The Best Martini in All of Africa

My friend, Paul Tuhus, is an independent tour director. He has chosen to do this for a living. From where I sit that would be like someone choosing to be the dummy in a crash test facility. To each his own.

Like Hambone in the Bill Haley song, Paul has been around the world and is going again. Often he brings home a little something to remember the trip. Here he and I are on the same page. Thanks to Paul I once brought home a framed icon of Jesus Christ. Paul had spotted it for sale outside a Coptic church in Cairo. Luckily the seller had two. The picture was a typical crucifixion scene. The thing was that the cross was rimmed with tiny little white lights that flashed on and off like a sign on an all night diner. I wore mine out. I hope Paul’s still works.

Given Paul’s predilection for the oddball gift, my wife, Nancy, once passed on to him a calendar she received in the mail. It was a Monk of the Month calendar. We were partial to April. Its Monk had earned the title because he was very adept at carving little wooden statues of nuns. The picture showed him surrounded by a slew of them.

Well, Paul just sent me an article that appeared in the Valley News, a newspaper that covers the upper valley of New Hampshire and Vermont. It had been reprinted from the LA Times. Susan Spano, a travel writer, was bemoaning the disappearance of the martini outside of the United States.

It was a typical Paul Tuhus gift. He knows I only drink vodka martinis and that I use them as tranquilizers when I travel. I used to drink gin martinis until my dentist told me that gin had chemicals in it that could be harmful to my health, things like ketones. Ketones are ubiquitously used as industrial solvents. I dropped the gin martini like a hot potato.

My dentist, by the way, knew whereof he spoke. He was a connoisseur. I remember one day sitting in his chair benumbed by Novocain. I asked him if my taste buds would revive by 6pm. I was due at dinner and I was to bring the wine.

“What are you having for dinner?” he asked poking away at his excavation in tooth number 18.

“Uh, aving, oster,” I said.


I nodded.

“Have you decided on a wine?”

I shook my head.

He finished working on my tooth, put in a temporary gizmo and told me to stay put.

He returned five minutes later with a bottle of chilled white wine.

“Try this,” he said handing me a bottle of Groth Chardonnay. I don’t remember the year.

My taste buds came to in time for dinner. The wine was perfect. That was why when he told me to step away from the gin, I did as I was told.

Susan Spano ends her article with a nostalgic nod toward the bar at the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes in Palermo and the time when she had had the perfect martini “at the last American bar” in town. It had, of course, been made from vodka.

The story put me in mind of the bar at the Hotel Kasbah Xaluca Maadid in Erfoud, Morocco. We had arrived at the hotel after an exhausting day riding a van around the Dades Valley. I badly needed a drink.

“One very dry vodka martini, please,” I asked at the hotel bar.

I knew I was taking my life in my hands. Whenever I ordered a martini outside the U.S., more often than not I got vodka and vermouth in a one-to-one ratio. Still, I was desperate.

The bartender greeted me with a pained expression. “I don’t know how to make one.”
I lit up.

“May I show you?” I asked.

He was delighted. Out came the vodka, the vermouth, a lemon, several cubes of ice and a cocktail shaker. I poured myself a double shot and half a capful of vermouth. I’m not one of those wave-the-bottle-over-the-glassers. I leave that to the Ricky Hollywoods of the world. I placed several ice cubes in the shaker, poured in the mixture and stirred gently, all the while explaining that a British study had shown that stirred martinis have more anti-oxidants that shaken ones.

I poured the mixture into a glass as chilled as it could be in the few minutes granted me. I sliced a strip of rind off the lemon, rubbed it yellow-side down around the edge of the glass, twisted the rind over the surface of the liquid to squeeze out the remaining oil and, with a flourish, dropped it in the drink.

After a moment of quiet thanks, I took my first sip.

Then I saluted the bartender.

“This,” I said. “Is the best martini I have ever had in all of Africa.”

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