This isn’t a blog post about the arguments over what constitutes a martini: gin versus vodka, shaken versus stirred … if something with Pucker in it can even lay claim to the name. Instead, this post is about a crucial difference between martinis in America and martinis in France. If you’re ever thinking about ordering one in this country, pay close attention. This is very important!
To illustrate this lesson, I’ll share an anecdote recounted by a friend over dinner Friday night:
A group of Americans walk into a restaurant in Paris and are seated for dinner. (I know this sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s not.) The waiter arrives and asks if anyone would like to start with a cocktail or an apéritif. One of the Americans orders a martini.
“Blanc ou rouge?” the waiter asks.
“Uh … rouge,” the American responds tentatively. “There must be a splash of cranberry or Chambord in there,” she thinks to herself, remembering that “rouge” means “red” in French.
“And for Monsieur?”
“I’ll have a blanc,” Monsieur replies. “That must be a ‘normal’ martini,” he thinks to himself, before starting to wonder why the waiter didn’t ask if they preferred gin or vodka.
When the waiter returns, he serves up a Martini rouge for Madame … a few ounces of some red liquid served over an ice cube, with an orange slice and a little spoon to swirl the drink and chill it. Her wrinkled-brow look of confusion is soon matched by Monsieur’s when the waiter serves his Martini blanc … a few ounces of some clear liquid over an ice cube with a lemon slice and a little spoon. These unsuspecting Americans take their first sip, and the moment of revelation arrives: they’ve been served … sweet vermouth!
Now, vermouth is an ingredient in a classic martini cocktail, the only question being how much of it to add. You use dry vermouth for a martini, of course, so even when it’s “wet” (with a lot of vermouth), it’s still not a sweet drink. Here in France, however, a “Martini” is simply the vermouth itself (specifically the Martini & Rossi brand)—not at all the American cocktail by the same name. Vermouth has a long history as an apéritif in Europe, especially in Italy and France. While some version of the drink may date back to the Middle Ages in Germany, the first modern production of a sweet, red variety was by the Carpano family in Italy in 1786, and the first dry, pale variety was introduced in France in 1813 by Joseph Noilly. Other early producers who continue to this day include Cinzano (1816), Dolin (1821), and the famous Martini & Rossi (1863).
Of Martini & Rossi’s six varieties of vermouth (five of which are shown in the photo below), all are sweet except for the Extra-Dry. The most popular varieties in France are Rosso (rouge or red), with a sweet, slightly bitter flavor, and Bianco (blanc or white), less bitter, with notes of vanilla and spice. I’ve seen Rosato (rosé), with notes of cinnamon and cloves, on the shelves at the local supermarket, but I’ve never seen it on a drink menu here. Apparently, d’Oro (or or gold), with citrus, vanilla, nutmeg, coriander, and honey notes, is marketed in Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, and Fiero (fier or proud, not pictured), with notes of citrus (especially blood orange), is marketed in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
I’ve never made the mistake of ordering a martini in France, thinking I’d get a very dry gin cocktail with an olive in it, but I do remember the first time I ordered a Martini blanc. Thankfully, I was following someone else’s lead and I knew what to expect ahead of time. For me, a lover of all things sweet, it was a pleasant discovery and the Martini blanc remains my apéritif of choice.
But if you want one of these while you’re in France …
… make sure to order a “dry martini” or a “martini sec.” Otherwise, your waiter is going to start asking about colors and, if you don’t know what’s going on, you’ll end up with something slightly smaller, possibly red, with an ice cube and a spoon in it … kind of like this:
Santé bonheur ! Cheers!
© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved