Absinthe's Second Coming
The forbidden elixir of La Belle Epoque returns
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01
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Delahaye hung the museum's walls with Belle Epoque posters that trace the history of absinthe's rise and fall: the aperitif was developed in the Alps in the late eighteenth century, but first gained a popular following among French soldiers who used it to purify their drinking water during the African conquests of the 1840s. The officers' corps brought absinthe back to the boulevards of Paris. In Delahaye's museum, we see that over the next four decades, representations of the green spirit grew ever more voluptuous, with faces like Gibson Girls, but fewer clothes, and much more wanton eyes. By the 1860s, absinthe was the elixir of the elite. Yet, it was also one of the first great industrial intoxicants; very easy to make, in very great quantities, and after French winemakers were devastated by the phylloxera epidemic that killed the vineyards in the 1880s, down-market absinthes of dubious composition became the favorite mind-bender of the masses. By 1900, absinthe was clearly the national drink of France -- and Public Enemy No. 1 for the European temperance movement. Anti-absinthe campaigners blamed the drink for insanity, murder and epilepsy. French generals began to blame it for the pervasive moral decay and for their particular failure to beat the beer-drinking Prussians in the field. Delahaye displays these anti-absinthe caricatures and screeds alongside her collection of nubile absinthe pinups. And she has set up a bar, of course, with all the proper absinthe-drinking accoutrements, including a zinc counter and the classic tabletop ice water fountains to provide the perfect sugar-crumbling drip. All that is missing is absinthe itself.
For that, Delahaye says, you still have to go to Britain. "La Fée is only legal to export," she emphasizes. Disappointed, I ask if this French resurrection of absinthe is really a plot to poison British youth. She shrugged one of those conspiratorial French shrugs, and smiled mischievously. "Oh, no," she says. "Not at all."
Delahaye, with her medical and scientific background, is not one to dismiss the potentially noxious side effects of the green fairy. But, like most of the people who've studied the question in recent years, she's concluded that the most dangerous component of absinthe is the alcohol. Some of the herbal oils may also be carcinogenic or contribute to epileptic-type fits, she says, "but to consume enough to have an effect, you'd die long before of alcoholism." Nor does Delahaye believe there's much hope of hallucinatory experiences, even if alpha-thujone does share some molecular properties with THC, the active ingredient of marijuana. In fact, the alpha-thujone level in absinthe is regulated by the European Union, which permits 10 milligrams a liter, or almost three times La Fée's content of 3.4. "So," sighs Delahaye, "we have this absinthe that's made in France -- and to European standards -- but it can't actually be sold in France."
Now, this is a real shame. Absinthe is a drink that has geographical specificity, just as Orvieto's limpid wines need an Umbrian sunset for their full effect, or the great rums need Caribbean sands and ceiling fans. Absinthe, in Europe, seems to require the mirror-walled cafés of Paris or rustic French inns full of color-mad painters to achieve its full effect. (In America, you'd want to evoke the spirit of Baudelaire's idol, Edgar Allan Poe, in the old, Gothic South: perhaps in the redolent alleys of New Orleans; or on a plantation among the mottled shadows of a red sun glowing through the twisted branches of the live oaks at l'heure verte.) In sum, a certain threshold of decadence is required to make absinthe as truly delicious as it wants to be. And Auvers-sur-Oise, where hundreds of painters worked in the nineteenth century, would be a perfect place.
At the Auberge Ravoux, where van Gogh ended his life in 1890, owner Dominique-Charles Janssens understands well the special allure of absinthe. He serves a passable ersatz version in his restaurant, complete with the proper glasses and spoons. But for the full effect, one needs the real thing.
The ideal absinthe experience, I think, would be to welcome the arrival of the green hour at the zinc of Mme. Delahaye's establishment, temple that it is to la fée verte. Then, I'd wander the streets where Corot and Daubigny, Gauguin and van Gogh painted, and look out over the golden cornfields where the crows flew against an impossibly blue sky in the last week of van Gogh's life. And all the romance and intensity that was art, that was absinthe, in the summer of 1890 would come back to me. The sun would cast long shadows with that wonderfully clear light that brought the painters to Auvers, a place at once rural and civilized.
I'd stroll past the Gothic church, and farther down the wooden steps and cobblestones until I reached the Auberge Ravoux itself. I might take a fine meal in its restaurant, and drink a little more of the artist's poison, losing myself in an imagined past and a dreamed-of future. If you have seen Toulouse-Lautrec's pastel sketch of van Gogh drinking absinthe, it is easy to see him sitting here beside you. If you have seen van Gogh's own painting of a carafe and glass full of green opalescence, you feel it could be the same liquid on the table this evening. And then, after dinner, you might actually visit the bare gray room where van Gogh died, driven to despair not by absinthe, but by a world that utterly failed to understand his art. There is really nothing to see there, as Janssens himself will say, "but there is so much to feel"; so much, indeed, that the absinthe on one's lips would have a sacramental taste.
And maybe I did drink my first absinthe in Auvers-sur-Oise. Maybe I obtained a bottle from some English friends, and shared it with some of my French ones. Or maybe I took a bottle of La Fée to the United States, to a house among the live oaks and hanging moss of the South Carolina coast and spent evenings savoring its pleasures in the company of Low Country writers, poets and artists. Maybe I did all those things. But I couldn't really let on. Too many laws might have to be enforced, or changed, if that were so. And maybe it's better not to say in any case. Having savored many a glass of absinthe in the recent past, I've come to think that for one's experience of the drink to be truly great and wonderful, it needs, like the Emerald City, the lingering effect of mystery.
Christopher Dickey is Newsweek's Paris bureau chief and the author of Summer of Deliverance: A Memoir of Father and Son.
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