Vous-voulez rouge, blanc ou bleu?”
This was said by my new landlord in Môtiers. I’d been in Switzerland less than a month and he’d invited me to dinner. My French was minimal, his English was nonexistent. I guessed red or white referred to wine but bleu?
Because I’m adventurous I said “bleu.”
He brought out a cone-shaped glass and poured it about ¼ full of a clear liquid with a slight blue tinge. Then he put a filigree spatula over the glass and put a sugar cube on the spatula and poured water in. The liquid turned cloudy white. Lovely ritual, I thought.
I took a sip.
I was polite and finished trying hard to control my grimaces.
It was the blue fairy, green fairy or Boversee tea, also known as absinthe, which since the early 1900s was illegal. Môtiers and the nearby village of Boversee was where the drink was invented in the 18th century. Locals still made it despite the illegality. I was living in a Swiss moonshine area.
Absinthe became a major industry in the area during the 19th century and a favourite of many in Paris including Impressionist painters. Manet and Degas used absinthe drinkers as subjects.
It was banned in Switzerland in 1901 and shortly after in France. Two posters show cultural differences. The Swiss poster had a grumpy preacher holding a Bible pointing to a calendar and clock telling the day and hour it became illegal. Across the border in France, which also produced absinthe and a poster marking the end of the drink being legal: the blue fairy walked gracefully behind a beautiful horse-drawn casket with a bottle of absinthe on top.
The window of the distillery in Môtiers showing the blue fairy above and another distillery shield hanging about its bottling plant (below).
Absinthe became legal again a few years back. What a surprise when I visited Môtiers this week to find the tiny grocery store replaced by a distillery for absinthe.
However, given a choice of red, white or blue, it will definitely be red or white. To prove it we went to the champagne cave and bought a case of brut.