Of Twins and ‘Tinis

It is not economical to go to bed early to save candles if the result is twins. –Chinese Proverb

when cowboys wore snow-boots on horseback

There is something about a Martini, a tingle remarkably pleasant, a yellow, a mellow Martini, I wish I had one at present. –Ogden Nash

mellow martini with a view

Twins and martinis are an interesting study of compare and contrast. 

I’m married to an identical twin. He is ten minutes older than his brother. They learned to speak the mother tongue on the normal developmental curve, but retained a private language from the time they were infants until four-years-old. 

Look at identical twins. When you get closer, you start to see the small differences. –Brian Swanson

still flying united

Placed in different classrooms in elementary school, their interests and friends diverged. One gravitated toward sports, fishing, and camping, the other to art, music, and drama. As adults, it is easy to identify who is who because hair parts are on opposite sides and voices differ, but they use identical hand gestures and are both creative leaders in their respective professions.

Not even identical twins can have the exact same experiences and their brains are not wired the same way. –John Medina

There are significant differences in food and taste preference in these twins. My husband’s brother eats coriander, both raw and cooked, while my husband vehemently pushes away any dish with a hint of it. In childhood, one twin developed a food allergy to shellfish, the other to fish with fins.

And then I stumbled onto the great martini divide, placing them firmly into polarized camps…

I’m not talking a cup of cheap gin splashed over an ice cube. I’m talking satin, fire, and ice, surgical cleanliness, insight and comfort, redemption and absolution. I’m talking MARTINI. –Anonymous

with a Capital “M”

In the late 1990s, my brother-in-law joined colleagues after work at a bar conveniently located on the ground floor of their office building in New York City. Martini culture was popular, and an architect he knew always ordered one. The bartender used a small aerosol bottle to spray vermouth inside the glass. Then he added a 50/50 ratio of gin and vodka. It was a memorable first martini because my brother-in-law despised it. Later, when he decided to try again, there was the same essence of vermouth spray followed by chilled vodka only. Thereafter, his go-to cocktail was born. 

During the same time period we were living overseas. My husband never drank distilled liquor, preferring wine or beer as a social beverage. Then, last summer in Colorado I began experimenting with “dirty” vodka martinis as a late-in-the-day-cabin-cocktail. He turned up his nose and stuck with wine. Dabbling with other recipes, I mixed vodka and gin. He agreed to taste, but only tolerated a few sips before a decided, “No thank you”. Several months later, experimenting again, I offered a pure gin concoction and substituted Lillet [a French aperitif wine from Bordeaux] for vermouth. He surprised us both by saying, “This could be my martini.” He is also big on multiple green olives as garnish.  

And so, with ongoing research, I discerned a new difference–to each twin, his own base spirit.

The iconic martini is never completely out of style. Yet it could be the most argued about drink in history because it comes in such a variety of variations. Amazing for a cocktail with only three parts:

  •  1. Base alcohol
  • 2. The ratio of spirit to vermouth
  • 3. Garnish 

Seemingly simple, yet every martini must be carefully created. Often it’s better not to order one in public. Most bartenders, unless you instruct them carefully, don’t have the time or inclination to make it to personal specifications. There is no right or wrong recipe. It’s just that the best martini is one made the way you like to drink it. Begin mixing at home.

home mix up line up

If someone says they hate martinis, it’s possible they never had a proper one. The disgruntlement is most often not with the gin or vodka. It is usually with the concentration of vermouth. 

A perfect martini should be made by filling a chilled glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy. –Noël Coward

For many martini lovers, the “right” proportion of vermouth to spirit is more art than science. An exact measurement can be difficult when it is more like a hint or a suggestion. Like the spritz my brother-in-law sprays inside his glass. Or the way Dukes Hotel Bar in London pours vermouth in and out of the glass. Whatever sticks inside is just enough. A fraction of the whole, the vermouth ratio can define or ruin a martini depending on your taste.

Vermouth should be used quickly. Some sources say within a month. Toss out those years-old-dusty-bottles on a shelf. Keep it cold. Never buy icky vermouth. Buy the smallest bottle of the best quality [not Martini & Rossi] and make great martinis.

The vermouth dilemma was solved at home by ditching it entirely. We only use white Lillet. One half measure of this French invention offers smoothness not tasted with vermouth. I don’t know if vermouth really goes bad after a month, perhaps it’s that we don’t like it, but Lillet keeps in the refrigerator for a long time and is always just right. The point is, to each his own proportion of spirit to vermouth, or to Lillet, or to none.

