Paris is always full of little surprises, like any major city. It’s always fun to poke around and find something new and unusual. And there’s plenty of the unusual in a big city like Paris, as I often report. I think of Paris as a big village, full of colorful characters with lots of stories to tell and unusual offerings. And getting the know the people in your neighborhood, especially the vendors selling fine foods and drink, can be especially rewarding since often if you stay for a while and talk to them, there’s always something fascinating to learn.And, of course, taste!
I’ve been meaning to take you to visit one on my favorite shops in Paris for quite a while: Vert d’Absinthe. This little shop is located in the Marais, but a bit removed from the busy tourist streets, just off the Place St. Catherine. Owner Luc-Santiago Rodriguez tells me his shop was the first boutique anywhere dedicated just for the purpose of selling absinthe, that wickedly suspicious elixir that’s recently been getting a lot of attention lately.
Although the drink was originally produced as a cure-all medical tonic in 1792, Absinthe became a rather popular drink amongst Parisians in the late 1800′s, mainly with hedonists living in Montmarte who would sip it in cafés and clubs, like Le Moulin Rouge, before it was ultimately banned by the French government in 1915.
Although experts are as unclear as a cloudy glass of absinthe on exactly why it was banned, the most colorful theory was that people went mad drinking absinthe due to the rotten wormwood used to make the drink. It was dubbed le fé’e verte or ‘the green fairy’, since it was said to inspire hallucinations as well.
(Absinthe was banned in the US in 1912, and so far, it’s still technically illegal to import into the US.)
But nowadays, most people, including Luc-Santiago, agree that the powerful French wine industry at the time was upset that people, especially the artsy bohemians who lived in the north of Paris, were drinking cheap, hi-test absinthe (at 70% alcohol) instead of pricey wine (around 12% alcohol), in an attempt to get a better buzz for their buck. Since the French wine industry had suffered a severe set-back from the phylloxera infestation which killed most of the grapevines in France, the price of wine had gone up enormously. So it’s thought that the wine industry pressured the French government to put the kabosh on absinthe production.
And that was that.
In 1988 absinthe made a comeback and the French government once again made it legal to sell and drink the anise-scented exilir, absinthe attaining a bit of a cult status in the process. With all the ceremony of pouring something previously forbidden in a fancy glass, pouring water over a sugar cube to make it cloudy (called louching), then slowly sipping it while staring into space in a deserted café…how could anyone not be entranced by the romance of absinthe?
If you come to France and want to try or purchase absinthe, be aware that not all drinks that look and sound like absinthe are indeed absinthe. You’ll come across ‘absente’ (missing the ‘h’), which has a bleary picture of Van Gogh on the packaging (it was said he went mad drinking absinthe and cut off his ear because of it, which to me is a rather iffy marketing move), but these impostors use a wormwood that’s different than the variety of wormwood (artemisia absinthium) used in true absinthe.
The wormwood used to make true absinthe contains thujone, the most important compound in real absinthe.
Anyone interested in absinthe should make the trip to visit Luc-Santiago’s little shop Vert d’Absinthe, where 25 different kinds of absinthe are stocked. All are French except for one, which is made in Switzerland, and most of the French absinthe varieties are made near the Swiss border. Monsieur Rodriguez stocks all the proper paraphernalia for properly preparing and drinking a glass of absinthe, from vintage to contemporary; spoons, glasses, fontaines, and, of course, the bottles themselves.
And perhaps you’ll get a demonstration and a taste-test. Although drinking absinthe French-style means louching the drink by pouring water over a sugar cube through the special spoon before it clouds up the absinthe, the more flamboyant Czech-style method involves lighting the cube of sugar dramatically on fire, which I’ve yet to see him do.
11 rue d’Ormesson
Tél: 01 42 71 69 73
Open daily, from 11am to 8pm (closed Monday)
A few unusual places for absinthe in, or near, Paris:
-Hotel Royal Fromentin (11 rue Fromentin, Paris, tel. 01 42 81 02 33) serves absinthe at their historic bar, a former cabaret at the foot of Montmartre.
-Musée de l’Absinthe (44 rue Alphonse Calle, 95430 Auvers-sur-Oise, tel. 01 30 36 83 26, about fifteen minutes outside Paris) is open on the weekends and holidays and sports all sorts of memorabilia and paraphernalia from absinthe’s heyday. Take the train from the Gare du Nord.
-Cantada is a heavy metal bar, and one of the few bars in Paris to serve a wide selection of absinthe.
-La Fée Verte (108, rue de la Roquette), is a neighborhood café with absinthe on offer.