I first drank pastis, the very smell made me nauseous.
Pastis was created
in the twentieth century; the term (an Occitanian word meaning
mixture', related to the 'pistou' or pesto of Provence,
and also used to describe the original plum-pudding from Guyenne)
first appeared, with reference to the drink, in 1932.
It was a substitute
for its much-demonised nineteenth-century progenitor: Absinthe.
This was a strong, unsweetened spirit of Alpine origin based on
the Wormwood family (mainly Artemisia absinthum), especially
the original eighteenth-century recipe of Dr Pierre Ordinaire,
later popularised with huge commercial success by Henri-Louis
Wormwood is a bitter, 'cleansing' herb, and thus is very good
for the stomach and gut. As its name implies, it could shock a
tapeworm into letting go. If you feel queasy or liverish, or have
drunk too much, to chew a leaf or two of absinthe can work wonders.
It was thus a staple plant in mediæval and monastic gardens.
But by the 19th century, sweetness especially in the form of sugar
had polluted and, along with a psychopathic obsession with meat-eating,
seriously damaged western diet. Sugar's accompanying ills included
diverticulitis and rampant dental caries so serious that the extremely
poor, who lived on dark breads and rough vegetables, could survive
for a while by selling their teeth to the rich.
The absinthe leaf,
together with other bitter herbs, was considered inedible, and
was no longer used, except by travelling healers, who were victims
of police oppression in France, because, like all itinerants,
they were thought to transmit sedition against the corrupt rule
of Napoleon III.
But the tradition
of its beneficent properties lingered, and it was added to alcohol
partly in order to counteract some of alcohol's more deleterious
It was 'all the
rage' in the 1880s and 1890s and the French equivalent of the
demure British Afternoon Tea was l'Heure d'Absinthe, around
5 pm. Because of its potency (real or imagined) consumption was
limited to one glass, sipped genteelly. But naturally, the temptation
to 'pub-crawl' was too great for those with miserable lives and
little self-control or amour-propre. In the more proletarian
establishments, from Le Rat Mort in the Place Pigalle to
Le Caveau des Innocents close to Les Halles, poor-quality
(probably toxic) absinthe could be drunk unmonitored, as was the
less expensive rot-gut colonial red wine from Algeria.
The most noticeable quality of absinthe, like that of its wan
successor, pastis, is the cloudiness
that occurs dramatically when water is added.
hence syrupy, alcohols (like crème-de-menthe) appeal only
to the most infantile or degraded palates, so the very bitter
absinthe was mixed with sugar and water after it left the
bottle. Most absinthe recipes included Florence fennel and green
aniseed as well as other plant extracts (such as hyssop) to add
colour and depth to the taste. The final sweetening was provided
by the drinker, who dripped iced water through a sugar cube placed
on an absinthe spoon into the green liquor below. Absinthe spoons
can still be found in antique shops in France, and sugar cubes
Absinthe is important in the history of modern art, because the
first painting by Édouard Manet to be submitted to the
Paris Salon was entitled The Absinthe-Drinker, a painting
(possibly a self-portrait) which owes much to Courbet. Presumably
the subject (a cloaked rag-picker lurking in the night) shocked
people used to paintings of more refined individuals, because
it was rejected. Manet then organised the famous Salon des
Indépendants, where the Impressionists and post-Impressionists
would exhibit their exciting canvases.
Degas' famous painting is hardly more cheerful.
The most famous absinthe-drinker is, perhaps Paul
Verlaine, who was celebrated for his poetry despite his lack
of hygiene, his violent affair with Rimbaud,
and his addiction to absinthe. His fellow-drinkers also included
the even less hygienic Bibi-la-Purée
and the celebrated symbolist poet Mallarmé.
