Spirit level: thought to have addictive and hallucinogenic effects, absinthe was banned in France in 1914
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Absinthe friends: It’s time to fall in love with the green fairy

The Drink Column. 

The Sazerac may have been the world’s first cocktail but it wasn’t mine. Two decades in to my fitful but focused programme of spirit-based research, the barman at the Cat and Mutton on Broadway Market rinsed a glass with absinthe, poured in cognac, rye and two kinds of bitters and handed it to me like he was doing me a favour.

I didn’t have a problem with what was in the glass but I did with what had just left it. I’m afraid of absinthe. It’s one of the drawbacks of a degree in French literature; a lesser one, perhaps, than unfitness for gainful employment but an issue nonetheless. You can’t spend years reading the hallucinogenic poetry of Baudelaire or the delicately vicious stories of Maupassant and learning about their love of absinthe and their early, raving deaths without conflating the two. Absinthe is known as “the green fairy” but she’s the newborn-cursing (rather than wish-granting) kind. It’s no good pointing out that both writers died of syphilis. I’m a literature graduate, unhindered by scientific imperatives. For all I know, you catch syphilis from drinking absinthe, too.

A fearsome, raving death notwithstanding, the drink looked interesting and had a pretty name; and I’m quite brave when there’s alcohol in the offing. Reader, I drank it, and it was delicious – complex, pungent, with a liquorice bite. Legend has it that the pharmacist Antoine Peychaud invented the cocktail in 1830s New Orleans as a toddy for sick friends by mixing Sazerac de Forge et Fils cognac and his home-made bitters and, if the legend is right, no wonder it caught on. The brandy was swapped with rye whiskey when the phylloxera louse destroyed France’s vineyards; later, when the Cognac region was once again able to distil grapes, some bright spark started to include both spirits.

I’m not sure when the green fairy waved her wand over the concoction but her malign influence is apparent in that whisper of liquorice, to say nothing of my fierce hankering for another delicious, pernicious sip. I should have paid more attention to those 19th-century Frenchmen of letters. Here’s Gustave Flaubert on absinthe in his Dictionary of Received Ideas: “Ultra-violent poison; one glass and you’re dead. Journalists drink it while writing their articles. Has killed more soldiers than the Bedouins.” You have to admire a liquor that brings out the humorist in the author of Madame Bovary.

So I wound up in Spuntino, a bar in Soho – surely the patch of London that has the most affinity with convulsion-inducing liquors, to say nothing of syphilis – being shown how to make a Sazerac by the bartender Benny Locke. I may be preoccupied with absinthe; he’s obsessed with bourbon. Odd, really: no one ever banned bourbon specifically, as the French did absinthe, claiming it makes one crazy and criminal and provokes everything from epilepsy to tuberculosis.

Still, bourbon – corn liquor aged in charred oak casks – is delightful, sweeter than the spicy rye whiskey, and Benny drinks and creatively adulterates it, steeping fresh buttered popcorn in it and removing the fat with a strainer. His preoccupation has filled Spuntino with unusual takes on what was once moonshine for Southern farm boys, from high-end incarnations such as Van Winkle (which can go for over £350 a bottle) to Kings County, made in New York.

Benny holds bourbon cocktail-making classes at which you, gentle reader, can discover the allure of the Sazerac, so great that in 1919, F Scott Fitzgerald took a pitcher of it more than 250 miles from New Orleans to Montgomery to celebrate an important occasion. He doesn’t name the occasion; perhaps he couldn’t remember. The Sazerac, which now comes rinsed in a poison beloved of diseased intellectuals, was invented to heal the sick. Its creator did not specify of what. 

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle