Away with the Fairies
I nearly choke on my trail mix. “Is that a bottle of...” “Absinthe, oui,” Nicolas says, finishing my sentence. He gives the bottle a rough wipe down with his wrinkled hands and, in a swift pirate-esque moment, rips the cork out with his teeth. The dank forest air is instantly filled with the sweet aroma of aniseed and wormwood.
Nicolas produces two small glasses from his backpack and splashes some light-green liquor into each, before carefully topping them up with fresh spring water from a trickling fountain. Needless to say, this is a far cry from the flaming sugar cubes and mornings of amnesia that tend to accompany absinthe drinking back home.
It’s not yet noon and I look up from my glass, staring deep into the lush valleys of the Swiss Alps. “Who on earth leaves bottles of absinthe hidden in the forest?” I ask my hiking companion. “La fée verte, the green fairy,” Nicolas says. “She leaves them everywhere, always she has done this.” I’m dubious and pretty sure the wormwood has already taken effect, but something about this mystical environment makes me believe him. Besides, I don’t care what colour she is – if a fairy is willing to stash booze in the forest for thirsty hikers to stumble across, then she is my kind of fairy. Leaving a buck for a tooth seems pretty lame by comparison.
I arrived in Val-de-Travers, in Neuchâtel, western Switzerland, not really knowing a single thing about the place. When I thought of Switzerland, I imagined meticulous watchmakers with curly moustaches, plump chocolatiers and rosy-cheeked women in aprons singing in the hills. I honestly never thought I would find myself in the absinthe mecca, the birthplace of this often feared, always misunderstood, potent liquor that is reputed to have hallucinogenic properties.
Illegal in its nation of origin until 2005, and still outlawed in many countries today, absinthe elicits an intrigue unlike any other liquor on Earth. On one hand, it has been condemned by lawmakers, the church and society for a century. On the other hand, it has been revered as the elixir of creativity and worshipped as a cultural icon of nineteenth-century impressionist artists, writers and poets. Among absinthe’s prophets were Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh and Picasso. The reason for this love–hate relationship lies in its magical ingredient: the allegedly hallucinogenic, locally grown herb artemisia absinthium, commonly known as wormwood.
“Bah, oui, you will go crazy,” Nicolas says. “But you must ’ave at least 60 glasses for it to do this. Most days I ’ave just 40!” I’m not sure if Nicolas is joking or not. Either way, I reckon it’s safe, although the forest does appear a little more vivid after my second glass. Nicolas, like most absinthe producers here, once operated a clandestine distillery, and still talks fondly of his days as an outlaw. I get the feeling he misses it, as though legalising absinthe took a bit of the fun out of it. I’ve tasted the nectar of the green fairy and, I must admit, I’m hooked. It’s like no other drink I’ve tried before, and nothing like the fluorescent-green rocket fuel they call absinthe back home. It’s delicate and delicious, has a sweet aniseed taste, not dissimilar to pastis, and carries a bouquet of fragrant herbs. However, there is one distinctive bitter herbal note that sings out above the rest. It’s the wormwood, I just know it.
I’m keen to see this mystical wormwood plant for myself so I ask Nicolas if he can take me to a local plantation. It’s not exactly a difficult request since just about everyone in the valley grows wormwood in their backyard; however, he knows of a grower nearby who is also an ex-bootlegger. He has a decent wormwood plot sitting outside his micro-distillery, Nicolas says, so we take a short stroll to the town of Boveresse to check it out.
Francis is kneeling among a small patch of silver-green plants in a pretty little garden flourishing in the shadow of a large, old-fashioned Swiss country mansion. The old building is covered with painted green window shutters that were no doubt used not so long ago to hide illegal goings-on from the prying eyes of local police officers and informants.
He looks up from his prized garden of wormwood plants and, with a big smile, beckons me to come and take a closer look. On close inspection, I’m a bit disappointed. I guess I kind of expected this infamous plant to have menacing purple flowers or at least spikes.
But, no, it’s quite simply a low-lying herb with pretty leaves sprouting from a soft stalk. Nicolas, obviously enjoying my enthusiasm for his life-long passion, crouches next to me, plucks a small green leaf and stuffs it in his mouth. With a playful smile he screws up his face up. “Tres amer!” Translated it means very bitter, although I know he’s secretly enjoying it. I follow suit and bite off a small piece of wormwood leaf. It’s bitter, sure, but it’s also surprisingly delicious. It has that exact herbal note I had fallen in love with in the absinthe we drank earlier in the forest.
