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An Evening with Pernod

by Roberta Roberti
A friend of mine once said that the reason humans began drinking alcoholic beverages early on is because life always sucked. This is undeniably true. But every now and then, a particular beverage (or brand) stood out for reasons beyond mere ossification. Mead for its honeyed sweetness. Champagne for its effervescent luxury and prestigious birthplace. Cognac for its smooth, velvety darkness.

Then there's absinthe. Absinthe has a fascinating history, not so much for its flavor, cost, or even its origins. Instead, absinthe unwittingly claimed its stake in spirit history because of its purported effects on the brain. It was believed to cause hallucinations, epileptic seizures, and "madness." It served as muse to many artists and writers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Wilde, Poe, Hemingway, Degas, and Picasso. Eventually, it became the focal point for prohibitionists worldwide.

The brand name most closely associated with absinthe was and is Pernod-Fils.

A Pernod Cookshop

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a special Pernod cookshop in New York City. When I walked into the kitchen classroom at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) where it was held, I wasn't sure what to expect. After having done my research on absinthe and learning about all the mystery and mystique surrounding it, it was hard not to be excited. I knew full well that I would not be imbibing the true absinthe of yore, but a modern (i.e., legal) version of it-an anise-flavored drink known as a pastis (pah-STEES). Still, just the name Pernod sent chills up my spine. It was like hearing about Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, all your life, then finding yourself in Inverness, Scotland, walking alongside that deep lake. Even though you know you won't actually see her, you know she might be there lurking somewhere.

As if attending a party, we were welcomed into the kitchen classroom and offered a cocktail. One of our hostesses, Jennifer, a Pernod PR representative, told us that the traditional way to drink Pernod is five parts water to one part Pernod. "Some people actually like to drink it plain," she said, a bit astounded. So, compliantly, she asked if anyone in our little group wanted to try it straight. Initially, I was going to be conventional and drink it in the proscribed way. Then I thought, "What the hell? Let me see what this stuff really tastes like." I asked Jennifer for a straight shot and she handed me a tall water glass with about an inch of almost-phosphorescent yellow liquid. With a "cheers," we all downed our first sips. To some, it was a new flavor experience, a new sensation crossing their palates. For me, it was a familiar taste, one that came to me instantly, the second the liquid hit my tongue...Anisette! (For those of you of Greek persuasion...Ouzo!) Anyone who grew up in an Italian household would recognize that flavor instantly-every family get-together saw a small Anisette bottle sitting next to the espresso cups waiting to be tipped into the steaming coffee. I was finally able to put Pernod in a familiar category in my head, and among Western Europeans, it is a highly-respected category.

But wait, let me finish telling you about absinthe.

The Green Muse

Absinthe began as a tonic, created by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire in 1792, based on the known medicinal properties of an herb called wormwood. Wormwood had been used since ancient times to treat such ailments as fevers, menstrual pain, anemia, gout, epilepsy, kidney stones, colic, headaches, rheumatism, jaundice, and to aid in childbirth. It was given as a stimulant and antiseptic and was used to treat intestinal worms, which is supposedly where it got its name. Dr. Ordinaire's intentions aside, a fellow Frenchman, Major Dubied, was quick to pick up on its possibilities as an alcoholic beverage and bought the formula. Together with his son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod, he opened an absinthe production factory. In 1805, Pernod founded Pernod Fils, which became one of the most successful companies in France.

Several factors contributed to the enormous popularity of absinthe. One was plant lice (phyllexora), which attacked and destroyed much of the vineyards throughout France, resulting in a shortage of the wine supply. Another was French soldiers returning from Algeria. From 1844 to 1847 French troops, known as the Bataillon d'Afrique, used "absinthe soup"-absinthe mixed with wine or water-as a cure for dysentery. When they returned to France, they continued drinking the concoction for pleasure. Because of the demand, absinthe factories cropped up all over the place, making the price of absinthe plummet. Suddenly, the licorice-flavored green liquid was the cheapest way to get high.

What made it so mysterious? Absinthe tasted different, looked different, and behaved differently-when combined with water, it magically turned an opalescent white. This was called louching. It even had its own exalted ritual and paraphernalia for performing it. A flat spoon was rested on the rim of a glass with a sugar cube on top, and water was slowly dripped over it. This caused the sugar to fall, drop by drop, into the absinthe below. It was strange. It was hypnotizing. It was slightly creepy. Like something a junkie would do. Parisians would get together in one of the many new cafés springing up all over the city and enjoy their rite together, sharing their highs and talking in their own absinthe lingo. This atmosphere was like a Siren's song to artists and writers, finding inspiration from the spirit's resultant hallucinations. It came to be known as La Fée Verte, the Green Fairy. Other names were Green Goddess, Green Muse, and Opaline Muse. "Respectable" citizens were freaked out by this new counterculture and began condemning it (sounds like the 1960s, doesn't it?). Temperance movements sought to ban absinthe. A couple of ghastly murders were blamed on absinthe binges and by 1912, it was banned in the U.S. France outlawed it in 1915 and many countries soon followed.

Absinthe's effects were attributed to the wormwood. More specifically, it was wormwood's active ingredient, thujone, causing the problems. Thujone, in concentrated doses, caused convulsions in lab rats. The reality is that absinthe was just very potent. It was 55%-72% alcohol, or 110-114 proof-much higher than most alcoholic beverages-making it one kick-ass spirit. The drinker was slammed hard and fast. And don't forget that it was cheap, so a person could drink lots of it.

In 1920, anise-based liquors were legalized, only without the wormwood. Pernod Fils began production of their version of pastis. With a pronounced anise/licorice flavor and 40% alcohol content, today's Pernod can be enjoyed legally and with ease of mind.

Cooking with Pernod

The Pernod cookshop was taught by Frédéric Lauwerier. Ms. Lauwerier is a French culinary teacher who runs Le Diet Café, a cooking school in Paris. Frédéric began the class by explaining, through her interpreter and assistant for the demonstration, Max, the concepts of the recipes. Before I knew it, we were all aproned-up and standing at our work stations, knives in hand. We concasséd tomatoes, diced fennel, smashed pistachios, sliced oranges, and scraped vanilla beans.

If you've ever taken a cooking class, you know that there's a lot going on. Several courses need to be completed in a couple of hours. The instructor demonstrates and gives directions, all while you are expected to continue dicing, mincing or whatever. The assistants go around collecting the fruits of your labor (and your garbage) and participants try to keep up with what needs to be done without cutting off a finger. Throw into the mix a foreign language.

My French, by the way, is bad. Nonexistent, really. I can translate a little bit based on my knowledge of Italian and Spanish, but I never took it in school and French is very different from other Latin languages. So, I was at a little bit of a disadvantage when Frédéric spoke French or when I wanted to say something to her, although Max did a wonderful job translating. At least several others in the room knew some French. I felt ignorant. At one point, I felt like I was in an I Love Lucy episode. You know, the one where Ethel says the one phrase she knows in Spanish to Ricky's Cuban friends, so they start spewing stuff at her in Spanish and she just looks at them and says, "Oui."

I was smashing my pistachios and wasn't clear just how smashed they were supposed to be. So as Max walked around checking on everyone's work, I thought I'd impress him. I pointed to the nuts on my board and said, "C'est bon?" He looked at the board and said, "Oui, C'est bon. SomethingFrench somethingFrench somethingFrench." How could I respond without looking stupid? I had just about used up all my French and this man was saying stuff I had no way of understanding. I just looked at him and smiled, hoping he wouldn't realize what an undereducated American dolt I was. I learned that a smile goes a long way.

The real fun began when I was volunteered to go behind the stove and began getting my instructions directly from the Master herself. An instructor behind a stove teaching a class means business and when she tells you to ignite the Pernod in the pan, you grab those matches. So I did. As experienced in the kitchen as I am, I have never flambéed anything, not because I am afraid of setting myself on fire but because I am afraid of setting my house on fire. I have refrained from igniting the Grand Marnier in my Crepes Suzette or the rum in my Caribbean Bananas, not to save my eyebrows but to save my exhaust fan from being scrubbed with steel wool. Now I was going to flambé food for the first time in front of all these strangers. I scraped the tip of a match against the striking surface on the box, drew my hand close to the pan-sitting over an exceptionally high flame-and glided the match over the Pernod. As in a pyromaniac's dream, a flame shot up in anise-scented glory. I was very proud of myself. My silver bracelet singed a spectacular impression on my wrist, but it was a proud moment for me nonetheless. (And I saved myself an arm wax. I'm of Mediterranean descent, you know.) Frédéric looked at me, smiled and nodded, and that alone made the whole thing worth it.

After all the chopping, stirring, boiling, searing, and flambéing, it was finally time to eat. We all sat down at the banquet table and salivated. We were hungry and the long loaves of crispy-looking baguettes strewn across the table were making me crazy. First, there was a champagne toast to our lovely instructor and then the first course: Jumbo Shrimp on a Bed of Fennel and Tomato. The shrimp, sautéed simply in olive oil and garlic, was flame-kissed with Pernod. The result was an intriguing flavor that was barely perceptible, but strong enough to make you wonder as you're enjoying it. The fennel was subtly enhanced by its cousin flavor, anise, imparted by the Pernod.

