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October 13, 2005

Martinis, Olives, etc.


Photo of Henry Robertson of Henry's OlivesDuring the martini's heyday in the early part of the 20th century, the late journalist H. L. Mencken described the cocktail as, "the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet." Not that it's a new development, but the martini is back in fashion, although it's hard to say what Mencken might have thought of some of the trendy concoctions flying the martini banner today.

Right: Henry Robertson of Henry's Olives

Some, myself included, may argue that the many of the spate of "martinis" found in bars and restaurants are so far from the traditional definition that they should be called something else. Since the beginning of its resurgence 15 or 20 years ago, the drink has veered far from its origins as an ice-chilled shot of gin flavored, just barely, with a splash of vermouth and finished with a twist of lemon or an olive.

The array of martinis offered at an event at the Wharfinger this Thursday night is a case in point. Eight local restaurants are shaking, stirring and pouring at Martinis by the Bay, a benefit thrown by the Rotary Club of Southwest Eureka for Humboldt Domestic Violence Services. While Avalon offers "The Vesper," James Bond's "shaken not stirred" classic, you also have "The Ultimate White Chocolate Martini" from the Red Lion, which I'm guessing involves one of the various high-end flavored vodkas available on the market today.

"We'll have classic martinis, fruit martinis, chocolate martinis; some of the drinks were designed specifically for this event," explained Liz Ellis, one of the MbtB organizers. "It's amazing how competitive it is."

Ellis emphasized the simplicity of the event. For $25, guests get 2 oz. tastes of three martinis with the option for more, including service from the Elks Club's classic gin and vodka martini station. "No silent auction, just booze, snacks, rock 'n' roll," said Ellis.

The music? Swinging tunes by Magnolia. Snacks? Brio, Vellutini Baking Co., Ramone's and Roy's Club are all donating bread. (Ellis noted that Roy's focaccia was "gone in a flash" at last year's event.) Cypress Grove Chevre, Loleta Cheese and Humboldt Creamery are supplying a selection of fine local cheeses. A new addition this year is an olive bar, which, of course, includes Henry's Olives, cured in Eureka by Henry Robertson.

When I visited his small factory in Cutten, Robertson noted, "Personally I like dirty martinis," adding, "And a martini is a gin drink. If it's with vodka, that's a vodka martini --- that's not traditional." Not that Henry's idea of a good martini is exactly traditional. Regulars at Hurricane Kate's may be familiar with Henry's Dirty Martini, a zinger of a drink made with gin, just a hint of vermouth, a splash of olive brine and one or two of his special martini olives, flavored with cayenne, red pepper and paprika --- thus the zing.

"For me the best martini olive is a plump, spicy Sevillano that marries with the taste of the gin and takes your head off," says Robertson. "The Sevillano is big --- the biggest. I like the concept of that drink being a salad --- two big olives in a glass. And the bars like the idea because the olives displace the gin, so they don't have to use as much liquor.

I got hooked on Henry's Olives years ago when Robertson and I worked together at the now-defunct City Grill. At that time he was still curing as a hobby. As this point his sideline has become a full-scale business, especially since he converted what was once his woodshop into a pristine olive lab with a walk-in fridge. He figures he has capacity to process four tons of olives per season.

Sunday when I visited, he had just started the process on a delivery of 1,800 pounds --- they were soaking in vats of lye. Buckets of olives in herb-laced brine almost filled the shop floor. All of the olives he uses are organically grown in Orland by Greg Gebhart.

The Henry's Olives line currently includes four green varieties --- lemon-garlic Manzanillos, garlic-oregano Sevillanos, cumin-coriander missions and the red-pepper Sevillanos (aka martini olives) --- and one black olive, oiled-cured Manzillanos dried in rock salt and coated with extra-virgin olive oil.

You'll find them at local markets including Wildberries, Murphy's, the Co-op, Eureka Natural Foods and Safeway in Eureka. They are also available from Dean and Deluca --- serious foodies will recognize that as a mark of distinction.

And, for the next few weeks at least, you can buy Henry's Olives directly from Henry at the Saturday Arcata Farmers' Market, where he has a stand (with free samples) in the mini-food court surrounding William McKinley's statue.

Speaking of the market, the Friends of Humboldt County Farmers' Markets present their first "Fall Farm Tour" this Sunday, Oct. 16, in which, they explain, you can "visit the land where your food was grown, meet the farmer whose hard work coaxed food from the earth and learn about the variety of agricultural enterprises that abound in Humboldt County."

The self-guided tour starts with the Bayside Grange's famous "gourmet breakfast" then takes you to eight agricultural enterprises from Jacoby Creek to the Arcata Bottom to Dows Prairie, where you will see, among other things, a farm with mixed row-crops, a nursery operation and a Community Supported Agriculture farm.

Tickets for the Fall Farm Tour are available at all Farmers' Market managers' booths, at the Co-op, at the Bayside Grange on Sunday or from Call North Coast Growers at 441-9999 for further details.

Martinis By The Bay runs from 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13, at the Wharfinger Building, 1 Marina Way, on Eureka's waterfront. For tickets and details call 269-1929 or 443-4682.

Interested in mass quantities of Henry's Olives? Call him at 445-9527. Want to read about how Robertson helped Kurt Cobain into his final nirvana? Go online to see the Journal's July 8, 1999 cover story, "Eureka Artist Creates Cobain's Final Resting Place."

One more thing: We still have not settled on a name for this column. I'm resisting a couple of cutsie suggestions from Journal staff: "The Yum" or "Eat Beat." (If you like one of those keep it to yourself.) Others on the table: "Table Talk" or "Talk of the Table" (with apologies to the New Yorker); "Moveable Feast" (with apologies to Hemingway); "Cuisine," a shortened version of the old name; Helen's idea, "Outta My Way, I'm Starving!"; and the straight-to-the-point "Food!," inadvertently suggested by our "Dirt" columnist Amy Stewart, who has already offered to send me her "gripes about local restaurants" so I "can whip them into shape." Got a better column name or some food-related idea? Shoot me a line at l


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