It was Ian Fleming who introduced me to Lillet. In the 1953 novel, Casino Royale, James Bond invents the “Vesper”, named for a short-lived girlfriend:

“A dry martini,” he [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

–Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, Chapter 7, “Rouge et Noir”

the vesper dressed to kill

It was in Dukes Hotel, on tiny St. James Place, Mayfair London, where Fleming regularly consumed vodka martinis while writing his infamous 007 spy stories. Today, Dukes’ bar is an institution with an established reputation for creating great martinis. Head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, is Italian and has worked there for more than three decades. He says, “A martini is a drink that has to be strong and three ingredients only.” No chocolate, no espresso, no fruit additions make the cut. Their current signature drink has been around since the mid-1980s. Dukes is known for using a direct martini method, cutting out ice as middleman. After a thin wash of vermouth, already frozen gin or vodka is poured like syrup directly from bottle into glass. 

alessandro palazzi and the dukes’ vesper

There are martini snobs today who claim that Fleming’s British spy ruined the cocktail with his standard “shaken not stirred” preparation and for ordering vodka instead of straight gin. It’s remarkable that people not only target a fictional character with a cocktail crime, but that martinis still provoke argument 100+ years after being invented.

A martini should always be stirred, not shaken, so the molecules lie sensuously on top of one another. –Somerset Maughan

If you belong to the stirring-only-fan-club, mix ingredients in a container with ice for 30 seconds to bind and thoroughly chill. It will only be diluted a touch. If you shake, use plenty of ice and keep going until shaker is frosted over, your hand is frozen to the metal, and/or you felt a decent upper body workout. For the unprofessional, occasional imbiber there is no discernible difference in taste or chill factor with either method. We tend to go the shaken route because we like sipping through a sea of ice shards. 

Whether shaken or stirred, the “have to” of every martini is that it must be served extremely COLD.

The real key to a great martini is it should be all arctic, deliciously crisp… –Victoria Moore

Glassware can be freezer chilled or let ice cubes rest inside while ingredients are assembled. Also, consider the allure of the glass. A long stemmed V-shaped martini glass looks better in your hand than any other drinking receptacle. [Except for a champagne flute!] The conical shape allows olives to stand upright rather than clump unattractively in a heap. The stem protects cold glass from warm hands. The wide bowl opens the alcohol to air and makes it pleasantly aromatic, especially with gin.  

This is an excellent martini – sort of tastes…just like a cold cloud. –Herman Wouk

a cold cloud on a hot day…

Dueling twin tastes parallel ongoing general public debate between classical gin martini lovers versus those who drink only vodka. I went to my own double sources to learn why each side aligns so dramatically this way or that.

Brother-in-law is a man who enjoys the peppery taste that certain vodka emits. Ketel One for everyday, Christiania–Norwegian potato vodka–on special occasions. He likes one spray of vermouth in his glass, replicating the method of the bartender who made his first martini. He believes gin tastes like fertilizer or moldy leaf compost.

Mr. Ketel One mixing his way

Husband who prefers gin says it has substance and tastes like earthy herbs and spices that linger on the palate. His current favorite is Fords Gin, known for its’ juniper essence. He likes a martini laced with Lillet rather than vermouth. He believes vodka tastes like lighter fluid.

There you have it–true twin diversity in taste and preference, martini style. In finishing the story, two final quotes from two favorite writers:

I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized. –Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

A well-made martini correctly chilled and nicely served has been more often my friend than any two-legged creature. –M.F.K. Fisher

Civilized or not, friendly or not, it’s wise to be slightly scared of martinis. This is not a girly wine spritzer you can swill in multiple rounds when thirsty. This is an adult drink, a serious drink. This is a pond of pure booze in a glass and should be treated as such. For most of us, who inhabit a world with both civility and friendship, one martini is probably enough. Unless you happen to be drinking with these twins…then, better make it a double.

4 MARTINI RECIPES

[Shaken or stirred, or eliminate ice with frozen gin or vodka & a very well chilled glass]

THE 007 VESPERTINI

[Disclosure: Impossible to replicate exactly as Bond created. Why? Gordon’s gin in 1953 was not the same gin as by that name now. Kina Lillet is no longer made either. Use a strong rather than a soft gin, Stoli vodka, white Lillet and a dash of bitters for the closest approximation.]

