Thursday, 23 October 2008
De Factoid the Twelfth: Ginspiration
This De Factoid strays from food to once again address the social history of drink, and since De Factoid the Fifth discussed the origin(s) of the word cocktail, this De Factoid shall look at the hidden history of one of the oldest, and best: the Martini.
For those who don’t know, a Martini Cocktail is traditionally made with a good, neat (i.e. no ice or mixers) English gin and a small wash of French or Italian vermouth (another spirit), stirred in an ice shaker and strained into a chilled martini glass over a couple of olives. It has become popular in recent years for vodka to replace gin (as a vodka martini) as the main spirit, but the gin-based drink is the original. One can usually tell the age of a cocktail (i.e. the time of its invention) by the contents from which it is made. Purely spirit based drinks are the oldest (of which brandy, gin and whisky are the oldest set – circa 1800’s – with vodka coming across from Russia much later: after the October Revolution in 1917, when Smirnoff moved outside the country and licensed production to America in 1933) with mixers i.e. non-alcoholic fruit-juices to mix with, coming much later. The martini glass (shaped like the letter ‘Y’) is likely to have been named after the drink (in a fashion that named the short glass as an ‘old fashioned’ – after the venerable whisky cocktail of the same name), and the drink is likely to have been named after the vermouth produced by Martini & Rossi in Italy. To order a ‘dry’ martini at a bar is a throw-back from an older tradition when the only martini spirit produced – martini rosso, ‘red martini’ – was very sweet. To request a ‘dry’ martini was to ask for less sweet vermouth, but was no longer required after the introduction of the less-sweet martini bianco, ‘white martini’ in 1910 (with similar products subsiquently becoming available in France). It is said that Winston Churchill – British Prime Minister during the Second World War – enjoyed his Martini Cocktails so dry that it was enough to pour his gin while looking towards France (where a popular Vermouth was produced). James Bond’s martini (the famous “shaken not stirred/shhterd”) was a mixture – according to Flemming, the author – of three measures Gordon’s gin, one measure of vodka and half a measure of Kina Lillet (a bitter, quinine filled wine-based drink) shaken until cold and served with a slice of lemon – but this seems to have been forgotten in recent films. Quinine (from the Peruvian word kina, ‘tree bark’ – first brought back to Europe by the Jesuits) is very useful for keeping the disease malaria at bay, and was dissolved in water to make ‘tonic’ water. Gin was added to the tonic water to make it more palatable for colonial Brits and the G&T was born.
Gin as a word derives from the Dutch drink jenever/ genever, a grain spirit flavoured with juniper berries (from where the Dutch drink gets its name: the French for juniper is genévrier) which was thought to have been first introduced to the mouths (and livers) of Englishmen during wars with Holland when soldiers were given Dutch courage before battle. The popularity of the drink in England (and a large stock of grain too poor in quality for brewing into beer) led to the government approval for unlicensed gin production and the establishment of gin bars when the spirit became cheaper than beer. William Hogarth’s famous engraving Gin Lane provides a (somewhat over the top) look at how this affected the working classes and what led to the drink’s nickname Mother’s Ruin (though I think it probably ruined the mothers and children in equal measure).
