Many years ago, a friend gave me a birthday present consisting of three small objects, with a card that read: “What every young woman needs: a car, a taste of France, and a chance at a million.” The car was a toy car. The chance at a million was a lottery ticket. And the taste of France? Chewing gum flavoured with Pernod.
It was the perfect choice. Pernod and all those other anise/liquorice flavours (from fennel to tarragon) really do represent the taste of France to me. I didn’t grow up with them, other than the occasional box of liquorice all-sorts at Christmas (which invariably looked nicer than they tasted) or a long thin twist of red or black liquorice from the general store near the beach we visited in summer.
In France I first encountered the flavour in liquid form, but it wasn’t Pernod. You could buy a concentrated syrup of anise to which you added still or sparkling water, rather like the orange squash or Ribena we used to get in the U.K. To me it seemed a refreshing non-alcoholic drink, and oh-so French.
The alcoholic forms like pastis also required adding water, which accounts for all those colourful water jugs and carafes labelled “Ricard,” that you find in flea markets (some of ours are shown below).
Ricard was an anise-flavoured aperitif developed in the 1930s to rival Pernod (the company that originally manufactured absinthe), and one diluted it to taste at the table. (Ricard and Pernod have since amalgamated to form a single company.)
I also discovered fennel as an adult. My mother never cooked fennel when I was growing up. But after my first taste of fennel in a Toronto restaurant in the early 1990s, I was a convert. I ordered it whenever I saw it on a menu. In a restaurant called Chez Piggy in Kingston, Ontario, I found what I consider the definitive version: braised and silky. After some failed experiments, I found a recipe (shown at the end of this blog) that approximated the Kingston version, which is still my favourite way to eat fennel.
I like tarragon, but it won’t grow in our garden (not in the ground, not in a pot), although I have no trouble growing most other herbs. In our garden, tarragon becomes thin and etiolated and withers to nothing. I have no idea why.
At least I can find fresh or dried tarragon in local markets if I want to make chicken tarragon or tarragon dressing. I can’t say the same for chervil. We may live in a multicultural city where you can find nearly any ingredient from any country, but darned if I can find chervil anywhere. I buy the dried version when I go to France and hoard it carefully. (If you live in Canada and know of a source of chervil, please get in touch.)
Norman is also a fan of anise flavours and was thrilled to discover réglisse (liquorice-flavoured) ice cream at Picard during a hot summer visit to Paris a few years ago. We ate a lot of it on that holiday. (Actually, all the Picard ice creams were delicious.)
You can even buy anise pastilles in beautiful little tins decorated with pictures of a shepherd and a shepherdess gazing fondly at each other. They were first made by Benedictine monks in Burgundy. A company called Les anis de Flavigny still makes them.
All these similar flavours. I thought I should look a little closer and sort them out. I consulted The Visual Food Encyclopedia (a wonderful resource). The book makes a distinction between anise (the leaves and seeds of an aromatic herb, Pimpinella anisum, native to the Mediterranean region) and star anise (the fruit of an evergreen tree, Illicium verum, native to China). Here’s a picture of Mediterranean anise, Pimpinella.
The book tells me that anise can “tone up the heart” (whatever that means), stimulate digestion, and soothe coughs.
Both kinds of anise, as well as chervil, tarragon, and fennel, contain one or both of two chemical compounds that impart that distinctive flavour. One is anethole (as in aneth, the French word for dill, which has a similar flavour) and the other is estragole (as in estragon, or tarragon).
By comparison, liquorice is not a herb, but the root of a plant in the bean family (Glycyrrhiza glabra), native to several areas around the Mediterranean. It also contains anethole.
Anethole is responsible for the way in which pouring water into any liquid version of anise (pastis, ouzo, or absinthe) makes the clear liquid cloudy.
Now that absinthe can once again be sold legally in France, there is a whole ritual associated with it. We once went into a Paris shop that sold absinthe and the shop owner demonstrated it for us. First you need a special flat spoon with slots in it (some of these are very fancy). Here are some from the Wikipedia entry on “absinthiana.”
Put a small amount of absinthe in a glass and balance the spoon on the rim of the glass. Put a sugar cube on the spoon and pour very cold water over the cube and into the glass. Watch the liquid turn a cloudy pale yellow or green (the colour depends on the herbs used in its manufacture).
After being banned in France in 1915, absinthe returned in the early years of the 21st century under alternative names. In 2011, after a legal challenge, absinthe makers regained the right to use the word “absinthe” on their products.
There are several versions of the story about banning absinthe. Most commonly, one hears that the wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) in absinthe contained a hallucinogenic compound called thujone, blamed for all kinds of misbehaviour in absinthe drinkers, up to and including murder. Considering that wormwood is an insecticide, one does wonder what it did to humans, but apparently the concentration of the substance in absinthe was usually quite low.
Other versions say that the problem was simply that absinthe had an extremely high alcohol content and people got much drunker much faster. Still others say that contaminants in cheap versions of absinthe were to blame for hallucinations and the potential for violent behaviour. The absinthe drinker painted by Degas, however, doesn’t look particularly violent. She just seems glum.
But the drink definitely had a dodgy reputation. It was called not only “La Fée Verte” (the Green Fairy) for its colour and the likelihood of absinthe drinking leading to otherworldly sensations, but also “the Charenton omnibus.” Charenton was the site of a mental hospital and the idea was that drinking absinthe would take you straight there. Certainly, notable absinthe drinkers, like the poet Paul Verlaine, shown below with his glass, often behaved strangely. Of course, the volume of alcohol he consumed on a regular basis may have had something to do with that.
Verlaine’s Confessions tell of his struggles with absinthe. In one story, he comes home after a night of heavy drinking, undresses, and climbs quietly into bed, so as not to wake his mother in the next room. In the morning, she comes to rouse him and stares at him oddly. He assures her he hasn’t been drinking, no, not at all. Her response is simply to hand him a small mirror, at which point he realizes he has been sleeping with his top hat on.
What historians do agree on is the fact that the failure of French wine crops in the late 19th century because of the blight caused by the insect phylloxera led to a huge upsurge in absinthe drinking. Some go on to suggest that when the wine industry rebounded, winemakers lobbied hard to have absinthe outlawed so they could regain market share. Others note that there was a war on in 1915; the French needed to focus, and absinthe got in the way. Really, the history is as murky as absinthe with water in it.
Personally, we’re going to stick with fennel, tarragon, chervil, and the occasional pastis when we want that anise flavour. And whenever we make it back to Paris, we’ll head to Picard for their réglisse ice cream.
Here’s a recipe for you to try.
1 large fennel bulb or two small ones
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
Remove the fennel stalks. If using a large bulb, cut into eight pieces vertically so that each piece retains a bit of the core to hold it together. Smaller bulbs can be cut in four.
Heat the olive oil in a large pot on medium-high heat. Add the pieces and brown on all sides, at least 5 minutes a side, turning as needed. You may have to do it in two batches to allow each piece to brown. The browner it gets, the better it tastes.
When all the pieces are brown on all sides, put them all in the pot, add the wine, stock, and lemon juice. Turn the heat down to low and simmer, covered, for 25 minutes. If there is a lot of liquid at the end of this time, uncover, turn the heat up and reduce the liquid until it is thick. Season with freshly ground pepper. Serve warm.
Text by Philippa Campsie; photograph of Richard jugs and ice cream by Philippa Campsie; other photographs from Wikipedia and Gallica. Suggested reading: Phil Baker, The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History (New York: Grove Press,, 2001).