Thursday, June 4, 2015

Paris in the Spring 2; Absinthe, have you met the Green Fairy?

La Fee Verte', or the Green Fairy is associated with Absinthe.  In the late nineteenth century, in Paris, artists, poets, musicians and writers were known to chase the Green Fairy to gain inspiration. She was their muse, their goddess, whom they believed imbued man with increased creativity if they drank her special cocktail--Absinthe! Writers, Poets and intellectuals hailed her as the reason for their ability to produce great art and literature. Men drank the potion with a near religious fervor to try to entice the Green Fairy to pay them a visit and give them the talent they sought.

The depiction below shows it diluted with water. Some drank it straight up, resulting in a deep green drink.

Van Gogh's Glass of Absinthe and Carafe

The time between five o'clock and seven o'clock in the evening was called the Green Hour, or l'heure verte. It is said that the smell of Absinthe was carried on the early evening air in the Paris boulevards. Sounds exciting to me, to stroll the boulevards in the evening and meet the artists we all adore today, back when they were struggling to gain recognition in the art world. Can you imagine sitting down to a glass of Absinthe with Van Gogh or Toulouse Lautrec!

Absinthe Drinkers, by Degas

The Legend of Absinthe: 

According to the book Absinthe: a Cultural History by Phil Baker, legend says that "Absinthe as it's known today appeared at the end of the 18th century, around 1792. Dr. Pierre Ordinaire was fleeing Paris during French Revolution, and settled in a Swiss village of Couret. He supposedly found it growing wild and cooked up his own recipe for the drink. When he died in 1821, his highly alcoholic concoction was already known as La Fee' Verte, and regarded by locals as a tonic." page 105

The 'real' story, according to Baker, goes like this:  The Henriod sisters were were already making Absinthe before Dr. Ordinaire arrived in the Alps region. A Major Dublied discovered the product, bought the recipe from the sisters Henriod, and started manufacturing it himself. Dublied moved his production company from Switzerland to France to save on import duties. He set up the Absinthe factory in Pontarlier, near the Swiss border. His daughter married a man named Henri-Louis Pernod in 1797, and the Pernod Fils brand of Absinthe was born.

A Writer's Paradise! 

When researching Some Enchanted Dream, I took the legend of how Absinthe was discovered, and the belief in the Green Fairy and ran with it, using it as a plot point. That's what writers like to do, take a legend and create a story around it. In Some Enchanted Dream, the Green Fairy, Artemisia, married a man escaping the French Revolution (fictional person, not Dr. Ordinaire), and gave him the recipe for Absinthe. He then imprisoned her in a garden, and produced the magic drink that inspired artists and poets. He died, leaving her stranded in her garden prison on his estate for several decades. Tara, my heroine, is also of the Fey race. She hears Artemisia reaching out to her in her dreams begging for aid in gaining her freedom.

What's the stuff made of, Really? 

Absinthe is made from an herb, wormwood, also known as Artemisia Absinthium, hence the name Absinthe.  The recipe typically is made from steeping various herbs in alcohol overnight--wormwood, anise, fennel and sometimes lemon balm. This mix is further boiled to produce the distillate of alcohol to combine with steam distilled terpenoids from the herbs. For more refinement, more herbs could be added like hyssop and petite absinthe (Artemisia Pontica).  Recipes varied, but the main kick was the wormwood steeped in Alcohol. It's not fermented like whiskey or brandy, instead, it's made quickly through steeping and steaming for refinement. Even so, Pernod Absinthe was 60% alcohol, so it was literally 120 proof, twice the strength of whiskey. The idea was to just have one glass in the evening.

It was the drink in Montmartre during the 1880's up through the early 20th century. Later, as the effects of too much wormwood ingestion via Absinthe became known, France and other countries started to restrict it's use and to ban it.  Others embraced it as a tonic for melancholy and as a mood enhancer.  Either way, it is a mysterious green liquid that can bring on visions and dreams, also known as The Green Eyed Muse. It is described as being the genius of those didn't have any genius, but the death of any real genius for those who did (possess genius).

Some drank it diluted, as I mentioned above, and it became fashionable later to also use an Absinthe spoon and light a cube of sugar aflame over the glass and let it drip into the drink. My husband and I have enjoyed a glass of Absinthe on many occasions with friends or just the two of us. I do admit to feeling a bit of a creative buzz from it. Not drunk, just mind kind of expanded and serene.  I see why the famous artists and writers sought the Green Muse!

Today, you can buy various brands of Absinthe again. Some are available for purchase in Europe via the internet, and some brands, like Lucid, can be bought here in the United States. The absinthe for sale in this century is not a true Absinthe as the old artists drank. It's been a little toned down to protect consumers.  Some people speculate that Absinthe was responsible for driving Van Gogh mad, and also Henri Toulouse Lautrec. Both spent time in mental institutions. Van Gogh killed himself after being released from one, and Toulouse Lautrec died in one.  I'm not sure if this is true or more urban legend, but some believe the heavy use of the drink can cause depravity and madness.

English writer H.P. Hugh called Absinthe a "Deadly Opal Drink"

And yet, by these labels, you don't get that idea about the vibrant green drink, do you.

Here is a youtube video of Johnny Depp, in From Hell, drinking Absinthe, using the popular method of sugar cube and flame.  It's a wonderful video with vocals by OnlyMandy87 singing Alice Cooper's classic song "Poison".  From Hell depicts the time of Jack the Ripper, circa 1889 in London, not Paris. Even so, you can see that Absinthe was a popular drink in not just France at this time, as Oscar Wilde and many other great English writers imbibed in the brew as well. It was a popular drink for those suffering melancholy or trying to forget their pain as well. But hell, I'm just a huge Johnny Depp fan, so hence the video....... enjoy.

Next Time: Those wonderful night clubs in Montmartre and Paris--the Moulin Galette, Moulin Rouge, and more!

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