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A Taste of Switzerland: Absinthe Anyone?

Food, Things to Do, Travel Tips, What's New — By Sonja Holverson on February 19, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Although our thoughts immediately go back to the bohemia cultures and writers and artists of 19th France, absinthe, also known as “La Fée Verte” (The Green Fairy) was created in the Canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, notably in the Jura Mountains bordering France. Most of the production has been done in small quantities.

Absinthe glass and customary spoon: Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons by Eric Litton

The high alcohol content anise-flavored liquor is made from plants such as anise, fennel, flowers,and leaves of the medicinal plant called Artemisia Absinthium which we know as wormwood which is found in Switzerland.  Other herbs that have been known to be included are lemon balm angelica, dittany, coriander, juniper and nutmeg. The nickname Green Fairy comes from its color a pale green.

Chemist and absinthe expert, T.A. Breaux describes it as “a push-me, pull-you effect of the various herbs, some have a heightening effect while others have a lowering effect”. It gives the double impact of inebriation but with a heightened state of clarity.

Romanticized by many famous people in the 19th and early 20th century including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Édouard Manet,  Pablo Picasso, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire Paul Verlaine, Ernest Hemingway and the list goes on, absinthe is ever-present during this part of history and in the works of these creative people.

“L’Absinthe” by Edgar Degas 1876. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Practical uses were also found during this period of history and absinthe was given to French troops to prevent fever. Naturally, they acquired a taste for the “Green Fairy” and when they return home they also popularized the drink in bars bistros and cabarets. At first, the drink was expensive but as prices declined more French were drinking it to excess and experience addictive psychoactive reactions and opposition movements started scare campaigns that resulted in the ban of absinthe in 1914 in France.

Ironically Switzerland had already banned it in 1907 although the production went underground and home distiller produced the much sought-after liquor clandestinely in small quantities. In the US it was banned in 1912. By 1915 most European countries, except Britain where it was not popular, had made the production and the consumption of absinthe illegal.

In the mid 1990s the legal practices regarding absinthe were highly ambiguous. Drinking it was legal but producing it was illegal. Former French President Jacques Chirac drew criticism from his own citizen because he drank absinthe during a state visit to Switzerland in the late 1990s. President Chirac and I had something in common but no one really cared if I drank it! Anyway, it was difficult to get and you had to have friends the Canton of Neuchâtel.

With renewal of interest of producers and consumers, the Swiss Parliament lifted the 97 year old ban on the production, sales and consumption of absinthe in 2004. A French absinthe producer, Lucid, was the first absinthe producer to receive certification in France in 2007.

Other European countries followed and by 2008 there were nearly 200 brands of absinthe available in a dozen countries such as Switzerland, France, Spain and the Czech Republic.

In the US the first legal brand of absinthe was approved in 2007 called St. George Absinthe Verte, made in Northern California.

Kubler Swiss Absinthe: image courtesy of caskstore.com

While visiting Switzerland, some of you may want to taste this once forbidden elixir. Kubler Absinthe was the first Swiss absinthe to become commercially available and has an excellent reputation for the highest quality of all international absinthe brands. They use only natural plants in accordance with local traditions, rather than extracts or oils that are used by some other European producers.

Another excellent Swiss brand is Absinthe Studer, made of distilled wormwood, a blend of 8 different secretly selected herbs, pure alcohol and fresh water from their own spring! The original recipe has been preserved and passed down from generation to generation despite the 97 years of legal issues.

But the Studer family is open to innovation and have collaborated with the famous “haute couturier” chocolatiers, the  Beschle family in Basel producing Studer’s Absinth filled milk chocolate pralines shaped in the form of the most famous Swiss Alp, the Matterhorn.

Beschle’s Studer Absinthe Swiss Collection: Image courtesy of Beschle

The country fair stand “Absintissimo” serving absinthe from the local producers of the region is always a highlight at the Fall Automanales Fair held in Geneva every November.

“Absintissimo”. Swiss Made The Green Fairy. Image courtesy of automanales.ch

So fascinating is the story of absinthe, that  this elixir is being used as the backdrop for a film currently being produced called “Les Absintheurs” (The Absinthe Drinkers) due in 2012. However, the plot is not about the drink, but rather the people in the famous era when the Green Fairy was a part of daily life in Paris. The story is about a young talented woman painter in an art scene dominated by men in 1889 (one year before van Gogh died). It takes places during this Impressionistic period of painting in the then decadent Montmartre neighborhood of Paris.

Enjoy your taste of the once forbidden Green Fairy while in Switzerland, but if you must go home via the United States Customs, keep in mind that despite the allowance of local production of absinthe in the US, it is prohibited to bring it through customs.

For more about Swiss culture and travel follow me on Twitter

Image in the upper right hand corner courtesy of absinthedrinkers.com

Tags: absinthe, Basel, France, Neuchâtel, Paris, Spain, Switzerland, wormwood, “Charles Baudelaire”, “Czech Republic”, “Edgar Degas”, “Édouard Manet”, “Ernest Hemingway”, “Green Fairy”, “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec”, “Jacques Chirac”, “Oscar Wilde”, “Pablo Picasso”, “Paul Verlaine”, “Vincent van Gogh”

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