Wednesday, April 8, 2009

the green fairy

i apologize for how...affected...this next sentence sounds. a few years ago while i was studying in prague, i encountered absinthe for the first time. and when i say "encountered", i mean saw it in the real world, not a book or movie. i have to admit, i completely wussed out and did not try it. the tales of the green fairy and madness were enough to quell my thirsty adventurism.

i kind of forgot about it until i saw "green fairy tales" in gourmet this month, which basically says the reports of hallucinations, etc, are greatly exaggerated. first created by pierre ordinaire (which sounds like a made-up name, but is actually real) in the late 18th century, absinthe came into vogue in france after phylloxera knocked out wine as a competitor. distilled from wormwood, absinthe contains thujone and 60-70% alcohol.
thujone is thought to be the cause of "absinthism", a condition characterized by hallucinations, sleeplessness, and convulsions, which led to the ban on absinthe in the early 20th century.
Dirk W. Lachenmeier (et al) apparently has looked into the toxicity of thujone quite extensively, since most of the scientific literature i found was authored by him. in one publication from 2006, absinthe was prepared according to traditional recipes to test the thujone concentrations. they found that the preparations did not contain levels of thujone above the current legal limit of 35 mg/L. it is thought that absinthism was actually caused by adulteration of absinthe with toxic plants such as sweet calamus or tansy. adulteration with antimony and copper sulfate is also a possibility, or it could have been good old fashioned chronic alcohol intoxication. also, the hypothesis that the structural similarity between thujone and thc caused stimulation of the same receptors in the central nervous system proved erroneous after experimentation.

wormwood has a very interesting history, insanity and cut-off ears aside. medical use of wormwood can be dated back to an egyptian document from 1552 bc. the name "wormwood" is derived from its anthelmintic properties. pythagoras recommended wine-soaked wormwood leaves to alleviate labor pains and hippocrates used wormwood extracts for treating menstrual pain and rheumatism. shakespeare even mentions it in romeo and juliet (act I, scene 3) "for i had then laid wormwood to my dug, sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall... but, as I said, when it did taste the wormwood on the nipple of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool, to see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!". yeah, we're talking about weaning.
during the french conquest of algeria (1830-1847), soldiers were given wormwood to prevent parasites and fevers. on their return to france, the soldiers discovered absinthe to be a tasty substitute.

previous to the ban, absinthe was defined by swiss law to be "every spirit drink, without regard to its method of production, that contains aromatic compounds of wormwood herb in combination with other aromatic compounds derived from plants such as anise and fennel". today's recipes are similar.

so now i am even more curious. and less afraid. an absinthe cocktail seems mysterious and intriguing, i won't pass it up next time.

for more complete info, look here.


Veggie Option said...

We should meet up for drinks at the Crazy Fox in Newport, one of the few places around that serves Absinthe.

I like the taste, which is similar to black licorice, but it's not everyone's cuppa.

k said...

veggie- totally on board with that! i had read they often use anise or fennel in the preparation. i'm imaging green jagermeister...

CK Dexter said...

The quality and taste of absinthe varies wildly, so don't judge all absinthe according to any one try. The best ones have a very nuanced, complex herbal flavor -- but these are also quite expensive and harder to find.

A decent mid-range absinthe, called Lucid, is available at many US liquor stores, and is worth a try as a basic introduction to the drink. ( Like most mid to low range absinthes, it is too heavy on the anise base (which many compare to the taste of black licorice) and lacks the complexity of a traditional high quality absinthe. But it is the real thing, and does have hints of other herbal flavors and a bit more balance--it's not overpowering in the anise.

A slightly better absinthe from Switzerland, called Kubler, is also sometimes found on US liquor shelves, but it's a bit harder to find, though can be ordered from online US liquor stores.

The best source of info about the history of absinthe, the myths and falsehoods surrounding it, and guides to modern brands can be found here:

k said...

ck dexter - thanks for the awesome information!! and p.s.: is your name an allusion to philadelphia story?

CK Dexter said...

You're very welcome. As for your guess about the name: you have unexpected depth!