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Forbidden Fromage: Absinthe-Minded

Welcome to Forbidden Fromage, a series exploring cheesy taboos and prohibitions. Intern Johnisha Levi will look at everything from navigating kosher restrictions and hip hop MCs’ use of cheese and dairy as metaphors for illicit profit and sex to the paleo diet’s dairy prohibition. You’ll get a little history, religion, pop culture, science, and medicine along the way, as we cover thousands of years in the blink of some blog posts.

The roll call of absinthe imbibers is like the who’s who of literati: Vincent Van Gogh. Edgar Allen Poe. Paul Gaugin. Charles Badulaire. Ernest Hemingway. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Oscar Wilde. Which makes you wonder: Were all these artists great because they drank absinthe, the infamous spirit otherwise known as “The Green Fairy”? Or did they partake in the Green Fairy because they were great?

That may be a difficult question to sort out, but one thing is for sure: Absinthe got a bad rap. Before we fast-forward to the absinthe renaissance and, most importantly to us, how it has found its way into cheese, let’s start with a definition and some historical context. How did absinthe go from being the literal toast of Paris (and La Nouvelle Orléans) to a much maligned, vanquished scourge of society and purveyor of madness?

What is absinthe?

True absinthe (as opposed to cheap imposters made through cold-mixing, the same process used for flavored vodkas) is an anise-flavored spirit made with various botanicals. The name likely comes from the Greek word apsinthion (“undrinkable”), perhaps in reference to the bitter taste of its signature ingredient, wormwood. First, wormwood is macerated with dried herbs and distilled, producing a colorless distillate. Next, wormwood and other herbs are added to the distillate to lend both color and bitter flavor. The signature green color derives from chlorophyll in the herbs (although some legitimate absinthes are clear). Star anise, lemon balm, hyssop, juniper, veronica, angelica root, melissa, coriander, parsley, and chamomile are some of the many botanicals featured in various recipes for the spirit.

The proper way to serve the beverage is by diluting it with three to five parts water to one part absinthe (as opposed to the latter day pyrotechnic gimmick of lighting sugar cubes on fire). The water causes botanical oils to come out of solution, giving it a milky appearance referred to as the louche (“cloudy” in French).

The Rise of the Green Fairy

The French physician Pierre Ordinaire is credited with originating the first absinthe recipe in Val-de-Travers, Switzerland. Henri-Louis Pernod pioneered its commercial production. The drink took off for a variety of reasons, including French soldiers’ use of the drink as a more palatable (and ultimately more pleasurable) substitute for the wormwood-containing dysentery medication used during the conquest of Algeria; a rising interest in anise-flavored spirits; and red wine’s decline in fortune due to the phyloxxera blight. It became a darling among the artists of all stripes, who credited it as a poetic muse with hallucinogenic powers. “The Green Fairy” was so popular that in French bistros and cafes, 5 pm was dubbed the “green hour.” In New Orleans, the Old Absinthe House was a popular French Quarter haunt serving up absinthe frappés (egg white, anisette, and absinthe poured over cracked ice). Infamous occultist and creepster Aleister Crowley even penned an essay on the House and the beverage entitled “The Green Goddess.”

Absinthe's got Madame Ginoux smiling in Paul Gaugin's Night Café at Arles

Absinthe’s got Madame Ginoux smiling in Paul Gaugin’s Night Café at Arles

The Absinthe Ban

An unlikely alliance of the medical community, temperance advocates, wine growers, and the clergy combined to conspire against absinthe. Absinthe abuse was targeted as distinct from, and much graver than, general alcoholism. As The New York Times reported in 1879,

“A good many deaths in different parts of the country, especially in large cities, are directly traceable to excessive use. It is much more perilous as well as more deleterious, than other forms of liquor. It is more seductive and treacherous; for at first there is very little reaction from it; it quickens the mental faculties, lends a a glow to the health and spirits, and seems… to raise the mind to a higher power… A regular absinthe drinker seldom perceives that he is dominated by its baleful influence until it is too late… All of a sudden he breaks down, his nervous system is destroyed; his brain is inoperative; his will is paralyzed; he is a mere wreck; there is no hope for recovery.

Medical practitioners coined the term “absinithism” to describe a generalized syndrome encompassing the symptoms of absinthe overindulgence, including cancer, psychiatric disease (including suicide), seizures, brain damage, and gastrointestinal difficulties. The term, as well as its namesake the drink, soon became synonymous with societal degeneracy and madness. Specifically, scientists blamed levels of the compound thujone, found in wormwood oil, for making people insane in the membrane. Ultimately, the bad PR that followed known alcoholic and Swiss farmer Jean Lanfray’s murder of his family and attempted suicide dealt the fatal blow. Belgium and Switzerland were first to ban absinthe (the latter with a constitutional ban); the US, France, and Germany followed, although it was never outlawed in Czechoslovakia, Spain, or Britain (where it also did not enjoy tremendous popularity).

Absinthe’s comeback was long in the making. The absinthe ban is singular in its length (in its homeland of Switzerland as well as in the US, it took close to a century to re-legalize the drink). The danger of thujone seemed to be exaggerated if not wholly specious, in light of its low concentration in the spirit. It’s now enjoying a renaissance both here and abroad. Marilyn Manson makes his own (both comically and appropriately called Absinthe Mansithe), and Kylie Minogue personified the spirit in Moulin Rouge.

Absinthe-Washed Cheese and Absinthe Ice Cream

As for the topic nearest and dearest to are hearts, it only makes sense that if cheese is washed in wine, beer, bourbon, and cider, than why not absinthe? To this end, Walton, N.Y., cheesemaker Jus Vulto of Vulto Creamery has married absinthe and cheese with his washed-rind raw cow’s milk cheese, Miranda, a moving tribute to his late wife. The cheese, made in 3”-diameter molds, is a handsome one. Miranda is about two inches in height, with shapely convex sides (the cheese version of an hourglass figure), and a pale salmon-colored rind. The paste is butter-colored, punctuated by scattered eyes. Vulto uses “Meadow of Love” absinthe, from neighboring Delaware Phoenix Distillery. In addition to grand and Roman wormwoods, anise, fennel, hyssop, and lemon balm, “Meadow of Love” also contains the quite novel addition of violets. The rind of this stinky cheese has the earthy aroma of wet and decaying forest leaves. The fudgy paste yields to a pleasant butteriness that coats the tongue. The absinthe contributes a noticeable tang that hits midway through tasting but fades and mellows in its final notes. The paste has distinct notes of mushroom and meatiness and umami.

And cheese is not the only dairy with skin in the absinthe game these days. It also looks like the spirit is finding its way into ice cream, such as Jenni’s Splendid Absinthe + Meringues, a chartreuse stunner created in honor of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Professional baker and cookbook author David Lebovitz likewise features a recipe on his blog for an absinthe chocolate chip ice cream.

Now you’ll excuse me while I get out my ice cream maker…

Next up in Forbidden Fromage, we’ll be taking a comparative look at World War II rationing of cheese in the US and Britain.

Photo Credit: “Miranda, Vulto Creamery” by Johnisha Levi

Johnisha Levi

Johnisha Levi is a Boston-area pastry cook and one of those very rare (think Pegasus) D.C. natives. If ithere's a documentary on food or true crime, chances are that she's seen it (or it's waiting in her Netflix queue). She's a culinary history nerd who is eager to spend her summer at culture learning more about cheese.