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Why Val-de-Travers is the origine of absinthe

August 23, 2011 , , ,

The bakery in Môtiers sells a wide range of local absinthes

The bakery in the small town Couvet in Val-de-Travers.

Local absinthes at the bakery

Where else in the world can you find such a fine selection of absinthe at the bakery? 🙂

Wormwood field in Boveresse

A wormwood field in the center of rural Boveresse in Val-de-Travers.

Absinthe barn in Boveresse

The absinthe barn in Boveresse.

The absinthe barn in Boveresse

It is used for drying herbs for the absinthe from Val-de-Travers.

Val-de-Travers is a green valley in the french-speaking part of Switzerland. It is the place where the first recipe for absinthe was created by a local lady who sold it to a French doctor around who arrived in Couvet in 1767 (Kaeslin, 2009).

If you know Switzerland you will understand why absinthe has originated here. Most of the french-speaking part of Switzerland, La Romandie, is mediterranean and the landscapes are dominated by wineyards.

Not so Val-de-Travers. The valley is surrounded by a Jurassic mountain chain and the temperature here is always a few degrees lower than a few miles south. The small village La Brévine at the northern end of the valley is called the Sibiria of Switzerland, because its current record is -41.8 degrees Celsius (-55.66 Fahrenheit) measured in the winter in 1987.

While the climate is too cold for domesticated plants like vine, it is ideal for a wide range of wild herbs that develop more flavor in a cool climate. The grand wormwood is one of the plants that grow wild in Val-de-Travers. Thus it is not surprising at all that a local lady made a remedy of wormwood plants since wormwood has been used for medical purposes in all cultures since thousands of years. But she made a very tasty medicine with the label “Extrait d’Absinthe Qualité Supérieure, de l’unique recette de M’elle Henriod de Couvet”, and when she sold the recipe to the French doctor Pierre Ordinaire who began to produce it industrially, absinthe soon became a very popular alcoholic drink.

As everyone knows absinthe then became part of the Belle Epoque (the Art Nouveau era in France) and a symbol of the bohemian lifestyle. The absinthe ritual with fountains was of course created in France. But in Val-de-Travers, far away from Parisian bistros, Montmartre and Moulin Rouge, things were just a bit more down-to-earth. The Swiss farmers used handmade local pitchers instead of expensive fountains. Instead of absinthe spoons they used grilles to lay the sugar cubes on it and normal spoons to stir the sugar in the glass.

In the evening of WW1 the big party of the bohemians was over and absinthe was banned in most of Europe including Switzerland and France. The ban didn’t keep the farmers in Val-de-Travers from distilling and drinking absinthe though. To them it wasn’t a fashionable drink: it was an important part of their tradition. My late father, who came from a farmer family in Northern Switzerland taught me that farmers were allowed to distill a certain amount of Schnaps from the different fruits they were growing. From cherries they made Kirsch, from pears Williams, from plums Pflümli, from apples Calvados and so on. Therefore I totally understand that the farmers in Val-de-Travers saw it as their inheritated right to distill absinthe from the wormwood that was growing in their Valley. They didn’t have the grapes to make wine or the cherries to make Kirsch. Farmers will always use what is growing locally, so the ban, that didn’t make sense to them was simply ignored. They continued to distill a few batches of absinthe for their own consumption as they have done it for more than hundred years.

One can even argue that disobeying authorities is fundamentally inheritated in the notion of being Swiss: The ancestors of the Swiss were Alemannic tribes which in contrast to Germanic tribes never merged to kingdoms because they didn’t trust others and preferred to live in self-ruled small populations. When the Austrian imperium occupied the Alemannic land, some rebels fought a guerilla war against the super power and won it. As a result Switzerland was founded in 1291 as a Federation, because just like their Alemannic ancestors the Swiss wanted self-ruled regions, called Cantons. Tiny Switzerland consists today of 26 Cantons of which each has its own capital and administration, a distinct language or dialect and, after so many centuries, still a separate cultural identity.

Therefore the farmers in Val-de-Travers didn’t feel like they had to stop making their favorite alcohol just because the bureaucrats in the national administration said so. And the local executive power was not really interested in smacking down too hard on the clandestines since they often were in family with each other.

Today the people from Val-de-Travers are of course proud of their history and their local absinthes. Most of them still distill only a few batches, often not enough to maintain a professional license as commercial distiller. The villages in Val-de-Travers are still very rural (actually very different than the rest of Switzerland). When you go to the local baker, butcher or cheesemaker you can buy a variety of local absinthes. You will notice that most of them are bleues (transparent absinthes). The most cited explanation is that bleues look like Schnaps which was perfectly legal to distill and to trade, thus the bootlegs from Val-de-Travers could smuggle a few bottles to the absinthe lovers outside of the valley.

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