  • 2 shots gin of choice
  • 1 shot vodka [100 proof Stoli preferably]
  • ½ shot white Lillet
  • Optional: 2 dashes bitters
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with large twist of lemon peel

THE SIGNATURE LONDON DUKES HOTELTINI

  • Rinse a well-chilled glass with dry vermouth by pouring in and out
  • Add 5 shots [oh my!] of frozen gin or vodka
  • Express the oil from the peel of an organic, un-waxed Italian Amalfi Coast lemon over the top and then drop in as garnish
  • House rule–maximum 2 drinks only
  • Served with olives and snacks on the side
  • Customer has table rights all evening

THE MARK GINTINI

  • 3 shots Fords Gin
  •  ½ shot white Lillet
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with minimum of 4 green olives on a stainless skewer
  • Float ice chips over the top

THE ERIK VODKATINI

  • 1 spray vermouth to inside of glass
  • 3 shots Ketel One or Christiania Vodka
  • Always shaken
  • Garnish with lemon peel or burnt blood orange peel, olives if you must
“The Boys” back then…
and several years later…

There are two things in life for which we are never truly prepared…twins. –Josh Billings

Transcendent Picnics

qiagtiangangcloudy
trail to buffalo meadows, taipei, taiwan

M.F.K. Fisher [1908-1992] wrote that the best outdoor eating is on the side of a hill in the early evening. Her story of an unforgettable picnic took place in Switzerland in the 1930s. Sixty years later, in the 1990s, on a grassy meadow in Taiwan, we had a similar family experience. Continents and decades apart, the stories are interwoven because both Fisher’s memory and mine are reflections about more than the menu.

Fisher’s story went like this. She and her husband were building a small house above Lake Geneva, Switzerland, on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards. Her parents came from California to visit. Late afternoon sun in June promised just enough warmth for an outside meal. The four of them carried baskets to the construction site, after workers had left for the day.

A table under the apple tree was covered with a checkered cloth and set with silver, ceramic plates and cloth napkins. Bottles of wine were placed in an ancient spring-fed fountain to chill. A fire was built, ringed with stones and roofing tiles, fueled with wood shavings.

The first spring peas were ready to harvest. As the men picked from the terraced garden uphill, Mary Frances ran baskets downhill to her mother who quickly shelled them into a pot. An iron casserole was set over the open fire where the peas “cooked for perhaps four or five minutes, swirling them in butter and their own steam”. Salt and pepper at the end, then table side.

On each plate lay a small roasted pullet. There was salad of delicate mountain lettuces, a basket of good bread, and fountain-chilled white wine generously poured. And those tender young peas–freshly steamed and seasoned! They shared the harvested feast and each other’s company as the surrounding hills turned rosy and the sun began to sink. Suddenly, in a neighboring field, “…a cow moved her head among the meadow flowers and shook her bell in a slow, melodious rhythm, a kind of hymn.” Fisher never forgot it.

There is more than the communion of bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. –m.f.k. fisher

In the spring of our first year in Taiwan, we went on a picnic where the alignment of people, place, and food replicated this kind of perfection. More importantly, our young daughter’s understanding of the communal spirit created when food is shared in good company began there on a grassy hillside.

Yangmingshan is the national park north of Taipei. It was typically crowded on weekends with cooped up city people seeking fresh air, hiking trails, flowers and greenery. Friends Maddy and Cabby knew of an area in the park where water buffalo grazed freely and people were few. They organized a picnic in Buffalo Meadows on a late afternoon. We were four adults and three young children.

From the parking area, we hiked uphill in a cloud so dense it moistened our hair and skin with droplets of water. At the top of the trail, the landscape turned sunny and green with views all around. The soft grass was picnic perfect. Out of a backpack came a Frisbee and the men organized play on the hillside. Lara and Liza tired of running after a frisbee they could not catch. They tried to follow a slow moving water buffalo. He wandered on.

lara and liza and a water buffalo
girls thinking about things

Our nine-year-old daughter came over and sat down to watch the food preparation. There was a small camp stove along with a battered and blackened Japanese wok in which to put together the meal. Ingredients had been sliced, steamed, grated and pre-cooked at home. Once the stove was leveled, primed, and producing enough heat, assembly began. 

