Absinthe: The Spirit of Révolution
—By Mischka Meyer-Reiff
Once upon a time—that being a couple of thousands years back—folks discovered the power of the herb we now call artemisia absinthium. Since the ancient times of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome and right up to the Middle Ages, witches and folk healers prescribed artemisia as a "cure for all maladies".
Then, in 1792, two enterprising Swiss sisters got the idea to deliver the health benefits of the strange plant in an intoxicating elixir: they infused artemisia (and other mountain herbs) in high-proof alcohol.
And so absinthe, as we know it today, was born.
The Henriod sisters couldn't have had any idea theirs was an elixir that was to change the course of history in such a profound manner. They sold their "Bon Extrait d'Absinthe" to locals for some 20 years before reluctantly agreeing to sell the recipe to Major Dubied, the man who then commercialized their absinthe under the name Pernod.
Suddenly, out of a small Alpine village, the Green Fairy spread her wings and flew into the cafes of France, Bohemia, America and even North Africa.
In the years that followed, major works of art were created under the Fairy's influence. Classical forms of poetry—unchallenged for centuries until the time—gave way to new forms as Rimbaud, Verlaine and others experimented with a fresh approach to "expressing the inexpressible". Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec rejected his aristocratic origins and, to the consternation of his family, set out to paint the decadent street life of Paris instead. "His paintings were entirely painted in absinthe," remarked Gustave Moreau, another painter, of Toulouse-Lautrec's works.
To mention all those who claimed the Green Fairy as their muse and inspiration would take a whole book, if not two or three. Van Gogh, Degas, Manet, Monet, Picasso... Baudelaire, Poe, Wilde, Dowson and Hemingway... the list could go on.
Challenging conventions became a way of life for the free thinkers of the day as they gathered in cafes and, over a glass of absinthe, set about shaking up the Establishment. Rules were meant to be broken – and they were. As a result, innovation and cultural progress flourished. It is not an understatement to say that it was the Green Fairy that, on her wings, carried humanity into the twentieth century.
Absinthe is a high-proof alcoholic beverage made from artemisia absinthium, anise and fennel (the so-called "Holy Trinity" herbs) and a range of supporting ingredients such as star anise, hyssop, angelica, coriander, chamomile, melissa and others.
The original Henriod recipe has evolved as competing absinthe makers experimented with different herbs and flavors. Most distillers have always considered their particular recipe a closely guarded secret that would only be passed on through the family line of the distiller.
But regardless of the differences amongst individual varieties, it is artemisia absinthium which is the primary ingredient of any absinthe – and it is this curious herb that give the Green Fairy her wings, so to speak.
Apparently so, anyway.
To this day, the curious effects of absinthe have not been explained to any great degree. Although the phenomenon has puzzled the scientific and medical communities for over a hundred years now, no-one has come up with a conclusive answer to date.
The most recent study into the effects of absinthe was conducted by the University of California in Berkeley in 2000. Its conclusions, published in the Science News magazine in the same year, were as sketchy as the conclusions of all the studies conducted before that.
The Green Fairy, it seems, won't give up her secret easily.
What we do know for sure is that the essential oil of artemisia has a mild stimulative effect, which explains why absinthe drinkers remain strangely "lucid" even after several glasses of the high-proof liquor. Past and present fans of absinthe go as far as to say absinthe has the effect of "illuminating the mind" (to quote the words written by one French doctor in 1872).
Absinthe Fever, the authoritative online guide to the peculiar green drink, has the following to say about the effects:
"It is believed absinthe removes the blocks that normally prevent the mind—and the senses—from working at full capacity. Essentially, absinthe gives the mind the green light to be completely free ... In this state, the usually docile subconscious awakens and begins to work in tandem with our conscious awareness ... Our creative, cognitive and perceptive abilities reach new heights as a result."
That does seem the most reliable explanation offered to date, one that would explain the drink's cult-like following within the artistic community that once gathered in the cafes of Montramare, the artistic district of Paris.
"The 'absinthe hour' of the Boulevards begins vaguely at half-past-five and ends just as vaguely at half-past-seven. But on the hill, it never ends," wrote a bemused Englishman by the name of H. P. Hugh in 1899.
Hugh wasn't the only foreigner drawn by the exciting, almost electrifying climate of the famed city on the Seine. Other Brits—as well as countless Americans, Italians, the Dutch and Czechs and even the Russians— gravitated towards Paris, the hopeful birthplace of a new era. Like a flock of migrating birds in search of a warmer climate, the artists of Europe and Americas found their destination on "the hill" of Montramare.
Misunderstood, under-appreciated, even dismissed as a bunch of dangerous 'radicals' or even 'madmen' by the "polite society" of the day, they continued to challenge regardless. They challenged conventions. They challenged the stuffy norms of the day. They set out to communicate the notion that there was a new, modern world waiting to be discovered, and that it was about time we moved on.
Modern-day feminism was born. The idea of "rights" for people of color was introduced for the first time. The urban population at large began, for the first time in history, asserting their rightful place in society.
Neither the aristocracy nor the bourgeoisie wanted their comfortable world changed, of course. But progress has a way of pushing through. As Monica Whittingstall wrote bluntly, "it was the absinthe crowd of the Belle Époque era that dragged humanity from the dark pits of the nineteenth's century into the modern world."
If absinthe is a symbol of the "Beautiful Era", or Belle Epoque in French, then the absinthe spoon is a beautiful and tangible memoir of the glorious period.
"It is a science, or rather an art to drink absinthe properly," noted Henri Balesta in Absinthe et Absintheurs in 1860.
And the absinthe spoon, of course, is critical to this art of absinthe drinking – as well as being a work of art in its own right.
Being a fairly bitter and a very strong liquor, absinthe has traditionally been drunk sweetened with sugar and diluted with water. The slotted absinthe spoon, designed to fit snugly on the rim of a glass, has served as a decorative stand on which a cube of sugar was placed before pouring ice cold water over it.
Here is a delightful description of the absinthe ritual:
"The absinthe drinker takes about a fourth of a goblet of absinthe. The spoon, with perforated bowl and an extension beyond, is placed across the top of the glass. On a lump of sugar in the bowl, water is poured, a little at a time. The drip of this sugared water into the absinthe streaks the green liquor with pearly white." (Daily Illini, University of Illinois, 1927).
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