Barometer of taste

Drink - Victoria Moore on Manchester and Martinis

My provincial friends - though they would balk at being so labelled - think my drinking life is all cake and no bread. In their envious eyes I float through glossy cocktail lounges sipping rosy slings, take my instinctive place at bars so smugly laid-back they don't actually bother serving drinks and pass the evenings at home tasting the latest fine wines to reach our shores. They believe my every gesture is caught in the mirrored gleam of an ice-bucket.

So that my latest love and I need not gasp for urban air when we visit them, Annmarie and Nigel take us into Manchester (England's second city, after all) for our going-out. They have booked at one of the most expensive restaurants, Nico Central. It is, I suppose, posh Manchester rather than hip Mash & Air Manchester.

They are trying to atone for yesterday when a country pub ruined the excellent reputation it had built with us on the strength of a very good bottle of Chilean merlot by serving a lunch that my grandmother had obviously been cooking for them since last Christmas. To make matters worse, the pub employed a waitress whose favourite and only audible word was "horseradish". Every so often she came over to our table and barked it at us before either removing or supplying a pot of same.

Afterwards Nigel capered around the country lane like a madman, bellowing "Horseradish!" to the cows. Annmarie was very cross, blaming my latest love for his bad influence and threatening to limit his visits. This is what happens when we are removed from our urban restraints.

Anyway, the four of us are now ensconced in the bar at Nico Central. My latest love is on best behaviour. The men order vodka Martinis with a twist. "Laydeez?" asks the waiter, and it irks us that we fit a female stereotype by opting for the same thing - a margarita apiece. The drinks arrive in glasses vastly too big for them, giving the impression that they are trying to pass themselves off as grown-ups by borrowing mummy's shoes.

Across the room we are astonished to see - well, normal people. Some of them look like me. Some are middle-aged and have spreads. Some could do with a new perm. A man near us has bare builder's arms beautifully tattooed all the way up. There are even some actively ugly people. This is plainly a good thing: in London you don't go to a restaurant this expensive if you so much as feel a pimple coming on.

I'm interested in the vodkatinis, which I know will have a story to tell. Martinis are a barometer of civilisation and society. Go to an alehouse where the oafish dregs of mankind loll silently against a dartboard awaiting their imminent extinction - for no woman would consider taking on the trousers that have not been removed for ten years past or struggle to interpret grunts that serve as eloquent conversation. Ask in this alehouse for a Martini and you'll be served straight vermouth. Warm. This is as bad as it gets.

As everybody knows, the civilised quantity of vermouth to put in a dry Martini is practically nothing. If in doubt, none at all. I watch my latest love sip his with the keenness of a hawk. He is polite, but not that polite. He doesn't actually pull a face, leap out of his seat and yell, "Yeucchh, I'm not drinking that," but, crucially, he doesn't praise it. I decide to take the temperature of Manchester's sophistication for myself.

Interesting. Very, very interesting. At first taste there is definitely, overwhelmingly too much vermouth in here. And it's not cold enough either. But the proportions of this Martini are clearly nudging at the frontiers of good taste because there is just, and only just, enough bite to make it drinkable.

If chi-chi tastes and the distorting reflections of the ice bucket have not inured my senses, I smell in this Martini a Mancunian revolution. We had been surprised that Manchester wasn't more London, more faux metropole (no wonder Posh wants Becks to move), but perhaps it's aiming at something far better.

This article first appeared in The New Statesman Essay - Why the old left is wrong on equality

1999-10-25