Visual Arts18 Jul 2007 10:09 am
Look carefully at paintings from the late-19th century, and you’ll often spot glasses filled with an iridescent green liquid. This is absinthe, the famed “fée verte” (or “green fairy”) of Belle Epoque France. It appears in the works of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh and, as in the painting L’Absinthe above, Edgar Degas.
Absinthe is made by distilling wormwood (the word “absinthe” is actually “wormwood” in French). It is an anise-based drink with a licorice flavor, like Sambuca or Pastis. (Herbs added after distillation give the drink its famous green color.) The ritual of serving absinthe is very elaborate: a perforated spoon is placed over a glass filled with absinthe, and a sugar cube is placed on the spoon. Water is then poured over the sugar drip by drip – a process known as the “louche” – which causes the drink to take on a cloudy white color. Every part of the process produced elaborate paraphernalia, even green glasses containing uranium!
But it wasn’t the flavor or the ritual that made absinthe famous. It was the “fact” that absinthe causes insanity. This notion was based on the fact that absinthe contains “thujone,” an oily chemical some believe to be a neurotoxin. As it happens, absinthe only contains trace amounts of thujone, not enough to cause any real harm. (Arsenic occurs naturally in seaweed and some species of fish, but you’re not gonna be poisoned the next time you eat sushi.) Nonetheless, the argument that absinthe did cause insanity won the day: France prohibited the manufacture and sale of the elixir in 1915, and the Era of Absinthe quickly came to an end.
Learn more about absinthe at La Fée Verte’s Absinthe House.
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