ABSINTHE, GREEN MUSE OR THE FORBIDDEN ELIXIR
by Wendy Hughes
Absinthe is often known as the green muse or the green goddess because it inspired artists and writers such as Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Erik Satie, Vincent van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Ernest Hemingway. In some cases it has even been blamed for causing madness and death, because of its high alcohol content. In fact, it was reported in 1905 that Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer murdered his family and attempted to take his own life after drinking absinthe.
Lanfray was an alcoholic who had consumed large quantities of wine and brandy before drinking two glasses of absinthe but this was ignored, and the blame for the murders falling on absinthe. There was outrage, and the murders collected 80,000 petition signatures calling for the ban of absinthe in Switzerland, but after a referendum, Switzerland continued to sell it. In 1905 Belgium and Brazil banned its sale, followed by the Netherlands in 1909, Switzerland in 1910, the United States in 1912, and France in 1912, hence the name Forbidden Elixir.
So what exactly is it? In a nutshell it is a potent aniseed flavoured drink and according to popular beliefs began, in its modern form as an all-purpose remedy created by Dr Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland around 1792. The recipe was then passed on to the Heriod sisters who sold absinthe for medicinal purposes, before the formula was acquired by Major Dubied in 1797 who, together with his son Marcellin, and son-in-law Henry Louis Pernod opened the first distillery in Switzerland.
A second was opened under the name of Maison Pernod Fils in France and remained one of the most popular brands of absinthe until it was banned. Henri-Louis Pernod took the formula to Spain and set up a factory in Taragona, where it still remained legal and produced it commercially, however it did fall out of fashion in the 1940s, and almost vanished, but the Catalan region has since seen a significant increase in popularity since 2007
The main ingredients of absinthe are herbs, the three main ones being grande wormwood, green anise and Florence fennel, although other herbs can be used, such as petite wormwood, hyssop, melissa, star anise, angelica, peppermint, coriander, and veronica. Most producers keep the herbs and their numbers a closely guarded secret, as well as their source, which can be come from anywhere in the world, but most come from France and Switzerland.
The precise origins of absinthe is unknown, but we do know the medical use of wormwood dates back to ancient Egypt and is mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus, the oldest existing medical document from around 1550 BC. Legend informs us that the herb wormwood sprang up on the ground over which the serpent slithered after it was expelled from the Garden of Eden. The drink is traditionally green in colour, but it may also be colourless and known for its bitterness, in fact the word absinthium means ‘destitute of delight,’ and taken in large quantities it can destroy the nerve centres of the brain, hence the reason it became prohibited. As it contains 68% alcohol this is most probably the cause of its harmful effects.
It could be drunk ‘neat’ but more often it was dripped through sugar into a special glass in which the absinthe was served. In Portugal, it was poured through a slotted spoon which contained sugar. It popularity grew during the 1840’s when the French troops were prescribed absinthe as a preventive for malaria. As the troops returned home they brought the taste home with them, and the custom of drinking absinthe became so popular in bars and cafe’s that by the 1860s, the hour of 5pm was called l’heure verte (the green hour), and by 1910 the French were drinking their way through 36 million litres per year, compared to their usually 5 billion litres of wine. In the Parisian cafes of the 19th century, the waiter would serve the customer with a dose of absinthe in a suitable glass, sugar, an absinthe spoon, and a carafe of iced water. The customer would then prepare his drink by adding or not adding the sugar and the amount of water he wished to use. As its popularity grew additional items would appear including the absinthe fountain, which was effectively a large jar of iced water with spigots mounted on a lamp base. This allowed the drinkers to prepare a number of drinks all at once, and with the hands free drip, it allowed the customer to socialise. Although many bars served the drink in a standard glass, a number of glasses were specially designed for the French absinthe. They were typically made with a base line, bulge or bubble in the lower portion denoting how much absinthe should be poured.
The herbs are macerated, softened by soaking in liquid, in alcohol using large stainless steel barrels and then the semi product is distilled. The duration of maceration can take as much as several days. If the absinthe is produced using maceration in alcohol no further colouration is necessary, and the product will have already gained its distinctive green colour. On the other hand if the herbs are infused, additional artificial colouring is usually needed. Macerated absinthe differs considerable from distilled absinthe in its flavour and is has a stronger herbal flavour with a lower predominance of the herb anise.
If you would like to learn more about absinthe then head for the Musee de I ‘Absinthe – The Absinthe Museum – an unusual museum dedicated to absinthe highlighting its rise and fall, its uses and abuses, and the apparatus used to make this alcoholic drink The museum is situated at Rue Alphonse Calle, Auvers-sur-Oise, and is located between the castle and the Auberge Raxoux, It recreates the atmosphere of the cafes when it was fashionable to drink absinthe, and contains original works showing the importance of cultural life during the 19th century. The small museum, on two floors, is run by a woman who has studied the subject and it contains lots of glasses, spoons and fountains. posters, etc. The explanations are in French by you can obtain a small brochure in English for 2 Euros and on the way out don’t forget to take a look at the garden crammed with aromatic plants used to make absinthe.
The museum is open from 12 March to 1 November, on Saturdays and Sunday and from 13.30 to 18.00, and from July 13 to August 15, Wednesday through to Sunday from 13.30 to 18.00. Entrance fee is 5 Euros.
If you would like to see some of the paintings by those artists who used absinthe, then head for the Musee d’Osay, situated on the left bank of the River Seine, and where you can see the 1876 painting by Edgar Degas titled L’Absinthe.