The return of The Green Fairy
Absinthe, dubbed 'The Green Fairy', became the cult drink – and the scourge – of artists at the turn of the 20th century. Its violent effects led it to be banned in France. But after much lobbying, the pungent drink has been allowed back. Philippe Zygel reports from eastern France where the toxic wormwood plant is once again being harvested.
The workers were sitting round tables in the middle of a green field next to a minor road near Pontarlier, in France's Franche-Comté region close to the border with Switzerland.
"We turned out to help with the harvest because it takes us back to the time of our grandparents," said Denise, a smiling 72-year-old pensioner, as she threw the aromatic plants into a bin.
Ignacio, a 51-year-old unemployed watchmaker, is also busy. "Just smell that. It's almost like having a glass of absinthe in front of you," he exclaimed, adding that he could drink a glassful of the emerald-green liqueur right there and then.
Van Gogh is said to have lopped off his ear after drinking the emerald elixir, which many poets, authors and painters indulged in imbibing to spark their creative energies.
Its high alcohol content and toxic ingredients once cut swathes through the painters and writers and much of fashionable society in Paris of la Belle Epoque, leading to its prohibition. But now a new, weaker version has been authorised.
The liqueur was banned in 1914 and was re-legalised only in 1998 by a French government decree authorising absinthe-based drinks containing less than ten milligrams per litre of the toxin thuyone.
The drink is made from wormwood and a number of other herbs and roots.
As part of its rehabilitation, absinthe has been harvested in the ancestral way in its traditional home of Pontarlier in a region that counted about 30 distilleries at the turn of the last century.
The downy plants this year grew to only about half of the expected 80 centimetres (31 inches). Growth was stunted by rainy weather.
Francois Guy, who inherited the family distillery founded in 1890, was assisted by his childhood friend Thierry Charmier, a local farmer and absinthe fan.
"We are using the techniques of the times, with added information found in museums or provided by Swiss farmers who cultivated the plant for medicinal purposes right into the 1940s," said Charmier.
"The only difference is that in the old days, the bundles of absinthe were dried in the sun and transported on oxen-drawn carts," he added.
Francois Guy said that the rainy weather had affected only the quantity of the harvest and not its quality. He was counting on a maximum output of 4,000 litres of liqueur.
The future drink, whose name is being kept secret, will have an alcohol content limited to 45 degrees, in the hope that nobody ends up like Van Gogh!
Absinthe related web sites:
http://www.absinth.com/ – absinth.com e-shop
http://itsa.ucsf.edu/~mbagg/roughabsinthefaq.html#INTRO – history of absinthe