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Shining water

On vacation in the Blue Mountains, Frank Moorhouse risks ordering a martini – and is amply rewarded.

At the end of my vacation - driving down the New South Wales south coast, swimming in surf, bays, inlets, rivers and creeks, visiting oyster farms, vineyards and cheesemakers, and tasting steak-and-kidney pies from all the town bakeries - I spent a few days at the restored 130-year-old grand hotel called The Carrington in the town of Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.

In its day, The Carrington was known as the Grand Old Lady of the Mountains. For many years it was in decline and in the late 1980s it became derelict, but it has since been reopened and is being conserved and brought back to life.

In the early afternoon I went to see the striking geological formation called the Three Sisters, each peak standing about 900 metres high on the edge of the huge, tree-covered Jamison Valley, which stretches off into the distance. I had not seen it since I was a kid. It impressed me more this time. But more perfectly, an old Aboriginal man was busking with a didgeridoo. To have didgeridoo music in the background brought to the gorge panorama the haunting sound which belonged with it. I gave him $5. There were no other notes on the blanket. It was worth more than $5. Most people were throwing a silver coin. It made me sad.

A young Japanese man and an older man, probably his father, came and listened and the younger man asked the Aboriginal man for permission to take a photograph of his father sitting with him. He took the photograph and began to move off. I went to him and said politely that he should give the Aboriginal man a tip. The Japanese man was resistant, but I persisted and he asked how much. I said $5. He put a $5 note on the blanket and they moved off. The old Aboriginal man winked at me.

Back at The Carrington, under the high ceilings, in the dim bar-lounge, with afternoon autumn light coming in through the stained-glass windows and domed skylight, backed by large paintings of European scenery and stags, a pianist playing piano-bar music, I pondered whether to risk ordering a martini.

In remote places, strange mixtures can sometimes present as a martini.

The bartender was in his early twenties, with a new beard and black apron. I said to him, "Can you make me a dry martini?"

Without hesitation, he looked me in the eye and said, "Of course."

As a precaution, I sat at the bar and watched. I noted that he already had Tanqueray gin and Noilly Prat vermouth (preferred by Hemingway) and the traditional conical glasses in the chilling cabinet. A good start.

He began the mixing. I did not say a word. He took a glass, filled it with ice and added water to chill it further while he mixed (water and ice chill more effectively than just ice).

He put the gin and vermouth into a glass mixer - two parts gin, half a part vermouth - and stirred with deliberation for a minute or more. I said, "You are a stirrer, not a shaker." When I raised the matter of the proportions of vermouth, he said that I had ordered a "dry" martini, otherwise he'd have put in more vermouth. I said half a part was fine by me.

I said I was glad that he believed in the vermouth. He said it was mad to order a martini when all you wanted was a glass of chilled gin or vodka. I agreed.

He said that it was not understood that the martini was a more complicated drink than the fruity cocktails that most of his customers ordered. He said there were many botanicals in gin and vermouth. He then asked me if I wanted orange bitters.

I was absolutely amazed. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I had never in any bar been asked this. He said he always asked and if a person said yes he knew that they knew orange bitters belonged in what might be called a classic martini. He added "two or three drops".

I told him that was the way the martini was made in the days of Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin crowd. He said he knew that it was part of the 1930s and 1940s martini (in fact, the formula for gin, vermouth and orange bitters was first described in 1896).

In my book Martini: A Memoir, I wrote that in the interests of research a few years ago, after reading about orange bitters in the old martinis and having found that even the best bars in Sydney and Melbourne no longer carried it, I went looking for it at David Jones's liquor department but couldn't find it. While waiting to speak to the manager, I overheard him speaking to a dapper man in his eighties. The old man was asking about orange bitters. He wanted to buy a bottle. I couldn't restrain myself and butted in, saying to the old man, "Did I hear you correctly? Are you after orange bitters?"

He said that indeed he was. "How do you use the orange bitters?" I asked him.

"In martinis," he said, with slight impatience. "I bought a bottle years ago, but I only use a dot or two and the bottle lasts a long time."

I told them I too was searching for orange bitters. The manager was astounded. "I've never been asked for orange bitters in my 25 years in the liquor business. And today two people come in and ask for it at the same time!"

I looked at the old man and had an intimation of mortality - in 30 years' time, I would be there asking for orange bitters and behind me a younger man would be seeking the same thing.

Back to The Carrington. After the stirring, the young bartender threw away the ice and water from the chilled glass and poured the martini to the brim of an elegant, long-stemmed, mid-sized glass - not one of the fashionable bucket-sized glasses.

I requested two olives and he placed them on a wooden toothpick. It was tipped with coloured cellophane, which I do not like - it is extraneous to the drink and childish (and I worry I will somehow accidentally swallow it) - but I didn't make an issue of it.

He then served the martini to me at the bar. I tasted it. Perfect.

I told him so, we introduced ourselves and I shook his hand. I gave him a $2 tip on the $14 drink. I was tempted to give him $5 but thought that would worry him.

I took the martini to a table and savoured it while examining with delight two short-story anthologies (which I collect), which I'd found on my journey through the second-hand bookshops of south-east New South Wales: Falling for Grace, edited by Roberta Snow and Jill Taylor, "an anthology of Australian lesbian fiction" (the first); and Uneasy Truces, edited by Karen Lamb - "20 fictional dispatches from the Love Zone", including a story by me titled "Ex-wife Re-wed" (no chance now of re-wed with my ex-wife, nor even easy or uneasy truces).

Sitting there, drinking my perfect martini in perfect surrounds, I called a friend and told him I had just experienced a perfectly made, classic martini in a most unlikely place.

When I had finished my drink I went out to a local bookshop and found a hardback copy of Martini: A Memoir. I went back to the bar and inscribed it, "To Nathan who on March 21, 2010, created a perfect martini in The Carrington Hotel, with appreciation" and presented him with the book. The girl working with him said, "What a perfect birthday gift."

"It's your birthday?" I asked. Nathan said yes, and I added something to the inscription about his birthday. He was 23.

I looked at him. At 23, I was editor (with my then-wife) of a country-town newspaper called the Lockhart Review, circulation 1200, and getting into a lot of trouble both personally and politically with the locals, but at least the circulation was rising.

He then asked if I had read the book. I said, not only had I read it, I had written it. They both exclaimed. I thanked Nathan again and went on my journey.

A perfect Sunday afternoon in a run-down old resort town which is coming back to life, in a hotel returning to greatness, with a young bartender who cared about his work and knew what he was doing. I think I will put Katoomba on the list of martini cities of the world.

Oh, and another thing: "katoom-ba" is an Aboriginal term for "shining falling water" - it could also now be an Aboriginal description of a perfect martini.

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