I don't know what I expected. Actual fairies perhaps. It was l'heure verte, the traditional time to quaff a pre-dinner absinthe, and I'd followed my guide, Nicolas, into the forest near the Swiss village of Môtiers in search of a natural spring called the Fontaine à Louis.
According to local legend, during the century that absinthe was illegal, la fée verte (the green fairy) hid a bottle of her forbidden liquor here for those seeking a covert aperitif. But rather than fairies, we encountered a group of jovial Swiss men already toasting their good health, and instead of being hidden in the foliage the bottle was sitting in a wooden birdhouse with a notice giving a telephone number to call if there's none left.
This tradition may have lost its clandestine thrill since the once-banned spirit was re-legalised in Switzerland a decade ago, having been prohibited since 1910, but it's still a novel experience. Nicolas poured us both a measure and I held my glass under the water trickling from the spring and watched it "trouble" the absinthe, turning it milk-of-magnesia white. We clinked plastic beakers and the notoriously potent liquid, part wormwood-bitter, part aniseed-sweet, slipped down my throat.
My woodland apéro came half way along the fascinating Absinthe Trail, a 35km tourist itinerary stretching from the Val-de-Travers in the Swiss Jura, where absinthe was invented, to Pontarlier in France's Haut-Doubs region, the absinthe capital of the world until the French outlawed production in 1915.
Linking distilleries, museums, restaurants and shops, this walkable Franco-Swiss trail illuminates the rich history of la fée verte – nicknamed for its sometimes green tinge – from its immense popularity in the 19th century through its clandestine years in the 20th and resurgence in the 21st.
The plant Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, has long been used in medicinal remedies to treat myriad ailments including worms (hence the name). Exactly who first made it into an alcoholic liquor is a story as opaque as the drink itself. But we do know that in 1797 a Swiss man, Daniel-Henri Dubied, acquired a recipe, saw its commercial potential and set up the first absinthe distillery in the village of Couvet in the Val-de-Travers. However, Swiss taxes on alcohol were high so, in 1805, his enterprising son-in-law, Henri-Louis Pernod, nipped over the French border to establish his own distillery in Pontarlier. It was here where absinthe really took off. A century later, Pontarlier counted 25 distilleries producing 10 million litres a year, and boasted a whopping 111 cafés selling absinthe, for a population of just 8,000.
Today, there are only two distilleries left in Pontarlier. The ban (only lifted in 2011) and the First World War closed most – but Distillerie Guy survived, mainly by producing absinthe alternatives. It was François, the fourth generation in the Guy family, who led an eventually successful campaign to make absinthe legal again.
On a tour of the premises his son, Pierre Guy, showed me the wormwood in the garden and the copper still where the intensely bitter plant is distilled before being macerated with other herbs such as aniseed, fennel, lemon mint, and hyssop. The exact recipe is a secret, but I got a chance to taste the end result when Pierre served it in the traditional manner: by letting water from an absinthe fountain (a kind of jug with taps) drip through a sugar cube placed on a slotted silver spoon over the glass, until the spirit is troubled to your preferred taste.
The spoon, the fountain and the pretty labels depicting the green fairy all add to the attractive aura of ritual and myth surrounding absinthe, and I can see why it became so popular – but not with everyone. Pontarlier's interesting museum details the backlash that followed absinthe's huge popularity in Belle Epoque Paris, when it was the beverage of choice for heavy-drinking arty types such as Toulouse-Lautrec. Among the exhibits is a 1906 petition by an anti-alcohol league blaming absinthe for madness, TB, and epilepsy.
According to Pierre, that was a lie concocted by the wine industry, whose vineyards were suffering from insect blight, pushing prices up. Lobbying to ban their cheaper rival, they promoted the notion that thujone, a molecule present in wormwood, sent people crazy. Pierre is dismissive, saying you'd have to drink six litres of absinthe in one day for the body to react badly to thujone. Certainly, if you drank six litres of absinthe you'd react badly to something – but it's more likely to be the 56-72 per cent alcohol.
Despite the bans and hysteria, the industry wasn't to be beaten entirely. The Swiss in particular continued to distil in secret, beginning a near- century of clandestine history that has peppered the Absinthe Trail with colourful anecdotes. In the village of Fleurier the garrulous Daniel Guilloud, owner of a once-secret distillery, regaled me with stories of confiscations and fines, absinthe-loving policemen and passwords.
And at Maison de l'Absinthe, a swish new museum in Môtiers, I peered inside a reconstruction of the secret room where infamous distiller Le Poilu made his liquor. He was later denounced, fled to Kenya and continued his sell his absinthe in Del Monte pineapple tins.
Now that the bans have gone in both Switzerland and France, it can be produced, quaffed and celebrated openly. I rounded off my trip at the annual absinthe festival in Boveresse (Pontarlier has its own this weekend), where stalls plied locals and tourists with free absinthes now honoured with awards rather than hidden away. Here, I troubled a final glass at the distillery of Philippe Martin, who recently gave up a city job to come home and take on his father's once-clandestine business. The ban may have brought a frisson, but now this region can champion a fascinating history and continue long-held traditions, fairies or no fairies.
A Côté, Môtiers (00 41 79 240 13 13; acote-motiers.ch). Doubles from CHF130 (£89).
Distillerie Guy (00 33 3 81 39 04 70; pontarlier-anis.com).
Maison de l'Absinthe (00 41 32 860 10 00; maison-absinthe.ch).
Distillerie La Valote Martin (00 41 32 861 2654; absinthe-originale.ch).
Celle à Guilloud Absintherie (00 41 79 568 52 35; absinthecelleaguilloud.ch).
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