Olive oil was generously poured into the wok and heated. Thinly sliced cloves of fresh garlic were added to the hot oil. Shaking the pan continuously, the slices began to brown around the edges. Bite sized broccoli flowerets were stirred in with freshly ground pepper. Pre-cooked penne pasta was added along with butter. Everything was tumbled together with a large wooden spoon until thoroughly heated. Finally, freshly grated Parmesan cheese was layered on top and melted into everything. Lightly browned garlic slices gave toasted sweetness to the broccoli and pasta. A one-dish meal. Perfect.

Plates were passed. We sat side by side on blankets eating, laughing and talking. As the sun lowered over the far hills, the temperature cooled and we reached for jackets. Thimble sized portions of single malt whisky were passed among the adults. A breeze stirred and we leaned in closer, wrapping arms around children. Four-year-old Liza was zipped into the front of her father’s grey sweatshirt, where she fell asleep curled into his chest, only the top of her blonde head showing. We talked quietly as darkness descended. The mist returned. It was time to go home.

Days later our daughter asked if I could make that broccoli pasta dish. She had a faraway look in her eyes while she spoke of the picnic in Buffalo Meadows and how wonderful it had been. Looking at her face and listening to her speak I knew she had made a connection about more than the food. She was asking to go back to a feeling created on a tranquil hillside with close-knit family and friends. I never forgot her request. She had connected the dots that Fisher writes about so well–the communion of spirits when food and love are shared, around a table or on a hillside, with people who are important to us.

Maybe this explains why this picnic, so many years ago, is vivid in my memory. Although I love reflecting on Fisher’s story of peas, a Swiss hillside, and a cowbell, my own recollection is this–a beat-up Japanese wok filled with pasta, a misty meadow, adults and children with arms around one another, and a water buffalo. I can’t let it go.

BROCCOLI GARLIC PENNE [from Silver Palate Cookbook]

basic ingredients except for parmesan
  • 1 lb. [500 gm] penne pasta, cooked al dente
  • 2 heads broccoli, cut into small flowerets
  • ½ C. extra virgin olive oil
  • 10 [or more!] cloves garlic, thinly sliced crosswise
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 4 T. [1/2 stick] good butter
  • Freshly grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Assembly:

  • Boil penne, drain, rinse under cold water.
  • Simmer broccoli in boiling water 1-2 minutes, drain, rinse in cold water.
  • Heat oil ~ 1 min. Add garlic slices and cook, shaking pan until it begins to brown ~1 min.
  • Add broccoli, stir, grind pepper on top.
  • Add butter and penne, stirring continuously until well mixed and heated through.
  • Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Pass the pepper mill.
  • Add garnish and extra Parmesan.

For variety, add shredded or cubed cooked chicken, sliced black olives, or leftover veggies. Red or yellow bell peppers make a colorful addition. [Steam or stir fry before adding.] Red pepper flakes for added spice. Cherry tomatoes, cut in half, as garnish before serving.

Mussel Memory, Revisited

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Hotel de Ville on the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels is an important city for several reasons. Politically, it is the capital of Belgium and the European Union. Historically, it’s importance as a fortress town began in the 10th century. Architecturally, the Grand Place is designated a World Heritage Site of striking 17th century design and construction.

The importance of Brussels to me is tied to memories of food I ate there years ago, while visiting a friend. Now that we lived next door to Belgium, in France, it was time to revisit. We took a road trip from Paris.

In 2002, when I was living in Taiwan, my friend Nancy invited me to Brussels. She had moved from Taipei several years before. The guest room was on the top floor of their multi-level row house. The ceiling angled sharply from the peaked roof. A large skylight opened to fresh air and neighboring rooftops. Wooden floorboards were painted white. On the bed was a puffy duvet of green and white gingham. The adjoining bathroom housed a big, white bathtub and thick towels warmed on a radiator. I called it the Heidi-hayloft-room because it reminded me of the children’s book about the little girl who slept in a hayloft. I flew from Asia into a fairytale.

A four-year-old boy who believed he was Batman lived in the household. It was impossible to separate costume and character from the child. So his parents lived with a masked, black caped action hero. At pre-school, Brady acquired a perfect French accent. And, like everyone in Brussels, he adored pommes frites.

Frites are a national snack food in Belgium. Locals and tourists eat them like popcorn at the movies. Storefronts sell paper cones filled with them. And a range of sauces. Each order is freshly made and just right–crispy on the outside, feathery on the inside. I believe Belgians perfected frites because they know that eating them outside on a freezing day warms you on the inside. We shared a cornet on bitingly cold winter days. And stayed warm to our bones.

