A low, dark doorway in an Antibes alley opens onto a set of winding stairs that spiral down into a barrel-shaped room. Small tables are crammed together next to overflowing hat racks. Visitors chatter contentedly as the cave matron slices through the crowd, doling out silver, spigotted reservoirs. This is where you go to sample the green demon.
We’d planned to visit an absinthe cafe from our very first European adventure outlining sessions. The opportunity to sample real, authentic, mind-warping absinthe was available only in Europe, as the genuine article is illegal in the US. We weren’t necessarily eager for visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads, though. Our main goal was achieving the illicit thrill of experiencing something uniquely European.
The travel guide labeled this place the absinthe destination in Antibes, which left me a little worried that it would be an ugly tourist haven, Europe watered down for fleshy American tourists with over-large cameras and fanny packs. Unlike many of the other travel guide suggestions, though, this place was the real deal.
For one thing, it was basically a cave. Dim, dank, and deep underground, the cafe held perhaps 25 seats. Not the kind of setup that’s designed to serve the tourist masses. A slim, small, thoroughly French woman wafted between tables, refilling waters and offering absinthe delights. Michael anointed her the “cave matron,” a nom de plume that immediately caught on.
This cave matron brought us absinthe in a gleaming silver container with small spigots and platforms on each side. The concept: Place your glass beneath the platform. Set a sugar cube on the platform. Gently turn the spigot. Watch as icy, sparkly absinthe drains from the internal reservoir into your glass, slowly melting the sugar cube along the way. The process requires patience and gentle handling of the spigot – too fast a flow and the sugar is unevenly distributed in the drink; too slow and the sugar doesn’t melt at all. It’s a very technical, precise drinking experience that would most likely seem overly complicated if not for the endless supply of hats surrounding us.
Yes, oddly, delightfully, the other notable feature of the absinthe cafe was the opportunity to share head lice with hundreds of other absinthe-drinkers. Dark trunks and hat racks held hats of all shapes and sizes, just waiting for the first few sips of absinthe to work their magic. As the green demon melted our brain stems and inhibitions, we became more and more enamored with the chapeau options. Hat after hat visited our heads. I dug through several trunks, desperate to find the hat that most perfectly complimented my drunk. I’m not certain I ever found it, but the journey was it’s own reward.
One reservoir of absinthe was enough for us – no hallucinations, but our brains were plenty blotto. We bid adieu to the cave matron and climbed out of the cave into the salty Antibes night. Other adventures (and drinks) awaited, but few so delightful as our time spent with the alcohol that caused moral outrage in the late nineteenth century.