Last Sunday was Father’s Day, so the boys and I took my husband to a bar to drink absinthe. Now, if I told you the bar was in a museum dedicated to Swiss absinthe production, it would seem more like an educational experience rather than a bad parenting decision, right? Absinthe is no longer a forbidden drink, and the whole family actually had a great time learning about its unique history in Val-de-Travers, a valley among the Jura mountains in French-speaking Switzerland.
Maison de l’absinthe
In the former courthouse where Swiss absinthe distillers used to be prosecuted during the ban on this notorious alcoholic beverage, also known as the “green fairy,” a new museum opened last year: Maison de l’absinthe. The museum, located in the charming village of Motiers, taught me some surprising facts about the history of absinthe in Switzerland, including a fascinating tale involving an absinthe soufflé. During the ban, which lasted for nearly 100 years, absinthe production continued in secret, despite the potential consequences facing distillers if they were caught.
Along with many other absinthe-related facts, the museum teaches you about the ingredients used to produce a beverage once believed to cause hallucinations and psychosis. Thujone, a toxic component found in two key ingredients for absinthe — Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and Roman wormwood (Artemisia pontica), supposedly induced these symptoms. In large quantities, thujone can be detrimental to your health. However, the amount of today’s absinthe you would have to drink to reach these toxic levels would likely kill you first.
Altogether, it takes about an hour or so to tour the museum. When you’re finished, you can stop in the museum’s absinthe bar for a taste of the formerly clandestine drink. My husband and I shared three different types of absinthe, each getting progressively stronger.
Our absinthe was served the traditional way with a fountain of ice cold water dripping into the glass. When the water is slowly added to the absinthe, it begins to take on a cloudy white color. For the last absinthe we tried, the strongest and most green of the three, we laid a special flat and slotted spoon over the glass with a cube of sugar on top. As we added the water slowly into the glass, the cube of sugar dissolved and sweetened the bitter drink.
Serving absinthe to the French President
At the Maison de l’absinthe, I heard an interesting story that explained how the ban on absinthe, which started back in 1910 (Swiss citizens voted in favor of the ban in 1908), was eventually lifted in Switzerland. Apparently, when French President François Mitterand visited the Hôtel duPeyrou in Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 1983, the chef served him a soufflé glacé à la Fée made with absinthe (although during the trial he evidently changed his story and said it was pastis). It caused a major political scandal, which led to a trial that lasted about 2 years and ultimately paved the way, to some extent, for the legalization of absinthe in Switzerland in 2005.
Today, despite its past, you can easily buy absinthe in the canton of Neuchâtel. It’s added to chocolate and desserts, and I’ve seen it in recipes with fish. We could even have a bottle of absinthe delivered to our home, along with our normal groceries, via one of the two major supermarket chains in Switzerland. However, the absinthe currently in our cupboard came from a Christmas market a few years ago. We rarely drink it, but I feel tempted to have some again after our recent visit to Val-de-Travers!
Route de l’absinthe
The Maison de l’absinthe is just one of many stops along the Route de l’absinthe, a trail of absinthe-related landmarks in Switzerland and across the border into France. After we left the museum in Motiers, my husband watched the kids at a nearby playground while I quickly took a 15-minute walk to a nearby village to catch a glimpse of another historic site on the route: Le Séchoir à absinthe. This building, located in Boveresse, is the last remaining barn from the pre-ban era used for drying plants, such as wormwood and lemon balm, to make absinthe. The main structure was built in 1893 and the lean-tos were added in 1901. The Musée regional du Val-de-Travers acquired it in 1998.
I hope to someday visit all the stops along the Route de l’absinthe and learn more about the history of absinthe production in this area. You may be seeing more posts about absinthe and some recipes using this fragrant alcoholic beverage in the future!
If you would like to visit Val-de-Travers and experience absinthe in the place of its origin, here’s some more information: