Friday, February 26, 2010

Absinthe: Wilde, Hemingway & Leibovitz

Absinthe Robette

Oscar Wilde said "Absinthe was as poetical as anything in the world."

Absinthe was called "la fée verte" (the green fairy) and was so popular by the 1860’s (French Legionnaires had been given it for malaria and developed a taste for it when they returned home), that 5 pm was called “l’heure verte” (the green hour) in France. So much so that the drink became something of a scourge to the lower classes.* Since it has been fairly well disproved that absinthe’s wormwood component, with its small amount of the notorious chemical thujone (also in sage and some mint) played much of a part in this, the high alcohol content (often 120 Proof or more) was probably the real culprit for the physical and mental decline of its abusers.

Glass and Spoon from Absinthe Devil

Early on, absinthe was only served with a glass, ice water and sugar and the customer would mix them together themselves. * Soon a shallow dish that sat on top of the absinthe with a small hole in its bottom called a Brouilleur or Plateau was used (although they could be complicated devices that would drip mechanically like the Auto Verseur –amazing to watch in action at Vertdabsinthe ) .

Photo from the virtual absinthe museum

With the absinthe fountain (a glass container of ice water with 2 to 6 robinets or spigots) many sugar cubes could be dripped upon at once using lovely spoons and glasses for that purpose. However it’s done, this is a slow process!

2 Robinet Absinthe Fountain from Absinthe Devi

Glasses that were specifically made for absinthe “had a dose line, bulge, or bubble in the lower portion denoting how much absinthe should be poured in. One "dose" of absinthe is around 1 ounce (30 ml) with water added in a 3 to 1 ratio.” Wikipedia tells us.

Eric Asimov for the NYT’s said: “Water not only changes the flavors, it almost magically alters the appearance of the absinthe. As you slowly add water, the liquid in the glass seems to thicken, and transforms into an opalescent pastel cloud, seeping down into a pool of green like sweetened tears. The French call this effect the louche (which has the wonderful double meaning of turbulent in French and disreputable in English). Technically, when absinthe is distilled, the anise and fennel oils dissolve into the alcohol. As the water dilutes the alcohol, it frees the oils from their molecular prison, and they form a cloudy suspension.”

Now to confuse you completely, there are clear absinthes called Blanche or la Bleue that turn a brilliant white in the glass when water is added instead of the usual cloudy green.

Hitchcock’s Suspicion

Think of the great scene from Hitchcock’s “Suspicion” when Cary Grant carries that too white milk (yes there was a light bulb involved) up the stairs to the not-as-gullible-as-she-used-to-be Joan Fontaine

Hitchcock’s Suspicion

The clear Germain-Robin Absinthe Superiure that I tried did just that. Turned white as white could be.

Limelight Painting by Detlef Kotzte, Glass and Spoon from Absinthe Devil

Eric Asimov, wine critic for the NYT’s, recommended this absinthe. I usually agree with his taste (critics have personalities too!) and have been inspired by his column to try so many things. He got my attention when he said Germain-Robin “begins by distilling an almost biblical-sounding eau de vie, of apples and honey. After steeping herbs and botanicals in the eau de vie, he [Crispin Cain the distiller] gradually adds water, then distills it again. The exquisite result is an absinthe of unusual purity, with a natural sweetness that requires no added sugar.”

Far be it from me to try to describe alcohol or perfume properly, but the taste is clear like an Eau de Vie… a very complex Eau de Vie with a million little quiet back flavors. I agreed with The Wormwood Society when they said it was: “Subtle, complex, and absolutely beautiful” (call me a troglodyte but I did like a swish of sugar). Wouldn’t that make you want to give it a try?

Leal da Camara 1903 L’Assiette au Beurr

Although wrongfully vilified and outlawed for 100 years, (and perhaps because of its bad reputation) reveals I’m not the only one to fall under its spell, ”absinthe inspired many prominent artists, writers and poets like Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Manet and Ernest Hemingway - in fact his masterpiece " For Whom The Bell Tolls " was written under the influence of "The Green Fairy".”

Harold McGee, in the NYT’s, found Hemingway’s recipe for an absinthe cocktail in a celebrity recipe book:

Hemingway's Absinthe Champagne

“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

(you should read the article… amazing revelation that champagne bubbles are mostly caused by cellulose and cotton fibers---dust!!)

Every time I watch the scene in Bram Stoker's Dracula where Gary and Winona do that pas de trois with the Green fairy and Oldman calls it “the aphrodisiac of the self” with that perfect accent, I swoon (watch here). I’ll admit, that wicked reputation has been enticing me for ever so long, and at last I got the chance to give the green fairy a spin around the block using St. George’s inestimable Absinthe Verte (fine brandy infused with wormwood, anise, fennel, hyssop, basil, tarragon, lemon balm, meadowsweet, mint, and stinging nettles), for my ride!