When he despicably (and under the influence of his much-disappointed
wife) turned to religion at the end of his life, he blamed his
misdeeds and his somewhat sordid homosexual adventures on the
wicked influence of the Green Fairy, as the 'spirit' of
absinthe was dubbed. By this time, absinthe was out of fashion
and shortly to be banned. One of his contemporary Oscar Wilde's
many fatuous witticisms was :
difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset ?
absinthes were not wormwood-extract plus industrially-produced
alcohol, but grape alcohol, or a basic marc to which were
added actual distillates of the two kinds of wormwood, with hyssop,
fennel etc. To this high-alcohol liquor a maceration of more native
European plants (such as Veronica officinalis) in grape
spirits was added, in order to hold its natural green colour.
Such a high-quality product was complex and intense, and louched
beautifully i.e. turned a lovely shade of pale green when water
was added. Van Gogh of course never drank the good stuff, but
a cheap and probably nasty product which turned out more yellow
(like pastis) than green.
life with Absinthe, by van Gogh
There is now a Museum
of Absinthe at Auvers-sur-Oise,
where the brothers van Gogh are buried.
Gogh with (nearly empty) Absinthe glass,
The late nineteenth-century was a time of far greater alcoholic
excess in Europe than now; after the phylloxera epidemic,
cheap absinthe became more widely consumed than wine in France.
(Whereas in beery Britain, laudanum remained the drug of
choice.) As a result, absinthe became the target of 'temperance'
movements (aided an abetted by the wine-lobby), who claimed that
the thujone contained in wormwood provoked hallucinations and
insanity. It can indeed provoke hallucinations - in quantity,
and smoked - and hence absinthe leaves can be combined with cannabis
buds or leaves in a pipe. But, since absinthe-drinkers were often
syphilitic (as well as tubercular)
the symptoms of tertiary syphilis were ascribed to la Fée
Here, the Green Fairy sits on the table of
a Paris brasserie,
haunting or encouraging the drinker.
It was painted by a true and handsome bohemian from Bohemia, Viktor
and still hangs in a Prague café-bar.
Famous crimes, such as the crime Lanfray - the murder by
a French agricultural labourer (living in Switzerland) of his
wife and children in August 1905 - were attributed to the almost
mystical, maddening powers of absinthe - even though the murderer
drank up to four litres of wine a day which he merely garnished
with the occasional absinthe. France eventually followed Belgium
and Switzerland in banning the drink, in 1915.
French manufacturers then turned to Pastis, though it only became
legal to produce thujone-free, aniseed-flavoured drinks of 40%
alcohol by volume after 1921 - the same year that absinthe was
banned in Germany. Recently, however, German researchers working
with US and British colleagues to test the level of thujone in
100-year-old bottles of absinthe found that it contained relatively
low levels of thujone and that the psychoactive effects were very
questionable. The scientists said in the Journal of Agricultural
and Food Chemistry that the thujone level in 13 of the century-old
bottles they opened averaged 25.4 milligrams per litre: well below
the level of 35 mg of thujone per litre allowed under European
The European ban
was lifted in 1998, and absinthe is now popular again - in cocktail
bars. It is unlikely to dent the popularity of semi-sweet pastis,
which remains by some margin the most widely consumed spirit in
France - where it outsells whisky, gin and vodka combined.
This product played on a coincidence (?) of
Absinthe was never banned in Spain. Pernod Fils (who, before the
ban, made the best and most well known of absinthes) moved their
factory to Tarragona, where they continued producing until the
early 1960s. Other versions of it continue to be on sale, especially
close to the French border. Some were nothing other than swindles,
but others, like the one illustrated below, were 50% by volume
(87.5° proof). The labels imitated the original Pernod labels.
This bottle suggests that it comes from Perpignan, but very small
print at the bottom of the label admits that it is a Spanish product.
