Snapshots from Jura: Absinthe and Little Fried Fishes from Bistrot de Pontarlier

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

A few weeks ago I said that for casual summer drinking, I prefer to sip on easy-going Pernod than to go through the whole rigmarole and ritual involved with absinthe. And this is true, with one notable exception: when I'm at the source.

On my recent trip to Jura, France, sponsored by the The Comté Cheese Association (thanks cheese guys!), we made a stop for dinner at the Bistrot de Pontarlier in Port Lesney. As it turns out, Pontarlier is home to one of the most important absinthe distilleries in the world. Distillery François Guy still produces its wormwood and Spanish green anise-scented concoction from the original Belle Époque recipe.

For a long time, wormwood, the principle flavoring ingredient in absinthe, was thought to be a mild hallucinogenic that would make drinkers of absinthe go crazy, causing all sort of societal woes.

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Gran Wormwood

As it turns out, that's not really the case. Most likely, the folks drinking the absinthe were crazy all along (and drunk to boot.) This is good news for us, because it means we can once again taste the herbal spirit in its full glory. And glorious it is!

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At Bistrot de Pontarlier, they do it up right. Order your absinthe, and a four-spigoted drip will be brought to your table along with a glass of the electric green spirit, and a slotted spoon topped with a sugar cube. The idea is that you place the spoon on the glass underneath the spigot, open it just a crack so that the water slowly drip drip drips through the sugar cube, dissolving it and flowing down into the absinthe below.

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As the glass fills up, the absinthe slowly transitions from transparent to translucent with a milky white color, a product of the precipitation of trans-anethole, an anise-derived oil that is only soluble in solutions of at least 30% ethanol.

I'm not one for unnecessary pomp, but there's something extremely relaxing and satisfying about patiently waiting for your absinthe glass to fill up drop by drop. It makes the first sip all the more refreshing.

What's the best thing to snack on while sipping absinthe? How about an order of fried ablette, the tiny river fish native to the region lightly dusted in flour and deep fried whole, served with just a squeeze of lemon. They're crunchy and salty, and go down like meaty chips.

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Absinthe Guy is not very cheap. 50 Euros per liter bottle, plus shipping to the USA, but it's good stuff. Of course, there are a number of excellent American-made absinthes popping up on the market today. A tasting at Serious Eats might be in order, but I'm afraid we'd all go a tad batty.

Do you have a favorite brand of absinthe??

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