Ah, almost summer! As the days here in Paris finally begin stretching out easily to ten p.m., on the sunniest early evenings, people everywhere are lounging on outdoor café patios or terrasses. In my ‘hood, we’re catching up on local gossip news, and just watching people go by as they leave the Père Lachaise cemetery. But some of us are taking advantage of what used to be called l’heure verte, or the green hour.
Maybe the French just like to refer to different times of the day using colors, because years ago, I became familiar with what people here call not the green hour, but l’heure bleue, or the blue hour. Anyone who hangs out with me knows that I’m a night owl, and in my first few years in Paris, I loved staying out all night to catch a glimpse of the blue hour.
When all of Paris was silent, I’d relish the walk home from wherever I was: the Zorba bar in Belleville, or an all-night film cycle (3 movies + breakfast for just 15€). Sane people were still asleep, and it was just before the pigeons began their infernal cooing. I quickly learned that the darkest hour of the night just before it starts getting light again is called l’heure bleue. Or was it?
After a little research that wasn’t only based on what Parisian friends told me at 4 a.m., I found out that the time between day and night when the Parisian sky turns that impossibly deep and yet vibrant blue can happen either at twilight or dusk (both times of day are crepuscule in French) – and both times are called l’heure bleue.
Artists love the blue hour: Françoise Hardy sang about it (above). Books and movies, like this Eric Rohmer film, refer to l’heure bleue. There’s even a perfume, invented in 1912 by Jacques Guerlain, whose favorite time of day was the “elusive crepuscule, that uncertain hour, the time when night hasn’t yet found its star.” Maybe Mr. Guerlain liked the blue hour because he was a “nose” – un nez – or a professional perfume creator. In summertime, it’s believed that the evening’s blue hour is the best time of day for smelling flowers – they release more perfume then.
But if early night time is the right time for smelling flowers, it’s also the best time to drink absinthe. Or at least it was at the turn of last century, when 5 o’clock signaled l’heure verte or the green hour – a kind of Belle Époque Happy Hour that lasted until 7 p.m. (In France, we have “Happy Hours” – plural.)
Absinthe less than wine
Although the Parisian upper-middle class was drinking the “green fairy of the boulevards” at aperitif hour in the 1850s – using an absinthe fountain to drip water slowly into the glass – absinthe was relatively expensive for the working class. But when Pernod began making absinthe on a larger scale in 1884, prices went down, and consumption skyrocketed. At that time, a glass of absinthe cost less than a glass of wine.
According to Wikipedia, “By 1910, the French were drinking 36 million liters of absinthe per year, as compared to their annual consumption of almost 5 billion liters of wine.” That’s a lot of absinthe. Sure, alcoholism was a problem, and you’ve probably heard that absinthe drove Belle Époque artists crazy (a myth which has been debunked here).
Under the guillotine
But how much of that information was propaganda put forward by disgruntled wine-makers, or by the increasingly popular temperance leagues? Alcohol landed on the chopping block in Europe (or under the guillotine, as in this caricature, right), and in 1915, the prohibition of absinthe in France brought the green hour to a grinding halt. Ironically enough, the years in Paris just before the prohibition – and those leading up to World War I – were known as…. the blue hour.
One of the most complete web sites I’ve seen about absinthe, most of which has been translated into English if you scroll down far enough on the pages, is the Musée Virtuel de l’Absinthe.
Absinthe cucumber cocktail
You may have already seen this recipe for a historic absinthe cocktail, La Zézette. But what kinds of absinthe cocktails are Parisians drinking nowadays? To find the answer, I went to La Fée Verte, a bar and restaurant specializing in absinthe, right in my neighboring 11th district.
At La Fée Verte, you’ll find many brands of absinthe to try, each with their own special flavor, including Vieux Pontarlier, Pernod, as well as quite a few specialty absinthes, like Marilyn Manson’s Swiss-made Mansinthe. (In the U.S., there’s absinthe produced right in California, Saint George Absinthe Verte.)
But for the moment, you won’t find many absinthe-based cocktails at La Fée Verte. That’s because Dragan, the current owner, only bought the place six months ago. Previously, he ran a small café on the boulevard Saint Germain. Let’s hope he’s planning on bringing a little of the Left Bank’s sophistication to us folks in the 11th, without the pretension!
Dragan’s current “house cocktail” is a quick busy-Parisian-bartender mix of absinthe and French limonade with a few cucumber slices thrown in – easy! I’ve made a slight change to get a little more cucumber effect by adding a bit of muddled cuke in the bottom of the glass. Worried about the muddled cucumber clouding your glass? (As if that’s all any of us have to worry about….) The louche effect will cloud your drink anyway.
Described by the Wormwood Society, “the louche is the final clouded effect and condition of absinthe after cold water is added.” Never mind that louche is also the French word for shady – or in Parisian slang, we’d say chelou. A lot less chelou is the Wormwood Society’s excellent tasting guide for absinthe if you’d prefer to drink the stuff on its own.
special material: cocktail shaker and muddler (or a mortar and pestle will do); four 8-ounce margarita or cocktail glasses
ingredients: ⅓ cup (80ml) absinthe
1 small (about 6 inches, or 15cm) organic cucumber, washed and cut in half
1 large 25-ounce bottle (750ml) sparkling French limonade soda (available at Whole Foods)
how to make it:
1. Place the margarita glasses in the freezer.
2. Peel one half of the cucumber, slice it lengthwise down the middle, and using a small spoon, scrape out the seeds.
3. Slice this half into ¼-inch (6mm) slices, and place them in the cocktail shaker or mortar. Muddle the slices just enough so that the fresh cucumber scent is released – you don’t need to mash them up completely.
4. Distribute the muddled cucumber evenly into 4 margarita glasses, and add a generous tablespoon of absinthe to each glass (you should use up all the absinthe).
5. Let the cucumber and absinthe macerate (or “mix intimately” as the French say!) for about 5 minutes. Slice the remaining half cucumber into ¼-inch (6mm) slices and reserve for the décor.
6. Add ¼ cup of crushed ice to each glass. (You can use your muddler, or a meat mallet and plastic bag to crush ice, or invest in these other gadgets if you make lots of cocktails.) Top up each glass, pouring very slowly, with limonade, and garnish each with 3 cucumber slices.