On a rainy Friday, the adventure begins: I wander through the woods chasing the green fairy in Val-de-Travers! This mysterious valley in French Switzerland, extending from Neuchâtel lake till French border, is a woody heaven rich in firs and mines. It has a historical watchmaking industry and an even more famous tradition in the art of sparkling wine and absinthe production. Nearby, you can freeze in the famous La Brévine (brrr … nomen omen…): the coldest village in Switzerland, it is also called “the Swiss Siberia”, since in winter you can easily go to -30 C°, and it is a famous destination for cross-country skiing, ice-skating and beautiful excursions in summer.
Books and wines in Môtiers
After Gruyère and Neuchatel, my first stop is Môtiers, the district’s capital. Here Rousseau had lived for three years, from 1762 to 1765, after being exiled by Paris Parliament for his pedagogical novel “Emile”, and began to write his Confessions… maybe driven by the EXTREME peace of the village, whose citinzens, however, ended up in chasing him away. Today you can still visit his house.
Unluckily, I arrive late and cannot get into Prieuré St-Pierre, an ancient Benedictine monastery, where the Mauler family has been producing its famous sparkling wine since 1829 following the traditional method of “bottle fermentation”. After the grape juice has gone through a primary yeast fermentation, the wine is then bottled and goes through a secondary fermentation, where sugar and additional yeast known as “liqueur de tirage” is added to the wine. This secondary fermentation is what creates the carbon dioxide bubbles that sparkling wine is known for. Therefore, here is a good stop for wine experts 🙂 you can buy wine also on the online shop.
Undeground world: the mines
I don’t give up and decide to explore the La Presta asphalt mines, on a nice guided tour together with a French-speaking school. Discovered by a Greek professor, Travers’ bituminous limestone was initially used in medicine. Therefore, it was sold for commercial purposes and for road construction, reaching the peak when Suchard, an entrepreneur in chocolate business, bought the mine and exported its product all over the world. In the end, it was replaced in the 20th century by cheaper chemical asphalt derived from oil. Today you can visit the upper mine, not flooded, and see in which terrible conditions the workers of the mines had to live and work.
The green fairy in Val-de-Travers!
I come back to Môtiers, and here’s the meeting with the green fairy, unexpected and fairytale: in a small shop – apparently “too commercial” with its stills in the window – I discover it for the first time and get to know its special taste, together with its distillation methods, still today made in large artisan stills.
It is said that in Val-de-Travers for several centuries people had used to prepare an elixir by distilling Artemisia absinthum, green anise seeds, lemon balm and several other medicinal plants, considering it a “panacea to all ills”. Only in 1792 Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, a French physician exiled to Switzerland, discovered this traditional local tonic and made some slight alterations, making it officially “curative”. Upon his death, the recipe passed to the Henriod sisters of Couvet (Val-de-Travers), who tried unsuccessfully to sell the elixir on a larger scale. The recipe was then sold to Major Dubied, who soon opened the very first small artisan absinthe distillery with his son-in-law, Henri Louis Pernod: it was the beginning of the commercial success of absinthe, until its ban in 1910, under pressure from the beer and wine industry.
Absinthe has been forbidden all over the world in the first years of 20th century. Today, most countries do not have a legal definition of absinthe, unlike wine, beer, and most other spirits, so you can find a lot of different drinks sold with the name “absinthe”, and different regulations (here you can find an overview). In European Union absinthe cannot contain any more than 35 mg of thujone per kilo, with no minimum limit.
The nice seller in Môtiers explains me that the ban led to the reation of the green version of absinthe, the one with the highest alcohol content and also my favorite – the original one, in fact, is transparent. During those years, the fumes of the stills from the clandestine distilleries were extremely dangerous, therefore wormwood was also produced by maceration of the plants, in large containers, which produced a darker liqueur.
Therefore, the genuine way of drinking absinthe has nothing to do with the images of the maudits. The right mix of ice water, and it’s ready. No flambé, sugar and even less ice: the green fairy in Val-de-Travers would be angry, and your sleep would no longer be peaceful…