Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Drinking absinthe in Prague

Absinthe (also spelt 'absint', or 'absinth'). Almost every TEFL student who swings through Prague at some point in their city of a thousand golden spires itinerary has had their absinthe epiphany. Their green fairy initiation. For some it's simply an evening out followed by a day or two of serious hangover blues. For others it's an evening out followed by a day or two of serious hangover blues and interminable scrabbled calls and emails in search for a reliable and hygienic tattoo removers. Yes, no matter how you look at it, if you are going to drink absinthe in Prague then you need to be fully prepared for the experience and plan ahead for the inevitable fall from grace the next day as you wallow both helplessly and timelessly in a green hangover satori haze for what seems like a soulless eternity.

Absinthe is originally from Switzerland and was invented by the French doctor Pierre Ordinaire, who distilled wormwood and other herbs with alcohol as a remedy for his patients. In the late 18th century and greater half of the early 19th century absinthe was reserved mainly for the upper classes and socially privileged. Absinthe was often consumed first thing in the morning as a pick-me-up and again as an aperitif before supper (l'heure verte: the late-afternoon 'green hour'). However, because of a hike of wine prices at the time, proceeding poor grape harvests (and the common assumption that alcohol was needed to purify water - previously wine had been used for this purpose) absinthe soon became the staple drink of mainstream French culture and gradually leading into the late 19th century and early 20th century absinthe became increasingly popular with the bohemian crowd of artists and writers - Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh being prime examples of absinthe drinkers. Absinthe drinkers at this time often spoke of hallucinations connected with taking the drink, and one such vision was embodied in a Green Fairy which would sublimely appear to the absinthe drinker when intoxicated.

In actual fact absinthe has little more effect on the senses as do other types of high alcohol spirits and it has been suggested that the 'Green Fairy Effect' was down to poisonous adulterants being added to more affordable versions of absinthe in the late 19th and early 20th century. Some claim that it is the wormwood oil chemical Thujone which is the active hallucinatory chemical in absinthe but it appears that modern science refutes this claim. If you do drink absinthe today then essentially what you are drinking is a highly alcoholic herb based drink and the effects rendered are consistent with this description. Still, if you are in Prague then you should definitely try absinthe for the nostalgia and there is no better place than to have a late afternoon green hour glass at Cafe Slavia (Narodni 1012/1, Prague 1). After all, this was once the place of choice for late 19th century and early 20th century Bohemian absinthe drinkers, the place of choice for members - including the recently deceased Vaclav Havel - of the anti-communist intellectual movement Charter 77, and also where Hillary Clinton downed a glass with Havel whilst on one of a few unceremonious visits in the 90's to the Czech capital.

Viktor Oliva: The Absinthe Drinker. Hanging in Cafe Slavia in Prague 1.

If you do decide to drink absinthe then there are two official ways of doing so: the Parisian style and the Bohemian style. This is the way to drink absinthe the Bohemian style:

1. order your absinthe (obviously), but also ask for a spoon and sugar (and matches or lighter if you don't have any).
2. place the sugar on the spoon.
3. carefully dip the spoon with the sugar into the absinthe so that the absinthe just covers the sugar (preferably without any sugar crystals entering the drink). Then take the spoon out with the sugar intact once the sugar has absorbed enough absinthe.
4. very carefully strike a match or flip the lighter and set the spoon alight, making sure that the flame is well clear of the glass of absinthe.
5. when the sugar has caramelized, when the flame is out, immediately place the spoon with the caramelized sugar into the glass and stir vigorously (making sure not to spill any of the green liquid of course).
6. if you are drinking with a friend then toast him or her by chinking glasses and looking each other in the eye. If you are drinking alone either toast the bar person or toast an invisible entity.
7. say a prayer, and drink. Down in one. Please don't sip your absinthe. Drink it down in one gulp.
8. wait and if you have drunk or are drinking more then in the back of your mind clear your diary for the next day or two and quickly take a mental pic of where your toilet is located in your apartment in terms of being able to crawl there.

If pushed to recommend one particular type of absinthe then I would definitely recommend Hills absinthe - partly because this was the first absinthe available in Prague all those years ago when I first arrived on Prague's continental shores, and also because this absinthe seemed to work best 'Absinthe Bohemian Style'.

Hills Absinthe bottle
An ITTP request though...
Please. Please. Please.
If you are going to do this to your body then can you please do it either before or after the course.
Thank you :-)

Hezky den!/Lovely day!

Neville :-)