It’s the drink that symbolised the Bohemian culture of la Belle Epoque in late 19th to early 20th-century Paris. It was consumed by Toulouse-Lautrec, Baudelaire and Satie, painted by Degas and Manet and immortalised in early silent films. This beverage had a harmless-sounding nickname, la fée verte (the green fairy), but came to be demonised for its supposedly harmful effects. What is it? Absinthe.
Like many such drinks, absinthe was made by distilling plants and herbs, in this case Artemisia absinthium (common wormwood). It also included sweet fennel, green anise and various other herbs. Absinthe is highly alcoholic, typically being bottled at between 60% and 74% alcohol by volume, but it is normally diluted with water. The drink is a naturally green colour, but it can also be colourless.
Sources of inspiration
Several things came together to inspire my interest in this drink. Last week, I was idly flicking through a French magazine in the dentist’s waiting room, when I came upon a photo of common wormwood. I vaguely knew that this was the main ingredient of absinthe, but I had never before seen its attractive feathery foliage.
Also, I am reading a biography of the French painter, Suzanne Valadon, Renoir’s Dancer, by Catherine Hewitt. She came to our local library recently to talk about Valadon, who succeeded in a man’s world in Belle Epoque Paris, having started out as an artist’s model. This fascinating biography paints a vivid picture of life in Montmartre, the hang-out of artists, writers and the demi-monde. Absinthe was one of the drinks of choice.
Absinthe was almost a legend in its own lifetime. The elaborate preparation of the drink became a ritual, which caught the imagination of café drinkers. A measure of absinthe was poured into a glass. A special slotted spoon was then placed over the glass with a sugar cube on top. Iced water was dripped over the sugar, which diluted the absinthe and sweetened it, since the wormwood makes it very bitter if taken neat. The addition of water turns the absinthe cloudy, a bit like pastis.
Another method involved soaking the sugar in alcohol, setting it alight and dropping it into the absinthe, which ignited in turn. Iced water was poured in to put out the flames.
La boisson qui rend fou (the drink that makes you mad)
Absinthe originated in Switzerland but became increasingly popular in France during the 19th century. However, it began to be accused of causing hallucination, brain damage and madness. Emile Zola graphically described its ravages in L’Assommoir. This was not exactly conducive to the war effort during WWI if solders on leave over-imbibed, so absinthe was banned in France in 1915, as well as in other countries, although not in Spain.
In fact, there’s little evidence that absinthe is more dangerous than any other alcohol taken to excess. The unpleasant side effects may have been caused by adulterating substances in the cheaper versions. The French government lifted the ban on it in 2011.
The town of Pontarlier, near the Swiss border, was absinthe capital of France. In its heyday, 23 distilleries produced 10 million litres of the drink every year. Since absinthe’s revival, production has been increasing again and around 15 distilleries in France produce nearly one million litres per year.
I have not discovered any local distilleries that make absinthe. A small distillery in Sanvensa, about 25 km away, makes various liquors using regional ingredients and recipes, but absinthe does not seem to be among them. Similarly, there is no record of absinthe having been a drink of choice among the local paysans, who drank mostly wine or vieille prune (plum eau de vie).
During a visit to Cantal a few years ago, in the interests of research, I sampled gentiane, a local liquor produced from roots and herbs. Ce n’était pas mon truc, as they say. Dear readers, absinthe doesn’t appeal to me at all. You’ll have to try it for yourselves. Let me know what you think, if you do.
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