As I'm in a rather decadant, fin de siecle sort of mood, I've decided this morning to write about absinthe. Recently, I asked a friend if they would like a glass of "the green fairy". My generous offer was rejected with a look of horror, fear, and pity. Yes, absinthe still has a more than sinister reputation, and most people out there are vaguely aware that the stuff used to be illegal.
What exactly is absinthe? Absinthe is a distilled, anise-flavored spirit derived from herbs including the flowers and leaves of the medicinal plant Artemisia absinthium, also called Grand Wormwood or Absinthe Wormwood. The wormwood contains small quantities of thujone. It's also highly alchoholic.
The stuff I drink, La Fee, is a staggering 68% proof (that's almost double the strength of Gordon's Gin)- and some brands are even stronger. But there are so many half truths in the absinthe legend. You don't drink the absinthe neat, you dilute it with water; and this involves a curious ritual. Ideally you need a proper absinthe glass, which has a small reservoir at the bottom. Into the glass goes the neat absinthe. Next, you place the pierced absinthe spoon over the top of the glass, on to which goes a lump of sugar. Iced water is poured over the sugar, through the spoon, and down into the glass. The water turns the absinthe opaque (this is called the "louche"), and the flavours, herbals, and aromatics are released.
Absinthe was originally invented in Switzerland, but became hugely popular in France, especially at the end of the nineteenth century. During the 1880's and 1890's the wine trade suffered badly, and absinthe drinking became widespread, especially amongst Parisian artists, intellectuals and the Bohemian set. So widespread in fact, that it became a social problem; but more from the amount of absinthe consumed, than the scientific properties of the drink itself. After a series of rather grisly murders (blamed on absinthe), the drink was banned by the French government in 1915, and then by other countries around the world, apart from Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal.
It's still quasi-illegal in the United States, because of the thujone content, which can supposedly give you hallucinations if taken in high quantities. But then so can oil of bergamot (used to flavour Earl Grey tea)! Modern absinthes have significantly small, and I stress, non-harmful levels of thujone. Absinthe is safe. Trust me! So there it is. The story of absinthe. I had a glass last night, and it was good. Extremely good. And less bitter than you would think, helped along by the iced water and the sugar cube. They say it leaves you with a clear head, and helps to concentrate your thinking. And I think it does, as I leapt out of bed this morning full of joie de vivre. Allez l'absinthe!