There it is, practically dead. The ignominious herb wormwood. A rush of adrenaline washes over me. The plant’s reputation is quite infamous. It contains thujone, which was once used in absinthe, but is banned today. With this plant, I could replicate the same drink that Van Gogh quaffed while hanging out in bars in Paris during the Belle Époque. Now that’s sure to impress my sister (an erudite chemistry professor with a penchant for history).
Ah, the thrill of science! I pinch off a leaf and I think of Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel prize – in chemistry no less. Both Curie and Van Gogh witnessed Paris under the throes of absinthe in the late 1800s.
As so many turn-of-the-century scientists did with their experiments, I give the object of my study a taste. Wormwood’s astringency dries my mouth with tannic bitterness. Yep, the Greeks picked a good name for it when they called it “absinthion,” which means “undrinkable.”
Marie Curie probably never drank absinthe, but her contemporary Oscar Wilde did. He even gave it the moniker “the green fairy.” Artists Picasso and Degas painted the drink into their artwork. Absinthe got the blame for Van Gogh cutting off his ear.
Fascinated, I wonder: “What would it be like to drop into Paris’ Belle Époque and sip the pre- banned recipe? To feel what some of these extraordinary artists and scientists felt?” Europe’s Golden Age was a wild time. Napoleon was dead. Jazz was being born. France erected the Eiffel Tower and produced the Statue of Liberty.
Through it all, there was absinthe, the mode of inebriation that seemed to be the undoing of so many.
Brewing up a batch
The original French version included licorice, fennel, parsley, chamomile, spinach, coriander, etc. I grab my tea box and rummage through my herb garden. I dump gin over the chopped artemisia absinthium and whir the blender. I gaze out the window. A gargoyle mounted on the building across the courtyard looks away from my tiny terraced garden where I planted my infamous wormwood shrub.
My mind goes back in time, to when the Vatelotte Nuns occupied my home. They probably planted wormwood too, since it was used back in the day to cure intestinal worms, headaches and fever. I pour my elixir into a bottle and wait six months for it to mature. As I venerate my creation, I wish my scientist sister could be here.
According to French philosopher Denis Diderot , I’ve checked the boxes for acquiring knowledge – observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. It’s time to test my theory. I louche my absinthe. The liquor transforms to a smoky shade of pearl. Ah, the satisfaction one finds in the art of experimentation!
I sip a dram.
Why did folks stop drinking wine and switch to this yucky drink? Well, because there was NO WINE. Absinthe was used to treat malaria by French soldiers (in 1830 when they invaded Algeria). Unfortunately, by the time troops got back to France, practically all the grape vines had been wiped out by phylloxera. With little to no wine left, the populous used absinthe and even created a ritual called “the green hour,” kind of like our happy hour today, which started at 5 p.m. It’s said to have been so prevalent that you could smell absinthe in the street (not unlike the bars on Bourbon Street in New Orleans today).
After one glass, I feel a change. It’s my green hour for sure. I rush for the toilet with explosive bowel syndrome. As I “redecorate the bathroom,” I gain a deeper understanding of why wormwood was used as a Medieval cure for intestinal worms. It may not kill worms per se, but it probably “eliminates” them from your system with explosive diarrhea.
Absinthe inventor Henri-Louis Pernod probably never imagined that the green hour would get so out of hand.
In the 1900s, absinthe had taken such a toll on the population through rampant inebriation that the government finally banned it. The toll it has taken on me with a night of gut-wrenching stomach cramps leads me to dump this horrible hooch down the toilet. The only person I can relate to from the Belle Époque is Marie Curie, who although she was not an absinthe drinker, also unwittingly exposed herself to dangers while executing her experiments.
I suppose it isn’t sound judgment to take a method and try it on oneself. I failed. I admit it candidly. Such is life. In order to continue creating, we have to accept that not every experiment is going to be successful.
I suppose I have something in common with yet another Belle Époque figure, Charles Darwin, who famously said: “I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.”
From here on out I am sticking to the store-bought absinthe.
It’s much more palatable, especially in the following cocktails:
• Maiden Blush combines absinthe, bitters, red wine and champagne. See the recipe here.
• Tremblement de Terre, made from absinthe and cognac. See the recipe here.
Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in France where she enjoys visiting former French speaking colonies and discussing history with the locals.