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side by side friteries
IMG_1041
sauce choices
IMG_1049
cornet with a dollop of spicy samourai sauce

While Nancy and I walked around the Grand Place during my visit, she said, “You must eat this. Right now.” I was handed a waffle wrapped in crisp paper from a street vendor’s cart. On the outside it looked like any waffle, except it was thicker, and more irregular around the edges. Then I bit into a surprise. Partially melted, caramelized sugar crystals dissolved into syrup. My mouth filled with warm sweetness. Time, place, and taste blended into one moment. A winter morning, a cobblestoned square with gothic spires, and a hot waffle. I never forgot it.

My food writing mentor, M.F.K. Fisher, had a similar experience. As a young woman living in France, in the 1920s, she hiked with an Alpine club. Most of the members were much older. She was the only foreigner. On a very cold day, while catching her breath at the top of a steep hill, an old general said, “Here! Try some of this young lady!” He gave her a pale brown piece of chocolate.

In my mouth the chocolate broke at first like gravel into many separate, disagreeable bits. I began to wonder if I could swallow them. Then they grew soft and melted voluptuously into a warm stream down my throat.”

Another hiker said, “Wait, wait! Never eat chocolate without bread, young lady!”

And in two minutes my mouth was full of fresh bread and melting chocolate, and as we sat gingerly, the three of us, on the frozen hill, looking down into the valley…we peered shyly and silently at each other and smiled and chewed at one of the most satisfying things I have ever eaten…

MFK’s hillside bread and chocolate. My perfect waffle. Fisher calls them “peaks of gastronomic emotion”. Still, these moments are quite personal and hard to describe.

In 2015, waffle vendors were no longer allowed in the Grand Place. Off the square, many shops sold waffles loaded with extras. It wasn’t what I wanted.

IMG_3511
waffles plus
IMG_1062
waffles loaded

On a side street, there was a parked truck painted with “Gaufres Chaudes”. A man was making waffles in his van. What he handed me was smaller and not as dense as I remembered. On the inside was a thin layer of molten sweetness but no crunch of sugar crystals turning into syrup. The taste was fine. I was hungry. It was cold. But it wasn’t the same.

IMG_1034

The best food revisit turned out to be mussels. Moules-frites because they always come with fries. Nancy had introduced me to Aux Armes de Bruxelles. My husband and I found the same restaurant and ate there three times over three days. There was no reason to go elsewhere. It’s that special. Belgians get their mussel fix there too.

IMG_3526
the best modules-frites in brussels

September to April is the season for jumbo mussels from Zeeland, a southwestern province in the Netherlands. It is the only region from where to obtain this particular type of mussel. So our server said. Other mussels, and those eaten throughout the year, are not the same. Smaller. Different. Not as tasty.

IMG_3535

They were served in a big bowl, frites on the side and always bread to sop up the sauce and veggies at the bottom. It was trial and error to choose a favorite sauce. My husband found his on the first try–white wine and cream sauce [au vin blanc et crème]. I asked for a made-up combination that became my favorite–white wine, lots of garlic and red pepper [au vin blanc, beaucoup d’ail, et piment]. It’s not on the menu, but the kitchen obliged.

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The broth is full of chopped onion, celery, fresh parsley, and once, tiny asparagus tips. It is an intoxicating combination–a bowl of jumbo mussels, steamed heat and aroma from the sauce wafting up, crisp fries on the side. We smiled and sipped wine between morsels of mussel and bites of frites.

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two ways to eat: using shell as utensil
IMG_1031
or fork

The right beverage choice required more trial and error. Belgian beer was good for the beer drinker. A glass of Bordeaux was good for the red wine lover. But the unanimous favorite was sharing a bottle of Chablis from Burgundy. Begin sipping while you wait for the moules-frites to arrive.

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Mussel memory in Brussels will always be a food highlight. Sharing the adventure with a loved one means we both understand what a “Fisher moment” of gastronomic perfection smells, tastes, and feels like.

Mussels in Brussels. C’était bon.

  • Aux Armes de Bruxelles
  • Rue des bouchers 13
  • 1000 Brussels
  • Tel: +32 [0] 2 511 55 50
  • Open 7/7 from noon to 10:45PM, Monday to Friday
  • Until 11:15PM Saturday and 10:30PM Sunday
  • http://www.auxarmesdebruxelles.com