Given this week has seen the first round of voting in the French Presidential election, some may accuse me of having jumped gun two weeks ago when I ran with the only cocktail that combines France and politicians.
Fear not, dear Reader, this week we are back to France for another IBA Contemporary Classic, the French 75.
Like most cocktails, its history is disputed.
My favourite theory involves a World War I flying ace named Gervais Raoul Lufbery.
Now, if you thought that “Flying Ace” was a term used only by Snoopy, you are wrong (although in good company…), but it refers to a military aviator credited with shooting down several enemy aircraft in combat – usually 5 is the qualifying number to become an ace.
So Lufbery. He was French, then American, and flew for both countries.
He also had two pet lions – Whiskey and Soda. Soda would try to maul anyone other than Lufbery who came near her.
I like to think of him as a French accented Lord Flashheart, played by the late, great Rik Mayall in Blackadder.
Twenty minutes or not, there was a fairly high mortality rate amongst WWI combat pilots so I have no doubt Lufbery would have had a sense of urgency about all he drank.
So it seems entirely plausible that a high-flyin, lion-ownin’ ace might come in from a mission needing a stiff drink and demand that he be given something a little stronger than champagne.
Chuck in some cognac, lemon juice, sugar syrup and shake it up and top up with champagne.
Hey presto, French 75 – named after the 75mm Howitzer field gun used by the French and Americans in WWI.
Lufbery died at age 33 in May 1918 – details are conflicting but it seems he may have unbuckled his seat belt to allow him to fix something on his plane mid-air and then fell out. He may have survived but for the fact he was impaled on a metal fence. Gruesome.
So I’m giving the cocktail to Lufbery.
The original recipe anyway. The IBA recipe calls for gin instead of cognac.
A gin variation may indeed pre-date Lufbery’s efforts, with Charles Dickens being known to serve guests gin and a Champagne Cup back as far back as 1867. The Champagne Cup was made up of sugar, citrus and champagne.
But it wasn’t called the French 75, so again we can reward our flying ace.
Our panel One-for-the-Road-tested both and I can report that each has its merits.
Sacrilegious though it may seem, you could substitute a decent sparkling wine for the champagne with any significant diminution of the end product too.
While it deserves greater fame, the French 75 doesn’t show up much in popular culture.
However, it is one of only two cocktails mentioned by name in 1942 film Casablanca (and if you want to read the article that argues, successfully in my view, that this is the greatest movie about a cocktail bar ever made – read THIS FABULOUS PIECE from Josh Stein at eater.com. He does give the cocktail to bartender Harry McElhone but I don’t think Harry had any lions so clearly Lufbery is a better tale).
Yvonne, after being rejected and then cut-off (booze-wise) by former lover and bar owner Rick, shows up with her new Nazi boyfriend and they order French 75s.
And then there’s a fight.
That Rick himself refers to his bar as a “gin joint” may lead us to assume that it was the gin version that gets served up, but it isn’t actually specified (and much cognac is drunk so it could quite easily have been the Lufbery Variation).
Yvonne’s role is small but important.
After seeking warmth in the arms of a Nazi, when she hears La Marseillaise, she jumps to her feet, singing and crying, calling out Viva La France! in the final bars. It is a brilliantly complex scene that captures so much of the moral difficulties that faced people in WWII.
Remember that Casablanca when written, produced and released by 1942, so they didn’t yet have the benefit of history to tell them how this whole shebang was going to play out.
Actress Madeleine Lebeau who played Yvonne died last year May 1, aged 92. She was the last surviving cast member.
Lebeau was born in France and escaped to USA with her Jewish husband when they saw things going rapidly south. Upon arrival, she found she had been sold a dodgy visa and had to go to Canada on a bridging visa before making her way to Hollywood.
She was a refugee, as were many of the actors in the bar scenes in Casablanca.
If you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to spoil it by telling you that it’s about trying to get out of warzones and people in very stylish clothes facing moral dilemmas about jeopardising their own interests and safety to protect others.
This film, made so many years ago, has echoes of a great new film by Director and Writer David Roach, The Surgeon and the Soldier, about Dr Munjed Al Muderis. (You can watch it for free HERE).
Al Muderis fled Iraq after being directed – at gunpoint – to mutilate people or face his own death.
He paid an Indonesian people smuggler to get him across the seas in a small boat and was put in a modern Government-run concentration camp (officially named “Immigration Reception and Processing Centres”) and referred to as “982” for 10 months before being allowed to live in Australia.
Once he got released into the general community, 982 set about subversive activities such as paying income tax and pioneering osseointegration surgery which is allowing amputees – particularly returned British service personnel – to walk again.
This made Prince Harry visit Australia, so we’ll chalk Dr Munjed Al Muderis up as a “good Aussie” then hey?
I’m a cocktail writer, I don’t claim to have the answers to complex policy issues and am somewhat persuaded by moves that will dissuade desperate people from attempting dangerous journeys where so many have died, but for fuck’s sake, can we not call people by their NAMES when they are in our protection? Can we not assume that they are good, desperate people who need safe haven, rather than assuming they are a lower form of life?
Due process with humanity anyone?
I don’t who I would have been in WWII.
I would love to think I would be the brave and clear-eyed Victor Laszlo, or even the cynical Rick Blaine, but I suspect most of us would have been Yvonne.
Yvonne who was scared and likely under-estimating the situation the world was in, but when the moment presented, we’d probably rise to our feet in solidarity and sing passionately and mean it with every part of our beings, but we’d need a Victor or a Munjed to show us the way.
And bloody hell, wouldn’t we need a strong drink after that?
Well with a big merci beaucoup to Major Lufbery, we have exactly the right cocktail.
Viva la Soixante Quinze!