Two ingredients characterise pastis, and both are massively evident
in France's biggest-selling brand, Ricard: aniseed
and liquorice. There are other flavourings in Ricard, but it's
hard to discern them. The aniseed flavour comes from star anise
and fennel rather than the more expensive aniseed itself. Anethole
is the key compound surrendered by all three. In addition to its
intrinsic flavour, anethole is perceived by humans as thirteen
times sweeter than sugar. One of the appeals of the drink is that
it appears to be sweeter than it actually is - and hence doesn't
By this strict,
two-ingredient definition, Pernod isn't a pastis at all but
a boisson anisée, since it contains no liquorice;
instead, its aniseed flavour is complemented by plants such as
mint, coriander, angelica, tarragon (a relative of wormwood) and
chamomile, and it is more highly sweetened than Ricard. Pastis
51 was originally a Pernod variant which did contain liquorice
in contrast to the original, which bore the number 45. Other smaller
brands include Sol-Anis, Casanis and Duval (both the latter produced
in the same factory in Marseille) and the colourless Berger Blanc
(now owned by the Franco-Polish group Belvédère).
There are also 'artisanal'
alternatives such as Eyguebelle, Jean Boyer and Henri
Bardouin. The last of these is the most widely distributed
of the three, and claims grand cru' status - though
the notion of the cru or growth' is hard to sustain for
a spirit whose main single ingredient is alcohol now derived from
sugar-beet. The difference between Bardouin and its supermarket
alternatives is in the complex recipe, containing (according to
the company) some 65 different varieties of herbs and spice!.
As a result, its taste somehow manages to be both complex and
bland, and cloys the palate. In the south of France, Pernod is
regarded as unforgiveably foreign and Parisian; Marseille, Provence
and Languedoc (expecially Perpignan) are the 'home' of pastis.
But to make your
own, modern (lower-alcohol) Absinthe Surrogate is very easy. Simply
buy a bottle of Casanis or Duval (which cost little more than
12 euros a litre) and stuff a good sprig or four of Artemisia
absinthum leaves or flowers into it, and leave for a week
or so before you start drinking the wonderfully bitter ratafia
which will result, and which you can strain and then mix like
pastis with ice and water up to 5 times its volume - or just twice
its volume if you like the taste of wormwood, as I do. Or drink
it sec (neat) as a digestif. Some sprigs of hyssop
will add more character.
It will not be noticeably
green. I leave it to your imagination and ingenuity to find an
herbal ingredient which will make a pleasing pale green colour.
It is worth noting that other, more common, plants contain thujone,
notably Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and Feverfew. These can
be added to the mix, though the taste of feverfew is not as clean
as that of absinthe. Common sage also contains some thujone.
European Union harmonised
laws now ban not absinthe but any drink that contains more than
ten parts of thujone per million of liquid. This is a tiny amount
- a fraction of what absinthe contained in its sordidly-glorious
On no account buy
the expensive confections now sold in fancy bottles with devil-strewn
labels (some of them made in the real Bohemia) as 'real' absinthe.
At best, these are complex flavourings - excellent for ice cream.
At worst, they are sickly parodies, crude and cloying to the palate.
The best are 70% alcohol and supplied with droppers - and excellent
for macerating cannabis-buds (for several months) to produce a
drink interesting mainly for those who like to play with herbs
and concoctions. A high-class brand called L'Extrême
d'Absente (made at Forcalquier
in Provence) declares on its label that it contains 'up to' 35
milligrams of thujone per litre.
The very first painting
of absinthe may well be Daumier's Smokers - though only
one of the two men sitting at a table is actually smoking, The
other one has a glass and a carafe in front of him, and seems
to be somewhat remote from his surroundiungs.
He well captures
the 'out of it' expression which we nowadays might associate
with cannabis or a pharmaceutical
drug such as Ecstasy.
As I sip my ratafia
de pastis aux feuilles d'absinthe, I will close this page
with what I think is by far the most painterly and poetic treatment
of alcoholism via The Green Enchantress: perhaps the only
great work by Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931), a pastel entitled
La lettre et labsinthe, dating from around
1885. It contrasts sharply with the painting by Béraud,
at the top of this page, entitled simply La
is Bitter' -