Insider’s Guide to Auvers- Part II

Insider’s Guide to Auvers- Part II

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Half-way between Jean-Francois Daubigny’s inviting
maison-atelier on rue Daubigny and the impeccably restored Auberge
Ravoux on Auvers’ main street, lies a small white house with a dark
green door. Affixed to the left side of the building, high over-head,
is a very large metal absinthe spoon. No visitor strolling down the
narrow, winding rue Callé could fail to notice it. Modeled after an
actual absinthe spoon with its distinctive Eiffel Tower motif, the
signage is a humorous twist on the traditional practice of featuring
symbols– keys for locksmiths, boots for shoemakers, eyeglasses for
opticians–to communicate the business of a given establishment.

Opened
in 1994 by Marie-Claude Delahaye, a Parisian cellular biology
professor, the Absinthe Museum is dedicated to preserving the history
and lore of absinthe. Spanning little more than 1000 square feet on two
floors, Delahaye built her unique collection of vintage absinthe
posters, glasses, water fountains, bottles and related ephemera
beginning with the purchase of just a single absinthe spoon two decades
ago.

Visitors to the museum
are greeted by Delahaye, an energetic redhead, who welcomes absinthe
buffs and the just-plain-curious as soon as they step into her
shrine-like musée. Those unfamiliar with the history of absinthe are
free to peruse the books (some written by Delahaye) that rest on a
table in the center room. As the museum contains no wall panels
providing an overview of the drink’s history, a brief account follows:

As
early as Egyptian times and later in classical antiquity, absinthe was
considered a panacea, prescribed for stomach disorders, jaundice,
anemia, rheumatism and even bad breath; leaves from the Artemesia
absinthium plant were soaked in wine to create the elixir. Ancestor of
today’s anise-based Pastis, absinthe was the most popular and notorious
liquor in 19th century France. It is possibly this combination of
traits that has served to establish its reputation as the most
notorious in history.

A
favorite drink of Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Rimbaud and Verlaine;
absinthe was popularized by French soldiers returning from Algeria in
the 1830s. While stationed there, they had been prescribed the
plant-based alcohol as an anti-viral, anti-fever remedy, which was
mixed in their drinking water. Upon returning to France, their taste
for “la fée verte” (the green fairy) so named because of the drink’s
yellowish-green hue, soon spread throughout France to the general
public who sipped it in cafes sweetened with a lump of sugar. Crossing
socioeconomic as well as gender lines, absinthe was enjoyed by all–
from the top-hatted, well-fed factory owner to the penniless,
tuberculin laundress.

Absinthe
was generally sipped as an aperitif, between 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock in
the evening; but those who were addicted drank it at any hour of the
day, often consuming up to a dozen glasses in a single day. Part of the
appeal of absinthe surely stemmed from the ritual surrounding its
consumption. Unlike cognac or whiskey, gin or calvados which were
imbibed in ordinary, shot-type glasses, absinthe was enjoyed in stem
ware designed especially for the liquor. With an elongated cup,
measuring about 4-inches in height, the narrow, footed goblet had a
small depression at the bottom used to measure a dose of absinthe:

The
liquor itself was clear but when combined with water, which was the
customary way of drinking it, the mixture turned cloudy. First the
absinthe was poured into a glass, and a perforated spoon, usually of
tin, was laid across the rim of the glass. Onto this a lump of sugar
was placed. Water would then slowly be poured over the sugar which
would melt into the absinthe and sweeten the drink. The long-handled
spoon would then be used to stir the contents causing the liquor to
become opalescent.

With the
increasing industrialization of alcoholic beverages as the century wore
on and the subsequent lowering of prices, alcohol consumption of all
kinds rose rapidly in France making it the most “alcoholic” of all
nations in the world by the end of the 19th century. Absinthe came
under attack by the French Temperance Society and would be the only
alcoholic beverage ever officially outlawed in France. Finally banned
by the French government in 1915 because it was considered so harmful
to one’s health–it was 72% alcohol or 144 proof–absinthe is
inextricably linked to the artistic and literary life of Paris during
the second half of the 19th century.

After
viewing Delahaye’s collection of absinthe water fountains and recreated
fin-de-siècle bar on the upstairs level, interested parties should
proceed to the Auberge Ravoux, a brief and scenic walk through Auvers’
back streets. The Auberge serves up a special house blend of “legal”
absinthe for those who wish to experience the ritual surrounding the
drink. Known as a Muse Verte, this special aperitif is served in a
tall, custom-made verre a l’absinthe

Le Musée de l’Absinthe
44, rue Callé
Auvers-sur-Oise, France 95430
Tel/Fax 011 33 1 30 36 83 26

The Museum is open weekends from 11 AM-6PM and Wednesday-Sunday June through September.

For
further reading on Absinthe see: Barnaby Conrad III’s ABSINTHE :History
in a Bottle (Chronicle Books, 1988) and Wilfred N. Arnold’s Vincent Van
Gogh: Chemicals, Crises and Creativity (Birkhauser Boston, 1992)

Bonjour Paris is pleased to have Alexandra Leaf as a contributor.

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