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Drink Food

Feverish Fairy

Hemingway beheld horses, Wilde saw tulips growing in the sawdust, but absinthe left Jeremy Clarke lucid and inspired

30 June 2011

12:00 AM

30 June 2011

12:00 AM

No prizes for guessing who wrote this, or what the drink is:

‘There was very little left of it [in his hipflask] and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in the cafés, of all the chestnut trees that would be in bloom now in this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of bookshops, and kiosks, and of galleries, and of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of Foyet’s old hotel, and of being able to relax and read in the evening, of all the old things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue numbing, brain warming, stomach warming, idea changing liquid alchemy.’

When Ernest Hemingway (the sentence is from For Whom the Bell Tolls) and Hadley crossed the Atlantic in 1921, absinthe had been banned in France for six years. The ban was the result of lobbying from a jealous wine industry and a moral panic based on absinthe’s reputation as a hallucinogenic. La Fée Verte (the Green Fairy) has always been legally available in Spain, however, which was where Hemingway later prosecuted his love affair with the stuff.

But was absinthe hallucinogenic? Here’s Oscar Wilde on the subject:

Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking I was clearheaded and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust. The most wonderful flowers — tulips, lilies and roses — sprang up and made a garden of the café. ‘Don’t you see them?’ I said to him. ‘But Monsieur, there is nothing there.’

Last month, France’s teetotal President Sarkozy announced the lifting of the ban after nearly a century. It’s always splendid when a small measure of personal liberty that has been peremptorily removed is suddenly and unexpectedly handed back. But searching the web for somewhere to place my order, I was surprised to learn that authentic, artisanal, pre-ban recipe French absinthe intended for the export market has been manufactured in France for more than a decade: first by La Fée, a British company, then with French distillers following suit. More surprising still, I learned that these pre-ban French recipe absinthes are and have been easily obtainable because the legendary tipple has never been banned over here either.

Last Bank Holiday weekend I took a bottle of French made pre-ban recipe absinthe round to Sharon’s house. The line-up around the kitchen table was as follows: Sharon, Sharon’s brother, Sharon’s father, Sharon’s brother’s girlfriend, and me. It was a Sunday evening. Sharon was feeling crapulent. Everyone was yawning. I placed before us a bottle of Grande Absinte, 69% ABV, made with star anise, wormwood, mugwort and lemon balm.

Sharon’s brother drank the first glass. He plays rugby. In spite of my entreaties to keep things civilised and responsible, he downed half a tumbler neat. His head tilted slowly back to catch the dregs, then catapulted forward, and he sat with his chin on his chest, paralysed, and we all thought that was the end of him.

But after about half a minute he lifted his head, and with tears standing out in his eyes pronounced it ‘not bad’. The rest of us took ours in the more traditional, sedate manner, diluted with water trickled over a sugar lump suspended above the glass on a perforated absinthe spoon.

We had a wonderful, argumentative and occasionally dramatic evening. After about three glasses each, Sharon’s dog Django, a Weimaraner, came charging into the kitchen and tried to kill Sharon’s brother’s dog, a boxer called Watson, and it took all five of us to prise them apart. ‘He never liked Boxson,’ was the sad verdict of Sharon’s dad. It was the last thing he said before he passed out in his chair, toppling over and falling to the floor with a tremendous crash, and we all had to look lively again, grab hold of a limb each and carry him to the nearest sofa.

After about glass number four everyone was standing up and shouting at one another and Sharon was crying, and I can remember noting with surprise a feeling of utter peace, clarity and self-possession, as though my mind wasn’t impaired by the alcohol in the slightest, rather that I was at my alert and perceptive best. Next morning, with this feeling of clarity and imperturbability still on me, I stepped on something hard and sharp. It was the upper set of Sharon’s dad’s false teeth lying abandoned on the living room carpet.

Afterwards I rang George Rowley, managing director of La Fée absinthe. We hadn’t seen tulips, I said, nor carthorses on boulevards. I had however attained an unusual mental clarity, and I had found it very agreeable. I was absolutely converted, I said. But how far should I attribute the unusual clarity I experienced to the wormwood?

Mr Rowley said that he thought that in any discussion of absinthe’s singular effects, ‘wormwood is a red herring’. He thought them more likely due to a combination of factors, including the exceptionally high alcohol content, the dilating effect of anise on the capillaries, the psychoactive effect of all the herbs, not just the wormwood, and perhaps most importantly the anticipation of the drinker as the drink is prepared.

It’s true. That slowly passing minute, as the cold water trickles on to the sugar cube, and the sweetness dribbles down through the perforations in the absinthe spoon, turning the clear, emerald spirit to an opaque milky whiteness, as though by sacramental magic, does raise expectations — to a fever pitch, if you are easy prey to the absurdities thrown up by a romantic imagination.

‘Idea changing, liquid alchemy,’ said old Ernesto, via his fictional hero Robert Jordan. I’m not sure about that. I’ll let you know. But a weird clarity of mind that seems the very opposite of drunkenness — that I can vouch for.

Jeremy Is Currently Applying For An Absinthe Franchise.

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