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 Devil
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.
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
The clear Germain-Robin Absinthe Superiure that I tried did just that. Turned white as white could be.
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 Beurre
Although wrongfully vilified and outlawed for 100 years, (and perhaps because of its bad reputation) Absinthe.com 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.
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!
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 (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.”
*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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absinthe or http://www.absinth.com/ or http://www.oxygenee.com/absinthe/ or http://www.wormwoodsociety.org/ or http://www.absinthedevil.com/category_s/5.htm 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.