I’ve tasted the nectar of the green fairy and, I must admit, I’m hooked. It’s like no other drink I’ve tried before, and nothing like the fluorescent-green rocket fuel they call absinthe back home.
We clunk our way up the mansion’s creaky wooden stairs, following Francis’s son and heir to the family distillery as he leads us up to the drying room. Still in use today, it is here his father once hid his precious wormwood harvest. At the top of a tight spiral of wooden stairs we emerge into a dark attic. As my eyes adjust to the dim light, my nostrils are filled with the most beautiful herbal aroma. It’s scrumptious, and I find myself breathing as deeply as I can through my nose, savouring the delicious fragrance.
Beams of light stream through small cracks in the wooden walls, catching plumes of dancing dust particles and illuminating hundreds of bouquets hanging from the rafters. There is wormwood everywhere. Like most artisanal absinthe producers in the region, Francis has his own family recipe that includes a unique blend of homegrown wormwood and herbs, including green anise, fennel, peppermint, hyssop, coriander, cardamom, elecampane, star anise, licorice, dittany, angelica and many other (sometimes secret) botanicals.
Back at the cellar door, I sample the house produce (La Valote Martin), and get myself a small takeaway bottle. I’ve got a train to catch – more villages and distilleries await.
During my time in Val-de-Travers I visit many small, family-run artisanal distillers. The majority have been producing absinthe for generations and are proud to proclaim they continued to do so illegally during prohibition. Most grow wormwood, often in their backyard, and produce their own style of absinthe. Every family recipe is unique, using different herbal blends and varied amounts of wormwood, which is still heavily restricted by law today.
There are more than 20 absinthe distilleries along the Absinthe Route, just about all of which have a cellar door where you can taste their produce and buy a bottle to take home. All of the bars and restaurants serve local absinthe, and every afternoon around 5pm is l’heure vert (the green hour), when you can see locals sitting in bars and cafes around tabletop water towers happily chatting away over cloudy green glasses. This region is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape of absinthe.
Tucked away in quaint little villages along the trail are countless restaurants and, to my surprise, many of them utilise wormwood in their regional cuisine. (It really is considered a herb here in the valley.) For me, the standout dishes are beef fillet in absinthe gravy and absinthe soufflé. Far from a gimmick, the gravy is heavily infused with the liquor, giving it a great kick and bitter-spice note I just can’t get enough of. The soufflé comes with a pool of absinthe in the centre and is served with an entire bottle of the stuff on the side, “Just in case you wanted more…” God, I love this place.
I couldn’t be more impressed and surprised by what I’ve found here. Imagining a group of people who operated for a century as backyard bootleggers, I had expected to encounter a heavy-drinking, cagey bunch of moonshine-trippers with chips on their shoulders. But this vision could not have been further from the truth. This mind-bogglingly lush, beautiful valley is home to a community of proud, intelligent, moderate, friendly artists who love what they produce and are more than happy to share their secrets with visitors. Join the trail and chances are you will get stuck at each cellar door for hours, sipping absinthe as locals regale you with daring tales from their days as clandestine distillers and tall stories about the green fairy. And, if you’re lucky, you just might find a bottle of absinthe stashed in the forest.
Swiss Airlines flies to Zurich from all major Australian cities.
The Val-de-Travers region is dotted with tiny villages, just about all of which offer hotel and bed and breakfast-style accommodation, so you can hop from town to town as you go. Another option is to base yourself in one spot and do short day trips. I based myself at the Hotel l’Aigle in Couvet. It was comfortable, central and included breakfast for US$120 a night.
You won’t need Nostradamus to tell you it’s not a great idea to be driving anywhere while covering the Absinthe Route, but the area is well serviced by rail, with a train station in almost every town. Purchase a Eurail Global Pass (from US$2100 for two adults for 15 days), which gives you a ticket to jump on and off trains whenever and wherever you want. All that’s left to do is to find a good map, mark out all the distilleries you plan to visit and let the good times roll.