Vermouth – the other ingredient in the martini – comes from the French name for the drink, vermout, which in all likelihood from the German word wermut, seen earlier in German as wermuth (remember the German ‘v’ is pronounced ‘w’) – related to the English (and Germanic) name for the proverbially bitter plant wormwood (‘proverbially’ i.e. ‘widely known or spoken of, from Latin proverbium: pro, ‘for’ – think ‘pros and cons’ + verbum, ‘word’ – hence ‘a set of words put forth’). Though the origin of wormwood’s Germanic name is ultimately of unknown origin, one can assume that the second ‘w’ in wormwood is a corruption of the ‘m’ in the Old German wermuth. If that is true, then the traditional use of the extract as a means of removing worms (causing stomach irritation and vomiting) may suggest it to be a kenning of ‘something that expels worms from the mouth’ (mouth from Old English mūþ = muth). A kenning is the Anglo-Saxon poetic version of a metaphor (see De Factoid the Eleventh), and describes something unknown by combining two known elements (e.g. whalepath, ‘sea’; skycandle, ‘sun’) so could quite easily have been applied to describe the proverbial vomit-inducer. Vomit is ultimately a Latin word (though is linked to Greek, emeîn: hence something vomit-inducing having emetic properties). A good northern-English equivalent is the word spew (from Anglo-Saxon), where the southern equivalent chunder (spreading northward, if you will, through the Universities) is thought to come from the practice of shouting the warning “watch under!” when vomiting over the side of a ship. Nice…
Letter interchanges (that is, the swapping over of letters) such as wermut becoming vermout are common, especially when the letters are pronounced differently in one country to how they sound across a border. Another such example is the change between p/v/f that gives us Latin pater, German, vater and English, father as we go from the Mediterranean to northern Europe. The Romans would not have to worry about a w/v interchange though, as the letter ‘W’ was an English invention (albeit with a lot of help). The letter ‘V’ in the Roman alphabet (that is, the alphabet you are now reading – give or take a few letters – though the word alphabet come from the first two letters in the Greek alphabet: A/α ‘alpha’ + B/ β ‘beta’) derived ultimately from the letter ‘Y’ (with the bottom chopped off), a Phoenician symbol from the Semitic alphabet (Semitic i.e. Jewish, is a cultural term which derives from ‘the descendents of Shem’ in the Bible) and could stand as either the vowel ‘u’ or the consonant ‘v’ for a Roman writer (hence why one might sometimes see ‘v’s written in the place of ‘u’s in words written in capital letters on classically styled BVILDINGS and why in a Latin manuscript describing a baby, the child cried ‘va va va’). ‘W’ was first written down in the 7th century (601-700 AD) by Anglo-Saxon scribes to represent the longer ‘oo’ sound of putting two U’s together which the standard Roman alphabet did not provide: hence ‘double-u’. This was not immediately accepted across Britain though, but gained in popularity after the Norman Conquest (post-1066) when it began to more formally replace the letter Ƿ (the runic letter ‘wynn’), which had been brought over from Germanic northern Europe when the Saxons first landed on the island. Other runic letters (rune from Old Norse rún, ‘secret’, due to the mystical use of the language) that have fallen out of the language, include two(/four) other ways of writing ‘th’ – lower-case: ð; capital: Ð called ‘eth’ (representing the un-aspirated/ ‘voiceless’ ‘th’ in the word ‘Eth’) and lower case: þ; capital: Þ called ‘thorn’ (the aspirated ‘th’ of the word the), from where we get (through the progressive corruption of Þe, ‘the’) the ‘ye’ word that often turns up on black and white tourist trinket shop signs as ‘Ye Olde etc’.
Aspiration, for those interested, is the technical term for the sharp burst of air given out with certain words (hold your hand near your mouth and say ‘eth’ and ‘the’: the second aspirated word should hit you with a sharper air burst), but little of this would have matter to a Roman or a Saxon had they enough of the drink which derives its name from wormwood’s Latin botanical label (Artemisia absinthium): the emetic, mind-corrupting, Absinthe.
Absinthe (Absinth in central Europe) is a type of pastis – a clear, aniseed flavoured spirit (traditionally beetroot alcohol in France, now more often grape) that goes cloudy in water. The word derives from this idea of ‘mixture’ and is linked to the Italian word pasticcio, ‘pie’ and Old French pastiz from where we get ‘pastry’ and ‘pasty’ (see De Factoid the Ninth for further explanation) and the ‘mixture’ word pastiche. Other examples of pastis include Ouzo from Greece, Raki from Turkey, Italian Sambuca, Arak from Lebanon and Mastika from Bulgaria – to name a few. Absinthe gets its name from the infusion of wormwood as one of its ingredients which can, if ingested in large enough amounts, lead to wild hallucinations (a popular one being a vision of a beautiful green fairy which, one imagines, was part of the appeal) and eventual poisoning (which led to its banning in most European countries by 1915). The main French manufacturer continued to produce absinthe without the wormwood under his own name, creating the famous French pastis Pernod. Britain never banned Absinthe as it was never really popular, but then again we were probably too drunk on gin to try…
De Factoid the Thirteenth: coming soon.