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The spirit of the Mediterranean

By Andrew JeffordPublished: August 9 2008 02:59

Foot-pounded figs on a path, pine resin drifting from the forest, wild thyme scuffed into pungency – all evoke the Mediterranean, but none of these aromas is quite as evocative of life around the sea’s rim as is the aerial sweetness of aniseed. Sit down by the soft waves anywhere from Perpignan eastwards to Tripoli and Beirut, and it tends to be milky emulsions based on this spice that accompany the falling of the hours. The name may change (pastis, ouzo, raki, arak), but the flavour note is constant.

In France, pastis was a 20th-century creation; the term (a Provençal word for "mixture") first appeared in 1932. But its much-demonised 19th-century progenitor was absinthe. This strong, unsweetened liquor of Swiss Alpine origins was based on the wormwood family (especially Artemisia absinthum), particularly the original 18th- century recipe of Dr Pierre Ordinaire, later popularised with colossal commercial success by Henri-Louis Pernod. Wormwood has a bitter taste, so most absinthe recipes included Florentine fennel, green aniseed and other plant extracts to counterbalance it. The physical sweetening was provided by the drinker, who dripped icy water through a sugar cube on an absinthe spoon into the green liqueur below.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

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