In search of the Green Fairy
A new book reminds Henri of the pleasures of absinthe
Henri knew even as a boy that he was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Often, I would stay up late in my father’s study, reading the French symbolist poets and poring over books about the impressionist painters, absolutely mesmerized by the throbbing storms of words and swirling light and color.
I’d imagine myself transported back to fin de siècle Paris, where I’d join Rimbaud and Manet at the Moulin Rouge and then stay up through the night with them, our modern little heads spinning as music from gypsy violins whorled out of the shadows, punctuating our learned commentary on world affairs.
Many years later, I found myself in Barcelona’s Barrio Chino one dark night, the narrow cobblestone streets wet with rain. As I wandered without direction, I began to hear guitar music filtering through the mist, and I followed it into a dimly lit bar, at the back of which sat a young man in a black shirt and white suspenders playing gypsy jazz on old black guitar. I learned later that he was a Joyce scholar from California who had abandoned academia for a life playing Django Reinhardt tunes in absinthe bars. That night I had my first—and not last—taste of absinthe, or the Green Fairy.
So it was with great pleasure that I recently came across a new book, Absinthe: Sip of Seduction, by Betina J. Wittels and Robert Hermesch. Attractively illustrated with vintage posters, postcards, photos of turn-of-the-century Paris, as well as of absinthe advocates—from Oscar Wilde to Johnny Depp—Absinthe brims with both history and personal anecdote, including Wittels’ story of her first encounter with the drink and her continuing quest for more. The book also includes a chapter that discusses specific brands currently made around the world.
Absinthe (or absinth) is a deep-green or blue-green anise-based liqueur distilled in wormwood. Its effects are variously described. Some say it provides pure clarity of mind and connections to the Muses, while others swear it leads one headlong into the depths of depravity and insanity. Many also consider it habit forming if not addictive and that it’s an aphrodisiac (they say absinthe makes the heart grow fonder…). Traditionally, it is poured over a sugar cube, through a slotted spoon, and into a specialized glass.
Absinthe was immensely popular in the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe, particularly in bohemian Paris. At the same time, it was very popular in New Orleans, especially in the bordellos and jazz clubs of the French Quarter (where The Old Absinthe House Bar still exists). Legally banned in the United States in 1912 and in France in 1915, absinthe is again being made in Europe, most notably in Spain, France, and the Czech Republic, and, thanks to absinthe’s availability on the Internet, the drink is enjoying a worldwide revival, with absinthe bars recently opening in Brazil, Germany, and Holland. Additionally, there’s a thriving underground absinthe scene in New York City—it is still illegal to import absinthe into the states.
As with other cocktails, proper culinary accoutrements are critical to fully enjoying absinthe.
The following recipes are from Absinthe: Sip of Seduction, though slightly modified.
Italian Canapé with Absinthe Sauce and Shrimp
Six to eight slices bread
1/4 to 1/2 lb. small bay shrimp (precooked)
1 cup mayonnaise or aioli
2 tablespoons tomato sauce
1 teaspoon absinthe
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon curry
Cut the bread into triangles and toast lightly. Heat the shrimp (microwave or, better, sauté in splash of olive oil). Mix other ingredients together. Spread the sauce on the toast and top each with a shrimp or two.
Baci of Coconut
1/2 cup sugar
1 3/4 cup minced coconut
2 egg whites
Juice from half a lemon
Beat egg whites with sugar and lemon into soft cream. Mix in coconut. Pour into small cake pan and bake at 350 degrees until light brown. Serve with almond- or lemon-flavored cookies.