This has been a bit of a nostalgic journey for me.
About 9 months ago I left Sydney and moved to Adelaide, yet now here I am, tracing paths in the back streets of Newtown on a Sunday afternoon, much like I used to do on a regular basis. Strong emotion stirs from the familiarity of footsteps on these same roads, the same stray cats, the same eccentric individuals perched in coffee shops or begging in a doorway, passing by the old 19th century houses that I have often thought ‘I’d like to live in that’, thinking about a parallel life that maybe is happening in another time and space.
The popular inner Sydney suburbs of Newtown, Camperdown, Erskineville and surrounds are an appropriate place to reflect on history, particularly the era when absinthe was in its heyday. In these gracefully decaying streets are the lingering ghosts of previous centuries… the ‘Murdering Makins of MacDonaldtown’ who mercilessly did away with at least 13 babies while running a faux-child care operation out of labyrinthine lane ways; the blackened dusty workmen who laboured at the Eveleigh railyards or St Peters Brickworks; the juvenile delinquents of the ‘Glebe Push’ and ‘Forty Thieves’ street gangs, notorious for their trail of theft and assault…
I spy with my little eye….
It is fitting, then, that we invoke these phantoms, that we grasp at the sounds and sights of another time, for on this afternoon both Robert and I journey to the house of our good friend Daniel to partake in something almost 100 years old, our own little time-travel experience….
– a sample of pre-ban Pernod Fils Absinthe, circa 1910.
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Admittedly, 100 years ago the discerning absinthe drinker would not have the set up Daniel has prepared for us. Between the portable flood lighting, video camera, high speed digital photography (and my iPod recording I confess), this experience was going to be captured, drop by drop, from the fountain.. and every sip between our lips would be seen and heard three ways from Sunday.
First we need music. Something period. Something French.
Aristide Bruant? C’est parfait.
Up close and personal
We open the sample bottle and pour a 25 ml sample into a Pontarlier glass. We inhale. We grasp at the aromas as they wax and wane. ‘Old antique furniture’, ‘aged leather’, ‘pepper’, ‘chinese spices’ and ‘chocolate’, converse with ‘wet pipe tobacco’ and ‘dry cigarette tobacco’ aromas, ‘pleasant rural smells – like fresh hay’ and the more familiar licorice, fennel and coriander. We all agree it is unlike any other olfactory experience we have had with modern absinthes, French, Swiss, Spanish or otherwise.
Raw, the sample bears hints of olive green, memories of the natural green hue of the spirit which has all but been replaced by feuille mort amber yellow over the course of time. Runaway drops that fall on the table are quickly fingered and tasted- and it strikes us that yes, we are indeed behaving like Victorian coke fiends.
Descent into madness? Un Saison en Enfer?
We decide to do the first glass without sugar. Daniel sets the glass under his haute couture dripper and we begin a long, slow drip – it took about 20 minutes to dilute the glass, so obsessed were we in observing every drop that fell into the ambrosia. The scents and aromas blossom and travel throughout the room, carried and dispersed by the slow, languorous descent of water, drop by drop as Monsieur Bruant begins his third song…
Slow and steady….
The sample is very slow to louche, and instead of detecting a definitive ‘break’ or demarcation point, as seen in many modern absinthes, we see instead a steady, consistent thickening of the louche, very slow and gradual. The colour is surprisingly rich and thick as the louche blooms fully, and further traces of the long-faded green are revived for a moment.
Are we there yet……? Nearly….
Then comes the moment of truth…
The moment arrives
Tastes are always very hard to convey, being so personal and subjective. We agreed, however on an incredibly creamy mouth feel, with a distinct spicy pepper note at the back of the tongue. Quite profound for us was the delicious and lingering herbaceous finish which travelled across the tongue in something of a wave after swallowing, and which stayed long after the the other flavours have diminished. There is the distinct wormwood flavour, but it is very balanced against the anise content. In contrast to our enthusiastic pontifications over the various scents of a Pernod Fils 1910, the flavours themselves left us in a considered silence, as we pass the glass around, our eyes meeting over the rim. Yes, its that good.
But what with sugar? Time for a soundtrack change, back to the 21st century. Portishead – and their new album, Third.
Let’s not take 20 minutes to fill it this time…
The second glass taken with sugar was even more of a surprise. It is as if the sugar brings out a whole new landscape of flavours undetectable sans sucre, yet are very up front and assertive in the tasting. I start to detect distinct notes of flora and stone-fruit teasing the nose and tongue — not replacing the other flavours, but adding a whole new layer to the experience. Also, all three fo us note a sensual roundness in the mouth and a general homogenisation of the overall mouth experince of this absinthe, something which blurs each herbal ingredient, yet seems to marry them in combinations unnoticed in the first glass. This experience is testament to the value of adding sugar, and the role it plays in underpinning certain flavour profiles of various marques. It would seem that those who forgoe sugar may well be short-changing themselves.
Daniel made an astute observation of the pre-ban Pernod flavour. If one could somehow plot on a graph the best aspects of a number of the modern commercial absinthes currently on the market, this Pernod Fils seemingly travels in an averaged line that brings all of these points into its range, in an integrated and balanced way. Some may say this is a big call, but it is without doubt that this particular pre-ban Pernod does have a distinctly different tonality compared to many modern absinthes. I won’t say that it is necessarily ‘better’ than a modern absinthe because that is an opinion on taste – I for one am becoming a big fan of Suisse-style La Bleue absinthes because of their bold herbaceous impact which I enjoy.
Second glass of a once in a lifetime opportunity
To taste a pre-ban absinthe does give one a unique point of reference, however bear in mind that not all pre-bans taste alike. Therefore, to taste such an absinthe is not necessarily a fixed benchmark to what an authentic absinthe flavour is – but rather a reference point in culinary history, and an example of the quality of product which Pernod Fils were producing prior to the ban taking effect. This is a chance to engage in something akin to experimental archaeology, where one may come to appreciate a little better the ingredients, methods and people who made absinthe the mythic beast that it is, and to better understand the tastes that appealed to our ancestral Libertines nearly a century ago. Moreover, we use this experience to inform our 21st century absinthe palettes and arrive at new understandings and appreciations for our chosen poison. In principle, I believe it is not unlike walking through the back streets of a place like Newtown, and feeling the long-silent presence of the people who once walked the same streets and laneways, albeit long ago.
History may never repeat itself, but there is enjoyment to be had in allowing oneself to be transported via the senses to another time and place, however fleeting the experience may be, and bringing a little of it back with you to the here and now. It will stay with you for a lifetime.
How do you make a moment last forever?