Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Trollied Tuesday: Absinthe

Cheering news: the United States is the latest country in which absinthe can now be legally sold and consumed. There is nothing like the whiff of illegality to give a drink a particular cachet, yet in this instant that fact that said drink was a favourite of artists, writers, poets and other shady characters (Ernest Dowson's dictum "absinthe makes the tart grow fonder" is worth remembering in this context) and the rebellious cachet which attends the drink gives it a particular fascination.

You possibly know some of the abinsthe stories: that van Gogh cut off his ear after drinking too much of it; that Gerard de Nerval, whilst under the influence of the stuff, used to walk a lobster on a leash through the Bois de Bologne (almost certainly untrue, I'm afraid, even if it did inspire one of the best episodes of the Simpsons); that absinthism was regarded as a medical condition in 19th century France; or even that French troops in the trenches of World War One over-indulged in the stuff leading to its eventual banning.

Add to these legends the jukie-eque rituals attendant upon its consumption – set light to a spoonful of sugar which has been soaked in the liquid, stir it into your glass and then douse in water – and one can see why the drink holds such a fascination. And yet it is worth remembering that absinthe was invented by Henri Louis Pernod – and that taste-wise there is little to distinguish it from the pastis which bears Pernod's name or green chartreuse.

Yet I cannot wholly accept that the drink's distinctiveness is solely attributable to its historic notoriety. I can testify that absinthe does have a particular effect on the imagination (not least for the hangovers – like having your brain stem severed, according to one account. That's downplaying it). It's nickname - La Fée Verte, the green fairy – was well earned. Moreover, for the purposes of Trollied Tuesday, in which we scorn the authoritarian bullying which will insist on making us virtuous whether or not we wish it, I cannot think of a more fitting drink.

It may be that common wisdom is correct in this case and that absinthe's special nature is attributable to its decadent history and the fact that it contains Wormwood – or Artemisia absinthium – a substance which has the almost irresistible combination of being dangerous, hallucinogenic,* and containing Biblical, diabolical resonances – "And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter".

Perhaps the secret to the drink lies in its Satanic majesty. To borrow the words of one abinsthe-drinking poet.

Toi qui, magiquement, assouplis les vieux os
De l'ivrogne attardé foulé par les chevaux...

Toi qui, pour consoler l'homme frêle qui souffre,
Nous appris à mêler le salpêtre et le soufre,

Or: Better to drain in Hell than serve in Heav'n.

However, if the ritual of sugar and fire does not appeal, I suggest you follow Ernest Hemmingway's example and mix a dash of absinthe with a bottle of champagne for a Death in the Afternoon. (An homage, of course, to this).

The other good advice I can give you is: don't mix homemade Ukrainian vodka and absinthe. It will not end well.

*Although the link I've provided here does point out that the proportions of alcohol to Wormwood mean that the alcohol will have much more effect.



Blogger Glamourpuss said...

I was once tricked into chinning shots of Absinthe - it wasn't pretty, or clever, but by all accounts, it was most amusing. I've been wary of the stuff since, but I like the sound of that Champagne cocktail - I may even eschew the French 75 for once and try one.


10:42 am  
Blogger dominic said...

and of course the Ukrainian word for "wormwood" is, as you are well aware,..."Chernobyl".

This gave apocalyptic Orthodox Christian types wild excitement in 1986.

Maybe one should mix it with Scotsmac instead.

12:58 am  

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