By Franz Scheurer
Absinthe (Absynthe), a spirit clouded in myth, containing hallucinogenic Thujones and infamous through tales of abortion and malformed children, it nevertheless was the drink of choice for Hippocrates, Picasso, Pythagoras, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemmingway as well as Baudelaire, Van Gogh and the unforgettable Toulouse Lautrec.
So, what exactly is Absinthe?
Absinthe, or wormwood, is an aromatic plant containing an alkaloid known since ancient times for its properties as a tonic and febrifuge. In the Middle Ages the plant was used to make medicinal drinks. The plant is a perennial weed and grows to about 1m high. The stalk is of a pale green, tough, upright and divided wildly into many branches. The leaves are a pale green on both sides, divided into a multitude of parts and they feel soft to the touch, but make the fingers bitter. The flowers are very numerous, small, chaffy, hang down and of a pale olive colour at first, but after standing a while, they turn brown. Leaves are commonly used by herbalists and so are the flower tops. The roots are used of the Common Broad-leaved Wormwood, a stouter and much hardier variety. Wormwood is used for a weak stomach and against gout and a poultice of wormwood root is said to draw out back-pain. Wormwood is poisonous so it has to be handled with care and it is the bitterest substance known to man.
The liqueur Absinthe was first made commercially by H.L. Pernod in 1797. Absinthe is correctly served poured over a lump of sugar resting on a flat spoon with holes at the edge of the glass. It can be consumed pure, with a dash of water or with ice. If water or ice is used, it must be added after the sugar and the Absinthe and if both are used, the order is ice first, water second.
The “green Muse” as poets called it, became very popular at the end of the 19th Century, but it was in fact a powerful drug having serious effect on the nervous system, and its manufacture and sale was prohibited by law on 16th March 1915. Pernod and the various forms of Pastis are now flavoured with aniseed. In the Grand Dictionaire de Cuisine, Alexander Dumas relates the following anecdote:
“De Musset’s fatal attraction to absinthe, which incidentally perhaps gave his poetry its bitter flavour, caused the Académie to make a modest pun. De Musset was in fact missing many of the sittings of this august body, aware that he was in no state to attend. One day one of the distinguished forty members said to another: “Really, do you not think that De Musset absents himself rather too often?” “You mean that he absinthes himself rather too often” was the quick reply.
Absinthe remains banned from manufacture and sale around the world, with the exception of Austria and Ireland, but remains hard to track down. Some countries now allow manufacture if the percentage of wormwood used is less than 4% and some of these ‘toned down versions’ are now available in the trendier bars in Australia. (They do, however, taste and look nothing like the real thing)
The poisonously green liquid changes to an opaque white moonstone look-alike in the glass once you add a little water and ice. The flavour is Pastis-like with a subtle, bitter overtone. It is thoroughly different from any other drink and if you have a chance to try it, do. A little goes a long way (60% proof) and it will not do you any harm.
Real Absinthe can be purchased from: Gerry’s Getränke & Gusto, A1120 Vienna, Tel: + 43 1 815 7300 or from Doris Kleinberger at the Alt Wiener Schnapps Museum, Vienna, Austria, Tel.: +43 1 815 7300
John Cunnington of “The Art of Wine & Food” at 80 Queen Street, Woollahra, stocks a fabulous collection of Absinthe spoons. For more information ring John on: 02 9363 2817
Some of the more common (and perfectly legal) Pastis, based on liquorice and anis instead of wormwood, are Pernod, from the North of France, and Ricard, Du Bois, Pastis 51, Prado and Berger, all known as Pastis de Marseille from the Southwest of France.