So I got myself a glass of absinthe, turned on the oven, baked a fabulous David Lebovitz Absinthe Cake from The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City

I took a picture) and then ate it with another perfectly louched glass of la fée verte Hemingway style with champagne as l’heure verte quickly approached.

I would like to make a virtual toast to my fallen friend, KG Cannon, one of the most generous humans I ever knew. I had wanted to give him an Absinthe birthday party this weekend. He would have loved the ceremony of the green fairy because he loved ceremony, fine things and well-set tables, believing as he did “ it is truly useful since it is beautiful”. Farewell my dear friend, who always reminded me: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (The Little Prince was his favorite book).

Absinthe Cake Adapted from David Leibovitz Recipe

1 ¼ teaspoon anise seeds

1 ¼ cup cake flour
 (didn’t have it so I added a T of cornstarch)
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons pistachio or almond meal (that can be made in the spice grinder but make sure they are not salted!!!!) or stone-ground yellow cornmeal. Try to make the pistachio for the beautiful color and flavor it gives.
2 teaspoons baking powder (no aluminum is best)
¼ teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons room temperature
 unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar

2 room temperature
 large eggs, (or 3 small)
¼ cup milk

¼ cup Absinthe
 ( I used Absinthe Verte-but you could use Pernod))
¼ to ½ tsp. orange Zest

For the Absinthe glaze:

¼ cup sugar
( I used regular Whole Foods Organic and a large grain Demerara)
¼ cup Absinthe

1. Preheat the oven to 350º. After you butter a 9-inch loaf pan, line the bottom with parchment paper.

2. Grind the anise seeds until fine. Sift together the flour, pistachio meal, baking powder, salt, and anise seeds.

3. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, until they're completely incorporated.

4. Mix together the milk and Absinthe with orange zest.

5. Stir half of the dry ingredients into the beaten butter, then the milk and Absinthe mixture.

6. By hand, stir in the other half of the dry ingredients until just smooth and no more. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

7. Remove the cake from the oven and let cool 30 minutes.

8. To glaze the cake, use a toothpick and poke holes all over the top of the cake. In a small bowl, gently stir together the sugar and Absinthe until just mixed. (and more orange zest if you wish) Leave the texture sandy… it will sparkle!

9. Remove the cake from the loaf pan and set the cake on a rack.

10. Spoon Absinthe glaze over the top and sides of the cake, allowing it to soak the top and spill down the sides a bit. Continue until all glaze is used up.

Oscar Wilde 1882 by Napoleon Sarony (Library of Congress)

I wanted to use an Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) quote to begin this post on absinthe but discovered that the famous quote I wanted kept appearing with different wording! It had to do with stages of absinthe inebriation. The Virtual Absinthe Museum saw the same problem and discovered 2 sources penned 30 at most 50 years after his death. Kudos! Two versions! This was the reason that I kept seeing it quoted differently! Such are the ways of memory. As Previously noted, the recent death of a great friend and raconteur of Wildean wit, KG Cannon, has made this so clear… how our stories vary!!! How his stories varied!

John Fothergill/ 1930 Fox Photos

I am rather fond of John Fothergill (1876-1957) famous gentleman host at “The Spread Eagle” and known for the wonderful An Innkeeper's Diary. His recollection, “Absinthe and Oscar” —was written 50 years after Wilde’s death:

“At Berneval (where Wilde stayed after release from prison in 1897) Oscar Wilde told me - all in his great heavy drawl-of the three stages of Absinthe drinking. The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful and curious things.”

Ada Leverson

Ada Leverson (1866-1930), a friend of Wilde’s whom he called the Sphinx and the wittiest woman in the world and who sheltered him after the terrible trial* wrote in “Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde and Reminiscences of the Author” in 1930 :

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.' `How do you mean?' `I mean disassociated. Take a top-hat! You think you see it as it really is. But you don't, because you associate it with other things and ideas. If you had never heard of one before, and suddenly saw it alone, you'd be frightened, or laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad.”

2013 update:
I finally made my own absinthe from scratch with mostly my own fresh herbs.  It is a marvel and incredibly green for a few weeks.

*I am forever grateful to Wikipedia, where facts often come from, if not always phrasing!

Anyone who would like to get a fuller understanding of all things Absinthe should stop by or or or or for the full story and some really cool pictures. All I can do (and still hold down a job) is give you a taste of history and invite you along as I try these various products that I (as a food geek) have been dying to try and/or learn about… a foodie “Bucket List” or share favorites that I just can’t keep to myself.


