Thursday, May 27, 2010

"La Fée Verte"

I'm about to embark on an adventure at the Liquoristerie de Provence in the French town of Aix en Provence. Telling people that I'm interning at an absinthe distillery this summer always engenders somewhat of an incredulous facial expression, followed immediately by: "How did you get that job?!" And indefinitely, I have to admit that my mom, Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farm, helped me get it.

I know, most parents usually refrain from setting their kids up to work with hallucinogenic beverages, but let's just say she's a little bit more "open minded" than most parents. She has connections with foodie culture through her contract growing vegetables for the brilliant head chef of Manresa Restaurant, David Kinch. In fact, I wasn't sure if I would start this blog until his girlfriend, the lovely Pim Techamuanvivit, encouraged me to chronicle this upcoming experience. I have to say that I'm envious of her hard work and dedication to her food and culture blog, Chez Pim.

To start things off, I thought I'd begin this blog with a post about the history of absinthe.

Wormwood infused beverages dates back to early civilization. A reference to wormwood appears in a 16th century BCE Egyptian text, the Ebers Papyrus. Around the same time the Chinese also used the plant for its believed medicinal properties. Evidence exists that the Greeks and Romans used a wormwood-flavored wine for a digestion aid.

Even though wormwood has a long history, the drink known today as absinthe (basically a spirit distilled with star anise and grande absinthe) was first brewed in the late 18th century by the Henriod Damsels of Val de Travers in Switzerland. It was prescribed widely by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, who regarded the drink as an all-purpose remedy. After Ordinaire's death, Major Dubeid bought the recipe and set up the first absinthe distillery in 1797, located in Couvet, Switzerland, with his son Marcellin and son-in-law Henry-Louis Pernod. Eight years later, they opened another distillery in Pontarilier, France and called the company Maison Pernod Fils.

The drink grew in popularity over the 19th century, especially in the 1830s and 40s, when French troops in Africa used it for purifying water to prevent dysentery as well as for malaria treatment. They returned to France with a taste for the bitter beverage, and working-class people along with artists developed a liking for the drink. It quickly became vogue for bourgeoisie to indulge in "La Fée Verte" and absinthe was sold throughout bistros, cafés, and cabarets, becoming so popular that by the 1860s, 5 PM was dubbed "l'heure verte."

Many artists and writers (such as Paul Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Arthur Rimbaud) found inspiration in their hours of intoxication with the Green Fairy, popularizing the drink among the artistic community. Possibly because of their eccentric natures which were attributed to the effects of thujone–thought to be the hallucinogenic agent in absinthe–the drink began receiving negative attention from proponents of the temperance movement. In 1914 thujone-containing spirits were banned in France, although in some other European countries, such as Spain, it was never made illegal.

In the 1990s a revival of absinthe took place due to its importation by BHH Spirits, a British company, who bought and sold a second-rate absinthe from the Czech Republic. Increasing popularity resulted in France's Fraud Control Commission eventually allowing the label "made with absinthe plants" on such products. Pascal Rolland and Marc Villacèque of the Liquoristerie of Provence aim to revive the first-rate quality absinthe praised by the intellectuals of the 19th century. Their product, Versinthe, uses "nearly 25 plant macerations and distillates" to produce a quality of flavor rivaling the artisan brands of the past. First introduced in 1999, it has caused a sensation throughout the liquor community, and has garnered winning places in a number of tasting competitions.

Well, I think I've written a good introduction here, but I still have more to come. I'm hoping to go into the scientific aspect of absinthe, and to discuss the theories of its method of intoxication (there is still debate over the active chemical compound in wormwood). For now, I'll leave it here, but make sure to follow me for more updates, and I'll be sure to keep everyone posted. Until next time, bonne journée!