The main entrée was Salmon Sabayon with Fondue of Tomatoes and Lemon Confit. The pink fish was perfectly cooked to flakey perfection. The sabayon, smooth and creamy and infused with Pernod, was light and flavorful (no doubt improved by my expert flambéing technique).

The piéce de resistance was the Anise Flavored Cream with Fresh Orange Salad. It was so pretty on my plate, I hated to disturb it with my spoon. The custard, soft and smooth, had a licorice cream taste that, again, would be difficult to pinpoint, but really came through. Presented in a tall aperitif glass surrounded by orange slices and topped with a few crunchy pistachios, it was visually and texturally enticing. The uncomplicated sweet discs of orange were dusted with a hint of cinnamon and seemed softer and lusher than oranges ought to be, thanks to the honey bath they had sustained.

I can't honestly say that I love anise-flavored drinks as beverages but I was pleasantly surprised at how delicate the flavor of Pernod can be when cooking with it. I expected an overpowering licorice flavor to pervade everything. Instead, the Pernod complemented the food, individually and as a whole, quite well, leaving behind herbal notes on the tongue. Strong in the glass, smooth in the plate.

According to its web site, Pernod is launching a new product, "Pernod aux extraits de plantes d'absinthe," containing an alcohol content of 68% and extracts of wormwood. It also has no added sugar, which conforms to the original absinthe formula, thus making it a liquor, not a liqueur. Still, the thujone content is regulated. (Somehow, though, the idea of drinking absinthe without the possibility of green fairy specters appearing before me puts a damper on it.)

Below are Pernod's Jumbo Shrimp Flamed with Pernod and Anise Flavored Cream recipes. They were fairly easy to make (of course, they're even easier when 12 people are making them). And while a bottle of Pernod costs on average $23.00 to $28.00 for a 750 liter bottle, a little goes a long way. To learn more about Pernod, you can go to www.pernod.net. If you want to take classes at Le Diet Café in Paris, the web site is www.e-dietcafe.com.

Pernod Recipes

Jumbo Shrimp Flamed with Pernod on a Bed of Fennel and Tomato

Serves 4 people

4 jumbo shrimp
2 tablespoons Pernod
2 whole fennel
8 tomatoes
1 garlic bulb
8 leaves basil
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper

Wash the vegetables and basil leaves thoroughly. Make a crosswise incision on the top of each tomato, then place the tomatoes in a pan of boiling water for one minute. Drain the tomatoes and cool them in a big bowl of cold water to stop them form cooking further. Peel the skin and dispose of the seeds. Cut the flesh of the tomatoes into small cubes.

The fennel
Cut off the green stems and external leaves, then chunk out the hard part from the central core of the fennel for use. Prepare in small dices. Pour 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan, cook the fennel for 10 minutes, and then add the tomatoes and crushed garlic. Let it cook for 5 more minutes before adding salt and pepper to taste.

The shrimp
Remove shell and de-vein shrimp. Rinse and dry with paper towel. Warm one tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan and cook the shrimp until they are a light and golden color, for 2 minutes on each side. Add 4 tablespoons of Pernod, warm the dish, and then flame it. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Place a jumbo shrimp on a bed of vegetables and decorate with sliced basil leaves.

Anise Flavored Cream with Fresh Orange Salad

Serves 4 people.

4 1/3 tablespoons Pernod
1 1/3 cups of skim milk
2 tablespoons corn flour (Maizena)
4 tablespoons light brown sugar
4 teaspoons unsalted, crushed pistachios
4 oranges
2 tablespoons honey
1 vanilla bean

The cream
Pour the Pernod into a pan, warm it up, then flame it. Add the milk and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Let it cool while adding 4 tablespoons of the Pernod with milk mixture to the corn flour. Then slowly add the rest of the milk and sugar. Pour this preparation into a pan, warm over low to medium heat, and continue stirring until the mixture becomes thick. Fill small glasses with the preparation and decorate with crushed pistachios. Place glasses in the refrigerator for 45 minutes.

The orange salad
Peel the oranges exposing the flesh and slice them in thin circles. Warm the honey. Open the vanilla stick and let it infuse in the warm honey.

Place a few orange slices on a plate, dress with honey, and enjoy with the glass of anise-flavored cream.

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