La Table De Nana said...

Interesting! Ricard turns white also.. it just doesn't sound as magical at all..I love the decorum that surrounded this drink..The glasses th e top..And I love your dessert/drink presentation on that tray/box:) Beautiful!

I just read an article about Toller Cranston w/ photos yesterday. Remarkable resemblance to Osacr Wilde it seems to me..
You're a world book of Lost Past Remembered Info~ Thank you..

PS do you love that cookbook of David Leibovitz?:)

Sarah said...

I have yet to try absinthe. Perhaps I will pick up a bottle now! Love your cake, too. This drink sounds like a 'Champagne Cocktail' which uses scotch, I think.

Deana Sidney said...

La Table de Nana> Leibovitz' cake is totally delicious... could be made with Ricard/Pernod but not as good. Thanks about the picture... I was
stuck because the absinthe glasses hadn't arrived... the blizzard may have something to do with it! Will check on Toller...ouch if he looks like Wilde!
All Our Fingers int the Pie> The drink is really good, Hemingway was no dope... but it is strong stuff!!! If I did as he suggested I would be flat on my face!!!

George Gaston said...

What a beautiful post and tribute to your friend!

Barbara said...

I wondered...about being flat on your face, I mean. And if you were! Was going to be my first question.
The NYT article was interesting but the way you put together this post with photos inserted appropriately is charming. Cary Grant-had forgotten that scene! How could I?

Copied the cake recipe; I actually have some pistachio flour, which I assume I could use.

I enjoy your posts so much, learn so much and the time taken to put these together is so much appreciated!

Deana Sidney said...

George Gaston> Thanks George. Coming from you who tells so many great stories with great information... that is quite a compliment!!! I really pulled out all the stops with this one. Don't worry... next post is very short).

Deana Sidney said...

Barbara> To quote Dorothy Parker, as Asimov did:

I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.

I try to keep this possibility to a minimum with moderation... but every time I read Parker... it makes me smile! The cake with the crunchy sugar is really spectacular... you should make it. Don't you think Leibovitz is a genius!!!

The Old White Barn said...

Love a post with good info - and history. Thanks for taking the time.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I loved this post Deana! I was just reading about Absinthe on another friend's blog and it seems like I absolutely need to try it. Your friend would be so proud to have that cake!

PS Absolutely fascinating about the champagne bubbles! :o

Anonymous said...

Fascinating info! The Hemingway cocktail sounds incredible and the cake with Absithe is very neat, I would definitely love to try it!

Anonymous said...

I first heard about absinthe from Tony Bourdain's No Reservation. Thanks for such an informative post :)

Deana Sidney said...

Blackberry Jam Cafe> You are most welcome... it was a labor of love with my friend in mind... I know I'm a geek... I just found the info so cool... everyone who reads it will really know something about absinthe!
Lorraine> You do such great informative posts... high praise. I worked on this on and off for a while, but then the glasses didn't arrive because of the blizzard!!
5 Star Foodie> Try the cocktail at any good bar... it is good... having one right now!!
Ellie> Bourdain probably had Absinthe waaay before it was legal.. he is a bad boy. The new stuff is better than the old bootleg. This St. George is really fabulous... so many herbs!

funkiefoodie said...

The bohemian Gordon Royle MacLeod, a writer in Sterling Hayden's historical novel "Voyage" goes aboard a merchant ship in 1896. After 160 days he begins a long letter to his parents and writes "I have been tippling a little this morning. Nothing habitual, I assure you. On Absinthe of all things. Blessed be the name. Blessed be the day I laid in an adequate supply, back in New York City..." he quits his letter later with "I feel quite fuzzy now. Is it the absinthe...".

It evokes a sense of the bohemia - the word Absinthe portends to artistic angst, does it not?

I visited Hemingway's limestone mansion in Key West in 1966, overrun with cats and more cats, crazy or not, perhaps Absinthe was the writer's muse? His advice to writers was " live life before you can write about it".

Another delicious treat Deana. Thank you LA.

Deana Sidney said...

Powderate> Such powerful words... I have a vague memory of Hayden's book... and a clear one of him as an actor... many notes, many levels. There are so many things ascribed to absinthe... the wild card, thujone is actually more prevalent in sage than wormwood. There is a theory that the really old stuff had more of it than they use today... but samples of the larger brands from the period have proven otherwise... maybe in the under the counter brands it was stronger.
As for experience, I agree with Hemingway about experience and it sounds like you have had a few good bites of life yourself and are a lovely writer. The Absinthe experience? the taste is complex and rich with herbs... anise is the most powerful flavor. DId I feel more in touch with the muse? No, sadly no. Did write a lot though, but that was more a great NE blizzard than hallucinogenic. Glad you liked it!

