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Switzerland: The green fairy

The weather is apt. A cobweb of fog, strung from one side of the wooded valley to the other, is broken in places by the eerie glow of the sun. Shutters are closed throughout the village. I lift my glass from the bar and discretely take a sip of the bitter green spirit. Absinthe may now be legal, but I still feel like I’m up to no good.

Switzerland: The green fairy
Absinthe bar. Image: Tim Williams

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I am on the ‘Absinthe Trail’, a discovery route through Switzerland’s Val-de-Travers on the border with France. It was here that the so-called green fairy originated in the 18th century, and there are plenty of bars serving it.

Nowadays, there’s nothing to feel guilty about: absinthe has been legal since 2005. It does, however, have an air of mystique, stemming from its 100-plus years on the underground market, when it was prohibited in much of Europe and America.

“When people called to order absinthe, I’d tell them I didn’t have any. Instead, I’d say I had rabbits and chickens for sale that day. We had to distil downwind from the police station,” recalls Willy Bovet, my drinking companion and absinthe distiller in the Val-de-Travers, who secretly carried on working during the prohibition.

For me, the mystery is why absinthe was so well loved. The lurid liquid was the tipple of choice during ‘green hour’ in 18th- and 19th-century Parisian salons, and inspired artists and writers, including Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh, who allegedly cut off his ear while under its influence.

As I sip it — as politely as I can, following the ritual of dripping ice-cold water through a sugar cube into the glass — the medicinal taste makes my face hurt.

Made with around eight to 10 herbs, including wormwood, fennel, aniseed and lemon balm, absinthe was used by the Egyptians to aid digestion and by armies to purify water — and it tastes like it. Willy chuckles, seemingly not offended. He grew up with the herbal preparation, so is used to it; parents in the Val-de-Travers would give their children a few drops to help them sleep.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, absinthe’s ingredients were its downfall. Government studies claimed it caused blackouts and hallucinations, leading to a referendum in 1910 that introduced the Swiss ban.

Some distillers insist that the real motivation was financial, and that absinthe had become so popular, it was a threat to the wine industry.

Since the green fairy has been freed, it has made an impressive comeback. In fact, here at least, it feels like it’s everywhere. As well as the tourist route, there are flavoured chocolates, open distilleries, a festival and even a museum.

“We have 10 distilleries but no post office or bakery,” confirms Willy, describing Môtiers, the village where he’s based. Keen for me to enjoy absinthe before I leave, he has a suggestion: trying it in a dessert.

The infamous ‘Mitterrand soufflé’, which is creamy and absinthe-flavoured, was served to the then-French president during a state visit to Switzerland in 1983. Absinthe was still banned, and its unmistakable aroma aroused a political debate that would endure for 20 years, ending in its legalisation.

I swap my glass for the icy concoction and tentatively taste a spoonful. The cream mutes that bitter taste. It’s cold and sweet, and eating it doesn’t feel in the least clandestine.