warms up until there’s no more terrine on the plate. I take the last sip. The drink is now almost room temperature and I’m thankful as the sherry, now at its wettest and most potent, works with the gin and lingering terrine to clear my palate.
I consider the course, and quickly conclude the magic of how it and the Martini simply disappeared with my mouth left fresh for the main course. Expectations now set; my mind turns to the main course.
Sherry Martini Recipe
4 parts Dry Gin
1 part Fino Sherry
2 dashes orange bitters
Stir and serve with orange twist.
The Main Course (Asparagus Martini)
My hostess takes my plate and glass and, in a flash, disappears to the kitchen. She spends a minute or two plating up and returns with another laden tray. She presents a larger plate, more satisfyingly heaped.
The plate is a bed of asparagus and new potatoes with some chive, thyme, garlic and olive oil. On it is a fillet of white-flesh fish with the skin still on. “Sea bass with asparagus and Jersey Royals,” my hostess says, noting my eyes are looking at it inquisitively and rightfully responding with gleeful gratitude. She serves another frozen glass and expertly decants another frozen Martini. This time the liquid, still viscous from being frozen, is clear but slightly green-tinged.
Intrigued, I follow her in picking out the outermost cutlery and tuck into the flesh of the fish, and pick up a potato on my fork. I admire my hostess now, despite being deep in an argument about some inane current affairs nonsense. While I’m mildly irate with her views, I’m forgiving of that as I’m very much in awe of her hospitality.
As the oils on the potato and clean protein of the fish need to be washed down, I pick up the Nick & Nora glass with weirdly light green liquid and take a sip. No citrus this time, or at least very, very little, but familiar notes of earthy juniper are met with an earthy but vegetal smell I can’t quite identify.
I take a sip. The gin plays its part, first with its inherent citrus, then juniper. The midpalate this time tings with something familiar I also recognise from the nose, before remembering how she expertly linked ingredients with the sherry. I look on my plate to see the culprit. “Asparagus, you Muppet!” It finally dawns on me and I marvel how such a peculiar ingredient could be added to a delicate Martini. I briefly glare at my hostess in astonishment.
Asparagus Martini Recipe
3 parts Dry Gin
2 parts Vodka
1 asparagus stalk, chopped
2 dashes lemon juice
1 piece of lemon peel
Infuse all the above for 24 hours, strain and serve direct (straight from freezer)
The Dessert (Fig Martinez)
I wonder now what’s left for dessert. The Martini is famous for having a delayed reaction, and the three drinks I’ve had so far are starting to be felt, so I drink a couple of glasses of water. I wonder why it’s not fizzy until I click the Martinis are actually doing an excellent job of cleansing my palate. I reflect on how gin isn’t actually very different to denaturised spirit alcohol, albeit edible.
My hostess diligently clears the plates and empty glasses from the table, a little quicker this time, and replaces them with a mixing glass, 4 bottles, and a large honey glazed fig and almond tart. The scene before me sets my heart bracing for cover but my mouth grinning as if from Cheshire.
She puts the mixing glass on the table, which I now see has been taken out of the freezer and full of large clear ice. She pours an exact amount of gin, then half the amount again of a deep amber vermouth and finishes it off with a barspoon of unidentified liqueur. Finally, the fourth bottle is some bitters and she puts 3-4 dashes in the mixing glass. Then, while keeping one finger to check the temperature of the mixing glass, she stirs the mix gently for 20-30 seconds. With a confirmatory taste and check of temperature, she then cuts a fig in half balancing it precariously on the edge of the glass before putting a julep strainer on and serving the elixir into a frozen glass in situ at my place.
She turns to the tart and serves a slice on my dessert plate before sitting down. As she glances at me, she lifts her fork and spoon and I follow and take a bite of the tart. The almonds and pastry are quite dry while the honey glazed figs, slightly caramelised, soothe. I close my eyes in a brief climax.
I take the glass to my nose. I smell caramel, spices and fig. I take a sip and this time there’s nothing sharp as the formal affairs of the previous Martinis. This is soft, mellow and sweet. I take a second sip. This time the sweet, bold Italian vermouth is playing hero, with the gin only playing a bit part as the muscle at the party. The liqueur turns out to be fig and orange. Oh my, this is a divine fig Martinez. We devour the rest.
Fig Martinez Recipe
Either buy Asterley Bros Fig Martinez, or make it as follows:
1 part Sweet Italian Vermouth
1 part Dry Gin
1 tsp Audemus Covert Fig liqueur
1 tsp Pedro Ximenez
1 dash Orange bitters
Stir and serve with half a fig on the glass
I look at the time; it’s flown. My hostess and I rise from the table, I stumble slightly, suddenly realising that 4 drinks are taking no prisoners. I quickly drink some more water, cursing myself for not realising I’ve drunk enough of it.
I order a cab and say my profuse thanks. I don’t believe it. I’ve just enjoyed a delectable three-martini lunch.
Julian Vallis is a gin expert and self-confessed ‘cocktail nerd’. With gin blogger Sandra Lim (@juniperchick) they run the Martini Club to help people learn more about this important cocktail. More details about the Martini Club can be found here. You can follow Julian’s adventures and impressive recipes on Instagram and Twitter following the handle @julianvallis.
Cocktail photos within the article by Julian Vallis and reproduced with his permission. Cover photo licensed by Adobe.