Seed of delight

Immensely popular in its various forms throughout the Mediterranean, anise-based drinks are the best way to kick back on a hot afternoon.

     Print Edition: April 17, 2011

Anise is a traditional drink in countries on the fringes of the Mediterranean Sea, all the way from Lebanon to Spain. Different countries have different names for it but the taste is more or less the same. The Arabs call it arak, in Turkey it is known as raki, to the Greeks it is ouzo and in France it is pastis.

The residents of this part of the world drink it the way they drink beer in Germany and feni in Goa. It is their every day drink, a thirst quencher, the most popular tipple of the region.

Ouzo is a popular Greek anise-based liqueur that is best enjoyed as an aperitif with lazy lunches
Ouzo is a popular Greek anise-based liqueur that is best enjoyed as an aperitif with lazy lunches
Technically, anise is not a spirit like vodka or whisky; it's a liqueur. The former depends on the process of distillation for its flavour. Anise gets its flavour from various ingredients that are soaked in neutral alcohol after it is distilled. That makes it a liqueur. However unlike other liqueurs anise isn't as sweet and it is not an after dinner drink.

A number of herbs and roots go into the making of anise but its principal ingredient is something us Indians like a lot, aniseed, or what is known in Hindi as saunf. We chew saunf after a meal as a digestive and we eat it wrapped in paan leaves.

The classic absinthe fountain can dispense several drinks simultaneously
The classic absinthe fountain can dispense several drinks simultaneously
Anise could well be the next big thing here, though, so far, I have not been able to find a bottle in retail. There are two types of aniseed. One is the star anise that we find in garam masala and then there is fennel, the seed, that is more common. Both are used in making anise depending on the country.

Anise can be enjoyed as an aperitif before a meal but it is an equally pleasant accompaniment to a meal. Anyone who has been lucky to have enjoyed hospitality in a Mediterranean home will know that anise is synonymous with lazy, extended summer lunches in the sun: a generous spread of dishes to pick and choose from, salads with feta cheese, shelled prawns, grilled sardines, skewered kebabs, crispy calamari, stuffed mushrooms, ricefilled vine leaves, and, of course, anise. Whether it is arak, raki, ouzo or pastis, anise is sipped slowly, often between servings to cleanse the palate. The drink embodies a way of socialising in the region. I had my first taste of anise in its Greek version, ouzo. It's fascinating the way this clear, colourless concoction with its lovely aroma, clouds up when water is added to it. It is this attribute that gives anise its French name, pastis. The word is a corruption of the French word pastiche, meaning a mixture.

The French pastis has a more refined, smoother taste than the versions found in the neighbouring countries. It is the direct descendant of the very potent and deadly drink called absinthe-the muse of poets, artists and later, rockstars.

It was first concocted around the time of the French Revolution by Dr Pierre Ordinaire who discovered that wormwood-a narcotic herb-was a cure for just about anything. Further experiments created absinthe, which included fifteen other herbs including aniseed and coriander. He found that the curative effects of the mixture were heightened if it included an enormous quantity of alcohol: 68 per cent. That became the traditional strength of absinthe.

By the 1890s absinthe's high strength and peculiar form of intoxication from wormwood made it the drink of choice of European café society. Picasso painted absinthe bottles and absinthe drinkers and drank it himself. So did artists like Manet, Lautrec and Degas. Van Gogh infamously sliced off his ear after getting drunk on it.

Anise-based liqueurs are drunk both as a spirit as well as aperitifs
Anise-based liqueurs are drunk both as a spirit as well as aperitifs
Always notorious, absinthe was finally banned in Switzerland in1905 when one of its citizens woke up from an alcoholic stupor and found his wife and children at his feet, slain by his own hand (see poster on next page). Ten years later, France too banned it after the country suffered heavy losses in the World War I, partly due to extensive use of absinthe by its soldiers. Absinthe is still around, but it no longer contains wormwood which corrodes the liver as well as the brain. It continues to be a potent drink with a 55 to 70 per cent alcohol content.

Today, most of it is produced in Eastern Europe, mainly the Czech Republic. If you want to live dangerously, try the absinthe that is made in Bulgaria and bottled at just a little under 90 per cent! The absinthe you get today maintains its original emerald colour that had earned it its nickname, 'green goddess'. There are several ways of sampling absinthe. You can strain it through sugar into a glass and sip it slowly. The more adventurous put a shot of it in a glass, set it alight with a match, and suck it through flameproof straws.

When France banned absinthe, one of its leading producers, the firm of Henri-Louis Pernod, licked its wounds and launched a similar product but this time without wormwood and with lower alcohol content of 40 per cent. This became pastis, a sanitised version of absinthe without its venerable signature green colour. The company labels it as Pernod. The other quality pastis brand, Ricard, is now part of the same company, Pernod-Ricard controlling about 80 per cent of the pastis market.

How should one drink anise? When you order it in a bar in Paris, Istanbul or Beirut, the waiter will serve it with a jug of very cold water. Ideally, you should mix anise with an equal amount of water. As I earlier mentioned, adding water will make it cloudy, sometimes with a faint yellow or blue tinge. Never add ice if you want to drink it like the locals. Add sugar to taste, or drink it neat but the latter is not advisable.

Anise should not be confused with anisette which is a sweeter after-dinner drink with a lower alcohol content of 25 per cent. This liqueur too is made from aniseed together with cloves, coriander and other herbs. The most famous anisette brand is Marie Brizard.

Then there is sambuca, Italy's most famous liqueur. Sambuca gets its flavour from aniseed as well as elderberries and other herbs and roots found in the Italian countryside and mountains. Like most other anise-based drinks, this too is colourless and becomes cloudy when ice or water is added to it.

I would not advise using ice, as there's a better way of drinking sambuca: add three freshly roasted whole coffee beans. The beans decorate the drink but you can chew them as you continue drinking. The bitterness of the beans tend to highlight the flavour of anise. According to Italians, the beans represent health, happiness and prosperity.

A great way to drink Sambuca is to set fire to it while it's in the glass, blow out the flame before sipping it. The fun never stops with anisebased spirits, so sample its delights if you haven't already . Cheers

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