Rettabug said...

I'm sorry for the loss of your friend, Deana. He sounds like a wonderful person with a zest for life & for sharing it with others. This is a very interesting & informative post that ties into his effect on your life. I had some knowledge (& fear!) of absinthe. The fear is I might like it too much! LOL

zurin said...

what an interesting post and lovely photos. the cake in the last foto looks so good. gosh if ernest Hemingway wrote for whom the bell tolls under the influence of absinthe perhaps we shd all try some...^_^ n I love how its called the green fairy!

Deana Sidney said...

Rettabug> Nothing to be afraid of... it is really harmless unless you go nuts... more thujone in those fried sage leaves!!!! You are right about KG --he had an enormous zest for life and shared it!
Zurin> It is charming to be called the green fairy... so much better than the pink elephant... no wonder Europe thinks we're dolts!!!

Becky said...

You're making me regret not picking up absinthe when I was in France last week ... I've never tried it, but now my curiosity is officially awakened!

Sarah said...

What a interesting informative post. Thank you for taking the time to put this all together, including the amazing photos. The cake looks delicious! I've not tried absinthe, but perhaps I will.
Sorry about the loss of your good friend, KG. THE LITTLE PRINCE is also the source of one of my favorite quotes: "You to me are unique in all the world." The one you quoted is definitely another. I think I would have enjoyed knowing your friend, KG.

Ju (The Little Teochew) said...

There's something so alluring and seductive about Absinthe! Great photos! That looks like The Forbidden Cake. ;)

Stella said...

Very interesting post as usual! I did not know anything about the history of Absinthe until now-only that a day or two of my stay in Spain is unremembered due to this drink. I guess I overindulged a bit! Oh, and I love the photo with the Absinthe next to the old book.

food with style said...

gosh your posts amaze me, like short stories, always wonderful! the details are astounding! when i hear the word absinthe i instantly think of van gogh and it being what drove him mad, since i was a little girl my mother always told me that, plus from lead poisoning from him paints~

oh your cake... and the pics, sublime!

what a gorgeous tribute to kg, and such powerful words to leave behind in his memory...

Deana Sidney said...

Becky> One of the NYT's articles talks about the many different kinds you can get... American and European... you can get them here easily... although everything tastes better in France!
Sarah> What a sweet thing to say. The cake is great and so was KG... The Little Prince was much quoted at the wake today...he was sort of the embodiment of the character in so many ways.
Ju> Thanks for the photos... they are getting better! The cake is just plain good and so simple... I think Leibovitz' sugar topping is the best.
Stella> Thanks lady! After a few of those absinthe champagnes and a few tries with the absinthe and sugar/water technique I can vouch for the potency of absinthe.... I so understand why you lost a day or two.

Deana Sidney said...

Food with style> You are right that Van Gogh had a problem with absinthe but it was because he drank too much of it. Also, I think the cheaper the concoction the deadlier the additives... no FDA to protect him... and he was dirt poor... sometimes drinking his turpentine I seem to remember.
When my mom was interning at Walter Reed in the 40's, she had guys come in who were pouring shoe polish through bread and drinking the mess that came out... hence the hospital! This new absinthe is a masterly blend of herbs and botanicals... really really not poison! The distiller at St George worked on the recipe for 16 years!
All joking aside, I can't tell you how much I am touched that you feel it was a good tribute to my friend... that mean a lot, Jain!

Tasty Trix said...

Absolutely fantastic post. I love all of your posts, but maybe this one is my favorite. I have such a fascination for this drink and its history ... It doesn't hurt that I was drinking absinthe in the Old Absinthe House in New Orleans the night before my wedding (in a voodoo temple) when my wallet was stolen. I was a bit distracted. Have you been to the Absinthe Museum in NOLA? You would love it so much. And of course I am so so sorry about your friend. I hope someone feels moved to give me such a wonderful, thoughtful toast when I'm gone.

Deana Sidney said...

Trix> Hey thanks, it's one of my favorites too. I had the same fascination which is why I started on this investigation... but drinking absinthe in a voodoo temple on your wedding night? How cool is that??? No I haven't seen the Absinthe Museum in person... just looking on the website... cool place!

Thanks about my virtual toast, it came from the heart... something tells me there will be no dearth of warms toasts for you... a hundred years from now!

Faith said...

This fabulous post does justice to the magic and wonder that is absinthe. I especially loved reading the description of what happens as absinthe is distilled. The cake sounds really lovely with the anise and pistachio flour.

