Wed, 13 Jun, 2018
Exploring the land of the green fairy in Switzerland
I stepped off the train in the little Swiss village of Môtiers in the Val-de-Travers region of the Jura Mountains fully expecting to see a host of fairies... little green ones.
For this picturesque part of the Swiss Jura is known as the land of the green fairy, la fée verte, the birthplace of the infamous, oft-vilified, once-banned, powerful spirit, absinthe.
The railway station and village in the Jura Mountains where we disembarked looked as neat and typically-picturesque as any other Swiss village, but our guide Lukas assured us that we had stepped into an enchanted land, la Pays de l'Absinthe.
I listened for the flutter of wings and peered among the trees for a glimpse of green... to no avail.
However, Lukas said we had to first partake of the spirit before we could see the spirit. The legend goes that those who over-indulge in absinthe hallucinate and see green fairies.
All would be revealed at la Maison de l'Absinthe, a museum dedicated to the liquor regarded by its devotees as a "sacred libation".
The history of absinthe, a high-alcohol anise-flavoured spirit distilled from the wormwood plant, is cloaked in mystery, intrigue, romance, secrecy, rumour and scandal - factors the Val-de-Travers plays to maximum advantage.
Through the ages as far back as the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, artemisia absinthium (wormwood) was used as a remedy for stomach, back, dental, throat and menstrual pain, as well as a panacea for hair loss, mental illness, gout, rheumatism, loss of eyesight, protection against aliens and a cure for malaria. Quite an impressive list.
Absinthe artefacts and recipes from the 19th century. Photo: Justine Tyerman
In a small town of Couvet in the Val-de-Travers, the first recipe for making absinthe into an alcoholic drink was created in 1797 and the first distillery opened in the valley in 1798.
It became wildly popular in the 1800s and developed a cult-like following with the art nouveau set such as Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Baudelaire, Paul-Marie Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Guy de Maupassant. Some of them even became seriously addicted to it. Today, Marilyn Manson is one of its most famous devotees.
However, over the years, absinthe garnered a wicked reputation and was eventually banned in Switzerland in 1910 for allegedly driving people insane and causing them to commit heinous crimes.
The lobbyists against absinthe included religious groups that regarded it as dangerously addictive, psychoactive and hallucinogenic, and also beer, schnapps and wine producers, who resented its extreme popularity.
The distillation of absinthe continued in clandestine stills in the Val-de-Travers, where authorities largely turned a blind eye and blocked nose (the scent of anise wafted on the breeze for miles) to the practice until it was eventually legalised again in the valley in 2004, albeit with strict regulations.
Equipment used in a still that was once concealed behind a false wall in a cottage is on display at the museum along with examples of the ingenious means used to smuggle the product into other countries – hidden in pineapple tins.
Equipment used in a still that was once concealed behind a false wall is on display at the museum. Photo: Justine Tyerman
In the laboratory, we learned all about the production process and the ingredients used in absinthe recipes, some of which - wormwood, lemon balm, anise and mint - are grown in a garden there.
The museum displays many fascinating antiques from the Belle Epoque (1870-1914) and a replica of a typical bistro, dedicated to the "heure verte" (the green hour), a time of the day between 5pm and 7pm when fashionable people met to socialise over a glass of absinthe.
The mystique is perpetuated in an über-chic bar where 15 local varieties of absinthe are available for tasting and purchase. The cold blue-green back lighting and the rows of bottles with exotic labels add to the atmosphere of the experience.
The age-old ritual is strictly adhered to in the pouring process. A sugar cube is placed on a slotted silver spoon on top of a crystal absinthe glass containing a measure of the spirit. Ice cold water is dripped over the sugar cube and into the glass where the water and absinthe combine to form an opaque milky blend, due to certain ingredients in the absinthe (especially fennel) reacting with the water. Striking the right balance between bitter and sweet is crucial, our guide says.
Guide Montserrat Kassamakov presents a bottle of absinthe at the bar at the Maison de l'Absinthe. Photo: Justine Tyerman
I enjoyed a sip or two in a seriously-diluted form and saw no fairies, green or otherwise, but I'm sure some of the more adventurous members of our group saw whole hosts of supernatural creatures flitting through the woods.
I loved the ritual and I'm tempted to introduce the "heure verte" concept to my friends in Gisborne . . . although we will probably stick to chardonnay.
Ironically, the Maison de l'Absinthe occupies a former district courthouse, opened in 1750, where a number of illegal absinthe distillers were once hauled before a judge, convicted and jailed.
* The Maison de l'Absinthe opened its doors in July 2014 and is one of 480 museums free to visit with a Swiss Travel Pass. It's well worth a look.
- To learn more about Switzerland, visit myswitzerland.com. Click on the transport link for information on the Swiss Travel Pass.
- Flights are available with Swiss International Air Lines. Go to swiss.com for details and prices.
- To stay at L'Hôtel Alpes et Lac in Neuchâtel, visit alpesetlac.ch.
- To find out more about Maison de l'Absinthe, go to maison-absinthe.ch/.
For ease of travel, buy a Swiss Travel Pass, which allows you to travel on all public transport in Switzerland - trains, boats and buses including the public transport networks of 75 towns and cities across the entire country. The Swiss Travel Pass (from three to 15 days) also allows free entry to more than 480 museums and gives holders 50 per cent off most of the magnificent mountain railways.
There are many options, including the Swiss Travel Pass for Youth, which gives travellers under 26 years a 15 per cent discount and, best of all, children under 16 accompanied by a parent with a Swiss Travel Pass travel for free.
Justine Tyerman travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism.
Written by Justine Tyerman. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.