Monday 14 June 2010

The Return of the Fairy

I was lunching with some friends in Montmartre last summer, a very pleasant occasion. I decided at the end of the meal, in an act of sheer devilment, to ask for a glass of absinthe. I might have well asked for hemlock! The thing is, you see, as I very well knew, absinthe, the drink of La Belle Epoch, has not been available in France in its pure form for close on a hundred years because it was believed to be almost as lethal as hemlock. That lengthy prohibition may about to be lifted.

I’ve written before about absinthe (The Green Fairy) and its associations with decadence and witchcraft. It was the favoured drink of artists such as Vincent van Gogh, supposedly inspiring Starry Night among other paintings, and writers like Oscar Wilde. But the fairy could just as readily turn into a demon, so it was believed, the nightmare that walks the pages of Zola’s L’Assommoir, one of the best of his Les Rougon-Macquart series of novels. In a mood of moral panic, no doubt intensified by the atmosphere of the war, the French government banished the Green Fairy in 1915.

Although restrictions were lifted somewhat in more recent times, it can still only be sold if called an ‘absinthe-based spirit’ and made to a slightly different recipe. But according to report I read in the press Franck Choisne, who owns the two-hundred year Combier distillery in the Loire Valley, a place where the secret of the original recipe is still preserved, is leading a campaign to bring it back. He has been joined Ted Breaux, an American connoisseur, who succeeded having the ban lifted in the United States.

As we now know that the original drink was no stronger than whisky and that the herbs it contained would have to be consumed by in gargantuan quantities before any harm was caused, it’s likely that the French parliament will vote to end the ban. It seems a pity, though, that the mythology is likely to die with it, or perhaps it’s just reassuring to know that genius is its own absinthe.


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  2. I only had one glass, Adam, and I'm not likely to repeat the experience. It really is an acquired taste. But it's is no stronger than brandy or whisky. The mythology is more potent.

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  4. Along with Oscar Wilde and Toulouse Lautrec!

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  6. "Effects, taste, texture"

    I had a spirit that was sold as absinthe once, I'd say none, aniseedy and syrupy.

    It was probably just sambuca with gree dye in it.

  7. But did you go through the whole ritual with the water, and setting light to the sugar? I'm sure that (like the preparations one makes with a good cigar) is an essential part of the pleasure. or to generate a sense of communion with Toulouse-Lautrec, or something

    (Drank the stuff once, in Soho, when it first became available again in Britain. Not felt the need to return for a second helping in ensuing years)

  8. I believe that Absinthe has been sold and distilled for a few years now, in various countries.
    Sadly they took the magic ingredients out of the brew. Bugger.

  9. Ana, you article and video made my day! it was great to read through those brilliant names again and yes, their life and creativity seemed to tie with this magic "devilish" drink, I learn longtime ago when I was a student of art school. but i didn't know the story behind. thank you for sharing! Wonderful video! Love the music!

    And if one day I could get this drink in this country (USA), I will certainly have a try, to see which becomes more more mediocre - me or green fairy... lol

  10. Alas, Dominic, no. It was in Prague, not Paris. :-)

    Rainer, yes it has, though only fairly recently in the States.

    Yunyi, I'm glad. :-) Actually, you should be able to get a bottle, though perhaps sales are more restricted in some parts of the US than others.