Mae said...

My boyfriend is a huge absinthe fan - he's picked up bottles from all over Europe. I also loved the Oscar Wilde references, and the great scene in Suspicion. Love that movie! I had no idea that Hemmingway took his absinthe with champagne... I've got to try that!

Deana Sidney said...

Faith> The cake is amazing... I think it's right up your alley, Faith! Sweetened tears is a fabulous image, isn't it?
Mae> I think Hemingway took his absinthe any way he could... but it is really great in champagne... that anise flavor is wonderful.. with the cake it's like a double header! I tried it first with a moscato.. but that was too sweet. a dry brut is best. I love the name Mae, BTW!

Clarity said...

Lovely to have you visit and in turn to find your blog - your recipes and taste for beauty, regardless of time appeal to me.

I remember Hitchcock mentioning a light was placed inside the milk to make it luminous, clever man. Peace, x.

Clarity said...

P.S. Adore the quote from The Little Prince, people who tend to like that book have such searching hearts.

Unknown said...

Your posts are always so informative. That cake looks fantastic. I would be so curious to try some, but moi never drinks. Still, I loved reading about it.
*kisses* HH

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I'm so sorry about your friend. I'm sure he would have loved what you had planned.

What a wonderful and informative post. Speaking of absinthe in movies, have your seen Moulin Rouge with Nicole Kidman? There's a great scene with Ewan McGregor and the green fairy.

The absinthe cake looks delicious!

Deana Sidney said...

Clarity:Thanks for the kind words... yes, those in the brother-sisterhood of the prince tend to have searching hearts... certainly true of my friend.
HH> The glaze is very boozy... since it is not cooked... still tasty and good... could add more anise and only milk though, water or lemon juice for the glaze??
SavoringTime in the Kitchen: I think he would have too.. I saw the Kidman movie... but forgot the scene... the Oldman version is so
seared in my memory... will give it a look!!! thanks for the info.

Marysol said...

I have a couple of books by David Lebovitz, and I don't recall seeing this recipe in any of them. I think it's time I took another look. That's what happens when you have too many cookbooks and not enough time to execute any of the recipes in them.

Beautiful post, beautiful pictures, and a very intriguing recipe!

2 Stews said...

Absinthe always intrigued me, but I have also been a little wary of all of it's reputed effects. Many artists and writers have been under the influence of something or another, I think it took them outside of the proverbial box. Thanks for your explorations. I love the pics...all of them, and the feelings they evoke.

I am sorry about your is never easy to lose someone close. My condolences.

I have the David Lebovitz book, being a Francophile Foodie, how could I not?!

Thanks Deana, for a wonderful and informative missive.


Megan @ FeastingonArt said...

I had my first taste of Absinthe in Prague and I cant say it was exactly delicious. I might give it another go in that cake, looks pretty tasty!

Pam said...

Once again an interesting and over the top post. I had tried the St. George Absinthe several weeks ago in San Francisco and found it a little too herb like for my taste. It would have been better with your cake!
My friend Randy adores Absinthe, so naturally I sent him the link to your blog.
Well done, Deana,

Sanura said...

As always... it's the same boring comment to a exciting blog: Always amused by your historical writings involving food.

Deana Sidney said...

Marysol> I have had this recipe, from his 2006 blog for so long... waiting for the absinthe to make it... it all came together here! I had too many cookbooks and a 1000 old cooking magazines and got rid of most of them... now I just have one box of clippings!! It is fun looking over them... food has really changed in 20 years!!!
2Stews>after having nearly 1/2 a bottle of the stuff in various trials I can say that it is strong and can knock you on your backside... I am curious about sage now... it has more of the chemical that gave absinthe a bad name than wormwood does.... thanks for the kind words about KG He was a character... hundreds of people came to his many stories! My foodie bucket list came from him... he walked the great wall of china last year... little did we know he got that in just under the wire. Carpe diem!
Megan> absinthe in Prague is so romantic. It is an acquired taste!
GypsyChef> Great to have you back at LPR, missed your shining face! The absinthe post was a work of love... and a lot of work! Thanks for passing my blog on to your friend.
Sanura> so kind... any comments are appreciated... sometimes short is sweet!

Mary Bergfeld said...

Apple mousse and absinthe have blown my mind away. The entire post was fantastic, but these two were over the top. I think I love you :-).

Deana Sidney said...

Mary> How sweet of you!! you will love the mousse;)

Gillion said...

Have you tried dumplings and roast ducks? They are the famous and traditional Beijing dieshes. And also bird's nest soup? Its a delicacy in China.

Enjoy your days~~~


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