One of the things Mr. KitchenOperas and I like to do when we travel is pour over the recommendations in the Lonely Planet guide to wherever we’re visiting. In the Lonely Planet Paris City Guide, I found a brief blurb on an absinthe bar: La Fée Verte at 108 rue de la Roquette, in the 11th arrondissement. The guide mentioned good bistro food and a vast selection of absinthes — so it piqued our interest, and off we went on an afternoon absinthe adventure as a part of our honeymoon in Paris!
Absinthe is an anise-flavoured high-alcohol spirit made from a number of different botanicals: wormwood, fennel, and other herbs. Absinthe was favoured by 19th century Bohemian Parisian artists, including Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as by writers and musicians including Satie, Baudelaire, and Oscar Wilde (because drinking absinthe was cheaper than drinking wine!). Absinthe often has a green tint, and was historically called “La Fée Verte” – hence the name of the bar. Its hallucinogenic reputation comes from thujone, a chemical compound found in the wormwood (but in such trace amounts that it’s not possible to cause hallucinations).
If you’re interested in the history of absinthe, and a comparison of Czech, French and Swiss absinthes, I just finished reading a fascinating chapter about it in The Devil’s Picnic – Taras Grescoe. I heard about the book on an episode of The Next Chapter on CBC Radio, where Ing Wong-Ward said: “if you liked A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain, you’ll love The Devil’s Picnic“. I loved A Cook’s Tour, and so I thought that a food travel book by a Canadian author would hit the spot. I’m in the final chapters of the book, and have sucked up so much fascinating food (and sociopolitical) knowledge, that I’ve been talking about absinthe, stinky cheese, poppy seeds, and Norwegian moonshine to anyone who will listen.
But well before I knew anything at all about absinthe (I hadn’t even tasted it!), we settled in for an afternoon of absinthe at La Fée Verte.
We sat in the light and airy corner bar, and ordered some lunch to prepare our bellies.
I had gazpacho, with lovely chunks of fresh tomatoes — when in Paris in a heat wave, eat gazpacho!
And for the gluten-eaters there was a stunning vegetable mille-feuille with thinner-than-paper sheets of pastry sandwiching perfectly ripe summer tomatoes, salty feta, basil pesto, and briny green and black olives with fruity olive oil.
Once sated, it was time to decide on an absinthe. And ohhhh was it a tough choice — the menu had 14 different options, with descriptions of the herbs and flavours found in each. I finally settled on the Absinthe Pernod 68° — a French absinthe made by Pernod, and inspired by the original Pernod absinthe recipe. It has a strong anise-flavour (similar to black liquorice) and 68% alcohol. Mr. KitchenOperas chose the Esprit d’Edouard 72° – a replica of the historical Edouard Pernod absinthe. It was more floral and delicate than the Absinthe Pernod 68°.
Our glasses of absinthe arrived, along with all of the necessary paraphernalia. Absinthe is all about the ritual, and we had great fun preparing our drinks. First, you balance a sugar cube on a slotted absinthe spoon:
Then using an absinthe fountain, you slowly drip water drop by drop over the sugar cube and into the glass:
You keep dripping water into the absinthe until you have a final blend of 1 part absinthe to 3-5 parts water.
As the water drips into the absinthe, the imperfections come out in a white cloud — called louche — and the whole drink turns milky white.
Was it a hallucinogenic experience for us? Sorry to disappoint, but no… it was just an afternoon with a couple of lovely drinks, delicious food, and great conversation. There is something about the mystique of absinthe that really does add to the pleasure of the drink.
For me my glory is an
Humble ephemeral Absinthe
Drunk on the sly, with fear of treason
and if I drink it no longer,
it is for a good reason. – Paul Verlaine