My insomnia sparked the whole thing off. I listened to a radio programme in the wee small hours entitled ‘Absinthe Makes the Art Grow Fonder’. It told of madness, creative genius, smuggling, fairies, suicide and debauchery in le demi-monde of Montmartre in la Belle-Époque. Captivated, I set out to discover more.
Until that point my conception of absinthe was scant: a perilously potent drink containing wormwood, banned for its reputation for causing madness – Vincent Van Gogh’s insanity was a result of drinking it to excess. I had naively always visualised an actual worm in the drink, squirming in the wooden barrels in which it was stored, so I had never tried it, but now my appetite was well-and-truly whetted.
The history of absinthe
Invented by a French doctor in the late 1700s, it was really propelled to fame by Henri-Louis Pernod (yes, that Pernod) who opened a distillery in 1805. With a high alcohol content (73°), it was quite a success.
A stroll through Montmartre at 5.00pm in the 1860s would have revealed tables with men and women, often alone, contemplating their glasses of the spirit. This was the l’Heure Verte – the Green Hour, origin of our ‘Happy Hour’. A single absinthe was tolerated by the waiters. Drinkers solved that problem by moving to another, and another and another…
But, the Green Fairy’s effects were being felt in society, much as cannabis is today. High in alcohol, cheap, seductive, reputedly hallucinogenic, it was blamed for epilepsy, tuberculosis, crime and madness. Public morality was outraged, bans followed: Belgium, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Switzerland in the early 1900s, the U.S. in 1912, and France, unequivocal epicentre of absinthe culture, in 1915.
Two World Wars followed, the Green Fairy was dead and forgotten. Or was she?
Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder
Please welcome a Brit. Yes! A Brit entrepreneur by the name of George Rowley who, from his base in Prague, became interested in the legal validity of the ban. He teamed up with cellular biologist Marie-Claude Delahaye, herself fascinated by the legend after buying an absinthe spoon in a flea-market in 1981. Together they challenged the 80 year-old ban through the European court, won, and, in 2000, launched the first traditionally distilled absinthe commercially produced in France since 1915 called La Fée Parisienne.
Time for a taste. Where better than Pontarlier’s annual Festival of Absinthe. As I boarded the Eurostar from St Pancras I reflected how Oscar Wilde had fled to Paris after his trial, taking refuge in absinthe. He took the boat train, I the tunnel. My journey and my ruminations continued. Reading more about the social history I began to recognise similarities with the banning of gin (‘Mother’s Ruin’) in London in the mid-18thC due to widespread drunkenness and the consequent moral outrage.
Pontarlier and its modern day absinthe festival
Pontarlier sits in the foothills of the Jura, close to the city of Besancon. Its absinthe twin-town Couvet is just across the border up the Val de Travers, an ancient, and, I was soon to discover, very active smuggling route. More of this later.
The Festival of Absinthe comprises film-shows, museum exhibitions, discussions, a collector’s market, but most importantly, tastings. All my research had made me both eager and slightly wary of what it might do to me.
How to drink absinthe
Much of the allure is in the preparation, the slowing down of time, the anticipation, the various accoutrements. The comparison with opium smoking cannot be discounted.
The emerald liquid is poured into a Pontarlier glass, with its bubble reserve at the base indicating an exact measure. The intense aroma should be sampled. Next an absinthe spoon, flat with decorative perforations, is placed across the top of the glass. A sugar cube is rested on the spoon upon which a delicate drip-drip of iced water is directed from an absinthe fountain (a tall glass bowl with small taps, often styled in correct period fashion).
This is a critical moment in the ritual. The water trickles through the cube and into the liquid, creating the la louche, the opalescent conjunction of water, distillate and herbs, from which initiates conjure the Green Fairy. The bouquet drifts up and time seems to stand still.
It was necessary out of politeness to sample two of the Guy family’s products before moving on to other parts of the Festival which I did with some difficulty.
Absintheurs are, in the main, a jolly lot, ready to chat and share. Serious collectionneurs bought and sold glasses, labels, spoons, and other ephemera. Then, behind a table full of books on absinthe, I spotted a diminutive auburn-haired lady who turned out to be Marie-Claude Delahaye, founder and director of le Musée de l’Absinthe, probably the world authority on the Green Fairy! We chatted and she invited me to the museum in Auvers-sur-Oise. I arranged to meet her there in two days.
Absinthe in France
My next stop was Paris where I stayed in Hotel Basss (yes, three ‘esses’) a hip hotel halfway up the heights of Montmartre, the very streets where la Fée Verte wove her enchantment, now peopled by tourists, chancers, beggars, and rich dwellers from the very ateliers where Degas and the like had eked out a living. But no absinthe. I had go halfway across the city to the Bastille to find some in a bar called…guess what?… La Fée Verte.
Martin, the young barman, helped me select La Coquette (70%) from a long list. He told me “I only drinks shots sometimes, just to get drunk. There’s not much demand. Although a Brazilian guy once drank 18. I had to put him in a cab”. I managed 3 and navigated the Metro back somewhat hazily.
It seems entirely right and proper that Marie-Claude’s museum is in the charming town of Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh spent his last tormented years and is buried next to his brother Theo. It’s packed with rooms of memorabilia documenting the history, production, consequences, the creative flowering, the ban, and final legality. She has spent years combing antiques fairs, shops and markets for absinthe material. She grows all the constituent plants in the sunny walled garden.
Naturally, there was one last thing to do. Marie-Claude assembled all the accoutrements for a ritual tasting of La Fée Parissienne, the drink George and she brought back to life, and legality.
Michael Cranmer is an award-winning freelance travel writer and photographer. He spends most of the winter up mountains writing about, his primary passion – skiing – but also manages to sample less strenuous outings.