It was Cathy Marie Buchanan who first brought absinthe to my attention. In her novel, The Painted Girls, Antoinette van Goethem reveals that she must fend for herself and her two younger sisters, Marie and Charlotte, with “Papa dead and Maman turned to absinthe”. I made a quick enquiry online and jotted a note on the edge of the page:
My curiosity about this drink was further heightened by my recent research of James Joyce, the controversial Irish poet and author of the famed Ulysses. He was a known absinthe drinker in the heyday of its popularity among members of the Europe’s creative elite.
What is Absinthe?
Absinthe is an herbal liqueur comprised largely of wormwood. It tastes distinctly of anise or licorice with a fennel undertone. When first poured into the glass, the colour is green and clear.
The glass is specially designed to facilitate an effect called the “louche”, a milky opaque cloud that blooms in the absinthe. This is achieved when an absinthe fountain drips icy water through a sugar cube. The icy sugar water passes through the vents of the spoon and drops into the glass. The louche is what absinthe drinkers refer to poetically as “the green fairy“.
In the 1830’s, French soldiers serving in Algeria consumed absinthe for medicinal purposes: as an antiseptic, to combat dysentery, and to alleviate symptoms of fever related to malaria. When they returned to Paris, victorious, the flavor of absinthe gained favour with the middle class.
Absinthe consumption was made very fashionable by the elite. Lower quality absinthes were made available to the poorer class. It’s rise in popularity coincided with a wine shortage in the late 1800’s. By 1910, the French demand for absinthe exceeded the demand for wine.
The “Green Hour”, comparable to North Americans’ happy hour, was instated at cafes and bistros at 5 pm. The social convention was to drink one glass only due to the highly potent alcohol content of 70%. Absinthe addiction overwhelmed the population. Some people hid their increasing consumption of the drink by having one glass — at several consecutive cafés.
Chronic absinthe abuse was believed to cause hallucinations and excitability, notably the same symptoms of alcohol addiction. The green colour of absinthe is attributed to naturally occurring chlorophyll in the herbs. Cheaply made absinthes made by unscrupulous manufacturers, used harmful toxic chemicals to duplicate the green colouring and the milky affect of the louche.
“Absinthe madness” allegedly overtook Jean Lafray who, after two glasses of absinthe, murdered his pregnant wife and his two small children. (He consumed several kinds of alcohol that day.) The public cried out for a ban on absinthe out of fear that it induced psychosis and criminal behavior, thus a significant motivator for the Temperance movement.
Tansy, one of the herbs used in the production of absinthe, contains a regulated neurotoxin called thujone. Mid nineteenth century medical research determined that drinks containing thujone were more addictive than regular alcoholic beverages, hence absinthe was banned in Europe, the USA, and Canada.
Absinthe was accredited with stimulating creativity in the artist community. There appears to be little medical evidence to support that claim. Thujone is related to THC found in marijuana, but in order to feel its affects, an excessive quantity would need to be consumed. In 1868, a Paris newspaper refuted this claim:
“Literary men, professors, artists, actors, musicians, financiers, speculators, shopkeepers, even women, yield themselves up to its seductive influence — to those undeniable provocations which seem, they say, to impart renewed activity to an enfeebled brain, developing a world of new ideas, and which thus, it is believed, have inspired many a noble work of imagination and literature and art. It may be so; but then those who habitually excite the brain with absinthe soon discover that they can produce positively nothing without its aid, and that a time arrives when heavy stupor supersedes that excitement of the intellectual faculties which seemed so easy and harmless.”
Several artists and writers swore by the inspiring affect of absinthe: Vincent Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas, Gaugin, Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, Ernest Hemmingway, to name a few. A glass of absinthe can be found in their art, be it in oil paints or verse.
Part of absinthe’s allure is the ritual involved in serving the drink.
First, pour one ounce of absinthe into the glass.
Then lay the vented spoon across the mouth of the glass. Set one or two sugar cubes on top of the spoon.
Next, drip water from a chilled carafe, or an absinthe fountain, onto the cube so the sugar water drips through the slots in the spoon. When the sugar water mixes with the absinthe, the louche will appear in the glass.
Add a total of 3-4 ounces of water depending on taste preference.
Closing thoughts …
In researching this topic, I soon discovered that absinthe enjoys a near cult following. There are several blogs devoted solely to this spirit. Some countries continue to ban absinthe while others regulate the thujone content. In Canada, standards vary province to province. Absinthe is not sold in Saskatchewan. Some provinces regulate thujone levels while other provinces like British Columbia and Nova Brunswick do not. At any rate, despite the elegant accoutrements and the enticing green, I’ll be sticking with my Merlot.
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