Wormwood dreams

Henri unleashes his inner green fairy

Preparing absinthe with a fiery sugar cube.

Preparing absinthe with a fiery sugar cube.

Photo by ovro Rumiha

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.

Absinthe (or absinth) is a deep-green or blue-green spirit traditionally made from wormwood, anise and fennel. 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…). Traditional preparation involves pouring water over a sugar cube, through a slotted spoon, and into a glass with absinthe (while the more modern “bohemian” method involves soaking the sugar cube in absinthe and lighting it on fire).

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. Banned in the U.S. in 1912 and in France in 1915, absinthe is once again legal and being produced in both countries and elsewhere in Europe, and proliferation of imported (e.g., the classic Pernod from France) and boutique homegrown brands (St. George out of Alameda) has led to an absinthe renaissance in America.

As with other cocktails, proper culinary accoutrements are critical to fully enjoying absinthe. The following recipes for absinthe pairings are from Betina Wittels and Robert Hermesch’s 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. Reheat shrimp by sautéing 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 … and absinthe!