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French soldiers fighting in Algeria had been given the medicine as an anti-malarial treatment and brought a taste for the 73° alcohol back home. Mass-production cut prices, and a disastrous wine harvest propelled absinthe to the top of the French drinks charts. Enter la Fée Verte…the Green Fairy. Named for the swirling emerald opalescence triggered by the addition of iced water to the neat liquid, both the working class and wealthy bourgeoisie consumed 36 million litres a year. A stroll through Montmartre at 5.00pm in the 1860s would have revealed tables with men and women, often alone, contemplating their glasses of the spirit. This was the l’Heure Verte – the Green Hour, origin of our ‘Happy Hour’. A single absinthe was tolerated by the waiters. Drinkers solved that problem by moving to another, and another and another… A closer look, perhaps, at the café tables, and we spot the poet Rimbaud and his lover, fellow poet Verlaine, both devotees of absinthe. His artistic life ended as abruptly as his relationship with Verlaine, who in a fit of drunken madness, shot the young Rimbaud. Here we might encounter Guy de Maupassant, writer of ‘A Queer Night in Paris’ which tells of a provincial at an artist’s party who drinks so much absinthe that he tries to waltz with a chair, falls to the ground in a stupor, and wakes up naked in a strange bed. Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway, Degas, Gauguin…none were strangers to la Fée Verte and her tempting powers. Symbolist Alfred Jarry rode his bicycle with his face painted green in celebration of the joys of absinthe.
But, the Green Fairy’s effects were being felt in society, much as cannabis is today. High in alcohol, cheap, seductive, reputedly hallucinogenic, it was blamed for epilepsy, tuberculosis, crime and madness. Public morality was outraged, bans followed: Belgium, Brazil, the Netherlands, and Switzerland in the early 1900s, the U.S. in 1912, and France, unequivocal epicentre of absinthe culture, in 1915. Two World Wars followed, the Green Fairy was dead and forgotten. Or was she? Please welcome a Brit. Yes! A British entrepreneur by the name of George Rowley who, from his base in Prague, became interested in the legal validity of the ban. He teamed up with cellular biologist Marie-Claude Delahaye, herself fascinated by the legend after buying an absinthe spoon in a flea-market in 1981. Together they challenged the 80 year-old ban through the European court, won, and, in 2000, launched the first traditionally distilled absinthe commercially produced in France since 1915 called La Fée Parisienne. Time for a taste. Where better than Pontarlier’s annual Festival of Absinthe. As I boarded the Eurostar from St Pancras I reflected how Oscar Wilde had fled to Paris after his trial, taking refuge in absinthe. He took the boat train, I the tunnel. My journey and my ruminations continued. Reading more about the social history I began to recognise similarities with the banning of gin (‘Mother’s Ruin’) in London in the mid-18th century due to widespread drunkenness and the consequent moral outrage. Pontarlier sits in the foothills of the Jura, with its absinthe twin-town Couvet, just across the border up the Val de Travers, an ancient, and, I was soon to discover, very active smuggling route. More of this later. The Festival comprises film-shows, museum exhibitions, discussions, a collector’s market, but most importantly, tastings. All my research had made me both eager and slightly wary of what it might do to me.
Bonjour! Welcome to the winter issu
contents Features 8 A tale of two c
P 88 88 give aways Win a row of gor
The Medieval City of Carcassonne Th
My Good Life in France At the end o