Sunday, 27 February 2011

THE GREEN FAIRY...without fairy tales.




Everytime someone was telling me about absinth the only thing coming to my mind was an impressionist painting, something I studied at high school and that drew me so much that I couldn't forget it.It is a Degas and in the painting you can actually see a man and a woman at a bar table and on it a full glass of absinth. The interesting attractive to me is the woman staring vacantly. She looks totally lost in her thoughts and for a late 19th century (1876) it's quite provocative. The painting wants to represent the isolation and degradation of Parisian society at the time, and it does it using the legendary drink that would have been banned in majority of European countries not more then 30 years after the painting had been drawn.

The word absinth is actually indicating not only the alcoholic beverage but, even if less commonly, the plant used to infuse the drink (Artemisia Absinthium). The spirit comes from distillation of fermented grapes or grain (lowest quality ones) and infusion with herbs such as star anise, juniper, coriander, angelica....and botanicals such as green anise(used especially to cover the bitter taste),fennel and of course grande wormwood(Artemisia Absinthium). The last one is the actual responsible of bans, mystifications and legends due to the presence in the leaves and flowers of an organic chemical compound known as thujone that  following 19th century analysis was supposed to be an addictive drug and give hallucinations. It is now proved that thujone can have effect on the central nervous system if used in extremely high dosage, but doesn't really have any hallucinating powers.

The drink was already known in ancient times. Latin poet Lucrezio wrote about it in his De Rerum Natura, using it as a metaphor for artistic inspiration, and quotes were found even on an Egyptian papyrus of the 1600 ac. It was used in Medieval age and had a large diffusion especially among French soldiers during Algerian wars. In late 19th century and early 20th was used by a big part of French population, from every social class because of its alcohol content and as an easier way than wine to get drunk faster. At the time it used to be called "Le peril vert" (the green danger) or "La fee' verte" (the green fairy) and it was largely used by artists for its legendary creative effects.

In early 20th century the Temperance Movement, that was sweeping Europe, and the concerns of wine producers for the economical effects on the wine market of absinth increasing diffusion attracted a lot of attentions on the beverage that was then definitely banned  in France on 1915 (and few years later in other European countries and USA as well). The ban was also the consequence of a dramatic episode happened in 1905, when a Swiss drunk farmer killed his wife and daughters apparently on the effects of absinth.
Straight away after the ban absinth grew in its popularity in more liberal countries in East Europe (that’s why there is 2 serving recipes-Parisian and Bohemian).
At the beginning of the 90’s Randomil Hill trying to relaunch his father’s distillery put on the market the Hills Absinth that suddenly became very famous in Prague especially among students. But the recipe, the taste and the serving ritual were totally different by the original French one.
After this new attention on it a great revival happened in all Europe and especially in United Kingdom, where actually it had never been banned.
Few years ago absinth was finally resumed in all Europe and also in USA (2007) after analysis that finally proved that its effects are not different to any other common spirit. However the percentage of wormwood to be used for the infusion was regulated by the law and restricted to 1/10 of the amount historically used.

It is well known that part of the seductive and fascinating appeal of this “dangerous” drink is also connected to the traditional serving rituals and the particular instruments used.
To prepare Absinth in the French way (the original pre-ban method) we need a proper Absinth slotted spoon with a sugar cube and we place it on top of the glass where we already poured the spirit (about 1/4 of the glass). Then just letting ice-chilled water through the sugar we fill the glass and then we stir the cocktail. As the water is added a louching process is going on: the liquid is turning into an opaque yellowish green appearance that is typical of the traditional drink and it’s the normal result of the reaction between anise and water.
The Czech or Bohemian serving process is more theatrical. It consists of pouring about ½ glass of spirit, dip a teaspoon with sugar in it and then light the sugar and let it burn till it is lightly caramelized. Then we pour water over the teaspoon placed on top of the glass as for the French method.
The serving ritual is not the only difference between Czech and French Absinth: the Czech preparation doesn’t include any anise but other herbs such as fennel, coriander or mint are used. Plus the alcohol perception is higher in the Czech one as it is less diluted.

Nowadays several producers can be found all over the world but the most famous is probably La Fee’ that was the first producer in France after the ban and it is the only one approved by the Asinth Museum of Auvers sur Oise established in 1994.

Drinking absinth is now quite easy; a lot of cafes all over Europe are serving it and it is not difficult to be bought and prepared at home as well.
But my advice is to drink it without hoping for the Green Muse to come and make you succumb to her charm....unfortunately this is only legend!