Absinthe, you may know by now, is an anise-flavored spirit that contains a mildly psychotropic herb called wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). The drink originated in Switzerland and was popular among Paris-based artists around the turn of the previous century. Absinthe was outlawed in many countries by the early 20th century. It has since been largely re-legalized.
Anise-flavored drinks without wormwood came into their own during the intervening years. In France it was pastis, ouzo in Greece, and raki for the Turks. Indeed, most non-Muslim countries on the Mediterranean produce such a drink. anise map
Culturally, anise drinks are most often taken during the afternoon or before the meal. But they are also consumed as a digestif. They aid digestion and deodorize the mouth. Most are sweetened, but a few, like traditional absinthe, are not. The formula may call for anise seed, fennel, licorice, star anise, or some combination. The spirit base for most comes from the distillate of fermented grape must: marc in France, grappa in Italy, etc.
As with absinthe, adding water to these liqueurs causes a milky color to form. This results from the oils in the spices coming out of solution with the alcohol. This may be referred to as la louche (FR: cloudiness) or simply the ouzo effect. Typically one part of liqueur is placed in a small tumbler and five parts of spring water is added. There are those, however, who prefer taking shots. Anise liqueur can be used in cooking and is an essential ingredient in bouillabaisse.
Several films I’ve recently watched depict these drinks in their natural setting. In the two-part Jean de Florette and Manon de Source, villagers in the south of France sit at café tables in the town plaza drinking pastis and gossiping. In the film The Edge of Heaven, Turkish immigrants living in Germany drink raki with most meals, sometimes to excess.
The next time you enjoy a Mediterranean meal, consider finishing with an anise-liqueur. The flavors are sympathetic and you will pay homage to the more legendary drink – absinthe. More on that subject is on the way. TPJ.