Guilty Pleasures

Absinthe: the tarts' tipple

by Caroline Harris


I am the Green Fairy
My robe is the colour of despair
I have nothing in common with the fairies of the past
What I need is blood, red and hot, the palpitating flesh of my victims
Alone, I will kill France, the Present is dead, Vive the future.
But me, I kill the future and in the family I destroy the love of country, courage, honour,
I am the purveyor of hell, penitentiaries, hospitals.
Who am I finally? I am the instigator of crime
I am ruin and sorrow
I am shame
I am dishonour
I am death
I am absinthe*

I haven't drunk enough absinthe yet. Not enough to truly test whether the Green Fairy -- "La Fée Verte", as it became known in 19th-century France -- is a psychoactive that mucks with your mind. And certainly not sufficient to find out if it does in fact produce a peculiar kind of chronic addiction, or leads to psychotic behaviour, epileptic fits or renal failure.

Absinthe is a bright green spirit, slightly oily in texture, made from the wormwood plant (Artemisia absinthium) and there is a bottle of it in my fridge. Neat, it numbs the tongue and throat, tasting of bitter orange pith and anise; it seems to evaporate in the mouth -- not surprising, given its high alcohol content (70 per cent or so). When water is added it turns opalescent -- creamy-white with a hint of Jekyll and Hyde chemistry-set green.

It is fairly easily available in Britain now, from bars and import companies, and is enjoying a new voguishness, with absinthe cocktails and absinthe club nights. It can also be found in Spain and the Czech Republic, where two of the main brands (the Ibizan Mari Mayans and Hill's Absinthe) originate from.

The perfect tipple for tarts of the noir persuasion? Certainly the right kind of mythology is there. For a start, it's banned in the States, so Americans with the habit have to resort to smuggling, homebrew (yes, there are recipes on the web) or transatlantic travel.

Second, it is surrounded with the kind of interesting misinformation and dodgy "scientific" claims that accompany most illegal mind-altering substances. It was demonised in France and banned there in 1915 after absinthe use became widespread; there is disagreement on its toxic effects and whether they are due to anything other than its alcohol content or chemicals that were added to inferior absinthe to turn it the required colour; and no one, it seems, is quite sure about what its hallucination-inducing properties might be caused by.

The clincher, though, is that boy bohemians, from Verlaine and Van Gogh to Rimbaud, Wilde, Picasso and, more recently, Hemingway, have waxed lyrical about or thrown despairing curses on the Green Fairy. So it's about time the girls got more of a look-in than Edgar Degas's portrait of a sad-shouldered woman -- unnamed -- absinthe drinker.

I keep meaning to throw an absinthe party -- try it out on my friends. But somehow the bottle stays jealously guarded, next to the less precious Cuervo, and the times I want to drink it are late in the evening, when I need to forget, when there's some other place or person I want to be. Maybe the green spirit is getting to me after all.

* This is apparently an anti-absinthe song from a 19th-century Temperance league, found at eabsinthe.com.


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