Originally produced in the Val-de-Travers region in Switzerland and in Pontarlier, France, Absinthe is a distilled anise-flavoured spirit made from herbs including the flowers and leaves of the plant Artemisia Absinthium, also called Wormwood. Although it is sometimes termed a liqueur, absinthe has no added sugar and is therefore considered as a spirit.
Absinthe was marketed as a tonic and was reputed to stave off malaria so was given in quantity to French soldiers fighting in Algeria in the 1840s. They seem to have developed the taste for it!
Almost from its invention, absinthe has been known as “La Fée Verte” or “The Green Fairy”, as it is said to have “seductive and intoxicating powers”. Hang about – it’s my mother-in-law’s favourite drink!
In 1876 Degas paints L’Absinthe, one of his most celebrated works, being exhibited in London in 1893. George Moore wrote in the Speaker on 25 February of that year: “The woman that sits beside the artist was at the Elysée Montmartre until two in the morning, then she went to the Ratmort and had a soupe aux choux; she lives in the Rue Fontaine, or perhaps the Rue Breda; she did not get up until half-past eleven; then she tied a few soiled petticoats round her, slipped on that peignoir, thrust her feet into those loose morning shoes, and came down to the café to have an absinthe before breakfast. Heavens! – what a slut! A life of idleness and low vice is upon her face; we read there her whole life. The tale is not a pleasant one, but it is a lesson.” So think on!
Absinthe hit its peak during the years 1880-1910 with its dramatic fall in price, becoming affordable to all levels of society and soon rivalled wine as the drink of choice in France. It was the “Belle Époque” and society ladies, gentlemen, politicians, artists, musicians, dancers, the ordinary working classes drank absinthe. In 1874 the French alone consumed 700,000 litres, but by 1910, the number was nearer 36,000,000 litres per year. This rise has been blamed on the wine shortage in France due to poor harvests brought about by diseased vines. Or was it that the population was just hooked on cheap booze!
Its critics said that “Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.”
The last straw was the bloody “Absinthe Murder” that took place in Switzerland in 1905 when Monsieur Lanfray shot his whole family after drinking absinthe. He had in fact also consumed several bottles of wine and a good (or bad) amount of brandy but this was overlooked by the campaigners, and two years later absinthe was banned in Switzerland. By 1915 absinthe is officially banned by the French who didn’t repeal this law until 2001, but it was modified in 1988 to allow for some types of absinthe to be sold, although under another name. These days the Swiss are, once again, one of the major producers.
It’s probably the whole ritual surrounding the serving of absinthe that has helped its popularity. It isn’t a drink to be hurried and perhaps it’s the hypnotic power of water slowly dripping that helps the waiting consumer to relax.
The classic absinthe ritual involves placing a cube of sugar on an ornate, flat, perforated spoon which rests on the rim of the glass containing a “dose” of absinthe. Special glasses were produced with a “balloon” to indicate a measure. Iced water (for best effect from a tap on a special water fountain) is then very slowly dripped on to the sugar cube, gradually dissolving into the absinthe which causes the green colour to change into an opaque white as the essential oils leach out of the alcohol. Usually three to five parts of water are added to one part of absinthe. The sugar not only softens the bitterness, but is said to subtly improve the herbal flavour of the drink.
These days the Green Fairy is enjoying her return and that is as it should be; but she doesn’t hold a wand, it’s a double-edged sword! She takes equal pride in bestowing pleasure ….and pain!
Article by Chrissie Walker © 2018