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Absinthe Festivals: Boveresse & Pontarlier
by: Peter Verte

Though only 15 miles apart, Pontarlier and Boveresse are separated by more than an international border when comparing absinthe
festivals... both towns consider themselves to be the epicentre of absinthe, but Boveresse and it's 'Fete de l'Absinthe' can
lay claim to it first, and, in comparison to Pontarlier’s ‘Absintiades’, the Swiss (though in smaller numbers) seem to be
more serious about conveying the story of absinthe with others than the French.

Absinthiade sign on old Pernod Fils Railtrack overpass Pontarlier-2001

For five years the tiny Swiss town has hosted this country fair and flea market, which looks more like a reason for the locals to party
than a serious tribute to the herb that put them on the map.

Newly planted absinthe located just off the main street Boveresse.

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However, for historians, the extremely well written and researched festival catelogs can be easily compared to Marie-Claude Delahaye's original historical revue 'l'Absinthe;' in terms of sharing invaluable information on historical distilleries and absinthe production from the Swiss-side of the border. Ironically, most locals seem hardly interested in this minor detail and prefer to enjoy the picnic atmosphere and live local (extremely local) entertainment. The flea market is not big, and one has to sift through a lot of crap in order to get to good stuff, but it can be found. And, as of this year, the old absinthe drying shed has been finally converted into a museum, along with an upper floor in the town hall that was dedicated to a decently laid-out display of antiques, posters, stills, and a spice table featuring the ingredients that make up the 'green fairy,’ a cartoon version of which, has become the year-long symbol of the Val-de-Travers region. Though the past years’ festivals have been devoid of actual absinthe, this year the local legal version from Kübler was served, along with my personal favourite, 'la grenouille' a bright lime-green home-made concoction that might or might not contain absinthe, and only came out at night (no one will disclose what it is made of but i swear, compared to ‘la bleue’ it is actually hallucinogenic.) If one asks around enough, real, mythical Swiss la bleue can be found for purchase, though quality varies greatly and the price has risen from 30 Swiss francs the year before to 50-60. A cheerful, fun event, even though not many of the locals seemed that interested in strangers.

Pierre-André Delachaux-foremost absinthe hisitorian of Switzerland and a view of the Val-de-Travers, Boveresse

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The 'Absinthiades' in Pontarlier has passed into its second year, and I'm still not sure if into yet more oblivion than its first year. Though it managed to attract at least two French news crews, I don’t know how they found out about it.

Considering the town has a central museum with an entire floor dedicated to absinthe (along with a special room filled with fine original posters, assembled just for the event) and two distilleries now making the best commercially available absinthe in the world, the sole indication anywhere, that anything was going on in town was a foot-long, easily missed paper marker posted on a street sign at St. Pierre gate, marked ‘brocante absinthe’ with an arrow pointing inward. This has to be the only brocante in all of France that does not start until 1 pm, much I am sure, to the frustration of anyone who spends anytime going to French flea markets. The main event is held in the historic town theatre, which presents itself as an excellent space. Seller’s tables were placed around the room and prices have gone through the roof, though a real treasure or the uncommon good deal could be found, if one tried hard enough. The entrance to the snack bar was mocked-up to look like the façade of the ‘Café Georges’ from a famous old Pontarlier bistro, its image found on an old postcard.

Facade of the 'Grande Café Georges' Pontarlier France

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The snack bar served beer, coffee and juice, but no absinthe, nor any of the other fine anise-based liquors made by the local distilleries. This was a major disappointment and I am sure they were asked many times why they didn’t. A looped version of ‘Au Temps de la Fée Verte’ an excellent documentary made by a local Besançon historian played continuously on a television near the dining tables.

A 10-absinthe tasting also took place behind closed doors, and no list was publicly presented of the entries. The judges were not introduced, nor were credentials given, and besides Marie-Claude Delahaye and Benoît Noël, it is of my opinion that very few of them had ever tasted absinthe, except maybe for the local favourite, François Guy, which won. I did managed to sneak in, due to the kindness of a charming American woman, now local by marriage, and it was obvious from the strong colors presented by most of the absinthes, Guy could be picked out by sight alone. There was talk of a conspiracy. Taking that into account, Pernod-Ricard 68° came in a surprising second, possibly being that it was the only absinthe of original strength (overwhelming the habitual 45°-55° found in most modern French versions) and non-sugared (considering it looked like sugar was being added by some judges, even to products already sugared.) Neither La Fée nor Un Emile 68° were in the competition, for the reason that they are not sold in France Third place was awarded to the recently released Libertine, made by a distillery in Fougerolles, a long-time liquor producing competitor to Pontarlier. Like the entries, no printed list was made of the complete final results (nor will be), and when asked about how the others faired, I was told that the release of the descending order would ‘prejudice’ the 7 runners-up. Gold, silver and bronzed plated absinthe spoons, depicting the ‘Port de St. Pierre’ entrance to Pontarlier, were the awards.

The show was highlighted by a large display of vintage absinthe and pastis fountains, all coming from the same collector, who refused to be identified.

Fountain collection -Pontarlier

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An ‘automat’ (mechanical, moving statue) of a Belle Epoque dame was also on display, who continuously poured herself an absinthe throughout the day.

Automatic mechanical statue-Pontarlier 'absinthiades'

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The Germans have finally found Pontarlier and there were a few there who were representatives of Ulex absinthe and one or two on-line shops. They are in the process of creating their own festival, to be held in The Fatherland.

Once again, a cabaret dinner show was held at the Hotel de la Poste on Saturday night, and this year the total number of people allowed was upped to 60, from last’s year’s 50. Considering that 2000 people were claimed to have visited the Absinthiades last year (I think there was a slip with an extra ‘0’), it seems a bit short-sighted to allow only a few locals to attend. No one I talked to had attended, so I have no idea how it turned out. I suppose it might have been fun but it certainly reflects the paysan bourgeois attitude of this town to throw a party for their festival, but only have space for those they knew. No catalogue was created this year, but some new poster reproductions were printed.

The apparent lack of effort to try to involve those who made long journeys from outside the country (or even the region for that matter) or inform those curious about the history and production of absinthe, let alone wanting to taste it (except by the Pernots and François Guy at their distilleries) was quite surprising and disappointing. It was hard enough just finding out when it was to be held and where.

That said, if one put in the effort, a good time could be had, as long as one was absolutely passionate about absinthe collectables and could speak a bit of French.

The producers of both festivals still have a long way to go if they wish to be anything more than a little country fair or specialized flea market. The minimum would be to give detailed information of the events long enough in advance (on a frequented on-line site or search engine-the Boveresse festival has done this for years). However, it is still difficult to find good information about absinthe outside of the Web and French provincial regions rarely get good coverage about anything happening within their localities, even in France. Plus a more structured schedule of events once the festival starts. A more open attitude toward greeting strangers who wish to share their interest would be another.

Ian, Peter Verte, Boveresse Fée Verte (with illegal bottle of oxygénée in hand), Heiko, and Frenchman

However, this curiously reflects the secretive attitude of the absinthe collectors known as artémisophiles, who find their historical treasures then hide them away, never letting more than a handful of people ever see them. It’s just this doesn’t work well with a public event.

by: Peter Verte...

la Fée Verte - the Green Fairy