Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Green Fairy


If a French person mentions the Green Fairy, you can be sure they won’t be talking about hands that do dishes. La Fée Verte is the name given to absinthe, a strong, almost mythic alcoholic drink that has been banned in France since 1915.The elixir – the colour of which is due to the high concentration of chlorophyll - was also known as the Green Muse and, eventually, as the Green Peril.

Absinthe is made from a selection of plants, the most notorious of which is Artemisia absinthium or wormwood. Wormwood is a bitter herb, mentioned in the Bible and used for thousands of years as a remedy for stomach ailments. It grows in dry, mountainous areas, like Switzerland and this was where the first popular recipe for the drink was elaborated. The rights to commercialise absinthe were bought by a certain Monsieur Pernod (yes, that Pernod) in 1797 and he set up a distillery just over the border in France. His recipe used aniseed, fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, angelica, star anise, juniper, nutmeg and veronica. These were macerated together with wormwood and the mixture was distilled with alcohol to achieve a concentration of approximately seventy-five percent alcohol – which is about one hundred and thirty degrees proof…

At first, absinthe was used for medicinal purposes only – but we all know what that means. Soon, people were swigging it down with any old excuse and it began to be sold in shops and cafés, rather than at the chemist’s. Its reputation reached the capital where absinthe became the drink most closely associated with painters and poets, who claimed to find their inspiration in its emerald depths: they would sit around in cafés in the Latin Quarter and wax lyrical while getting rather squiffy. Drinking absinthe was an art in itself and the ritual was part of the pleasure. First, a little absinthe was poured into a glass; then a sugar lump was placed on to a special perforated spoon that lay across the top of the glass; finally, the absinthe had to be ‘surprised’ by a thin trickle of cold water that became a steady stream as it passed through the dissolving sugar. As the water ‘beat’ the absinthe, the mixture turned a pearly cream colour. It took practice to get it just right, but that was not a problem for the likes of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Van Gogh or Toulouse-Lautrec (who had a hollowed-out cane filled with absinthe) - they spent many a ‘green hour’ doing just that. Artists also immortalised the Green Fairy in their work: Degas painted L’Absinthe, Manet The Absinthe Drinker and Emile Zola wrote L’Assommoir and Nana, to name a few examples.



So why was it banned? Well, one reason was it was thought to make people mad. Wormwood oil contains a chemical called thujone, believed to be a neurotoxin. However, analysis of vintage absinthe reveals that the amount of thujone present was too small to do any harm. The most likely culprit was the bad quality drink touted by unscrupulous producers who were cashing in on the growing popularity of absinthe with the lower classes. The high concentration of alcohol was also a factor and alcoholism was becoming prevalent among the masses, although the scientists of the day termed it absinthism in an attempt to vilify the Green Peril. The wine industry wasn’t too happy either. Absinthe had become cheap and plentiful and was supplanting its own product, so it supported the ban wholeheartedly. The final straw, however, came with the famous Lanfrey murders. In 1905, a Swiss peasant called Jean Lanfrey murdered his pregnant wife and his two daughters and tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. He had drunk two glasses of absinthe before going to work and this detail was immediately seized upon by the public despite the fact that he had also drunk a crème de menthe, a cognac, seven glasses of wine at lunch, a cup of coffee laced with brandy, a litre of wine when he got home from work and then another brandy-laced coffee. Nope – it was definitely the absinthe that did it…Two years later in France, the newspaper Le Matin led an anti-absinthe movement and four hundred thousand people signed a petition that declared “everywhere the green water appears, crime and insanity soon follow”. A law was finally passed in 1915 banning the drink and has remained in force until this day.

As a substitute, pastis – from a word that means both ‘mixture’ and ‘confusion’ in occitan – was invented. Called familiarly le petit jaune , it contained less alcohol, more sugar and of course, no wormwood. In the 1930s, Paul Ricard created pastis de Marseille which combined aniseed, star anise and liquorice. As luck would have it, pastis was banned in 1940 – this time, it was blamed for sapping the strength of French soldiers who lost France the war as a consequence. It was reinstated in 1951 and – unless somebody suddenly decides it causes shingles or bird flu or something – pastis is here to stay.



Although the aniseed aperitif originated in the north, pastis has become a symbol of Provence in the south, along with cicadas and sunshine. Some say that pastis is the king of aperitifs but – as the saying goes – it is absinthe that makes the heart grow fonder…

6 comments:

Alan said...

Absinthe is now legal in every non-Muslim country except for the USA. In France, the authorities insist on the label being different, e.g. "Spiritueux aux plantes d'absinthe." There are several shops and bars in Paris selling absinthe.

Let me know if you need more information or see some of the links on my blog.

angela said...

I never knew most of that before.
I like the way you're able to communicate such a wealth of detail in such an entertaining fashion.

Famous Quotations said...

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Louise said...

Hi there - I've just discovered your super blog - congratulations on winning a blog of the Day Award!

Here in Switzerland we can still buy La Fée Verte - personally I have never tried it as I hate anything with an aniseedy taste, but them what knows, say it is very fine (before they pass out)!

Anonymous said...

Now absinthe is legal in usa too:) So if you're looking where to buy absinthe, it's easier for you to do that in usa.