Vive l’évolution in Paris
The ban had contributed to absinthe’s mythology – its supposedly hallucinogenic qualities and a romantic association with artists and writers, such as Gauguin and Rimbaud. ‘I don’t think there’s anything inherently creative about absinthe, but it was very popular at a time when France was full of poets and painters, and so features in work that is still important today,’ says Luc-Santiago. Not that he is complaining about the cool aura of the drink. ‘We get young people coming in, attracted by the “drug effect”. Yet older people, who remember their parents drinking it, want to try it themselves, too.’
There’s something appealingly ritualistic about the absinthe-drinking process. The best place to partake is at La Fée Verte, which, as the name suggests, is a specialist absinthe bar, a short walk from Bastille (108 rue de la Roquette; 00 33 1 43 72 31 24). The Art Nouveau mirrors and a bar stocked with 15 types of absinthe evoke fin de siècle Paris – an ambience that is only enhanced by the silver absinthe fountain, filled with ice and water, and with four protruding taps, delivered on request to your table. A silver spoon with intricately carved holes in the curve is placed on a glass filled with a shot of Verte de Fourgerolles 72, one of the bar’s most-requested tipples. A sugar cube is balanced in the spoon, and a couple of drips of ice water are released, dissolving the sugar into the glass. A thick aniseed scent fills the air as the lime-green absinthe turns cloudy. Only now should you start to drink. Once you do, it’s clear that this is a liquor to savour. ‘You have to take your time with this stuff,’ says Luc-Santiago. ‘It’s a drink to enjoy, like a fine cigar. Compared with absinthe, other drinks are like hurriedly smoking a cigarette outside a Metro station.’
Jazz under the bridge
To find the musical heart of Paris, you have to leave the glory of the Seine and Haussmann’s boulevards far behind, and head north. A 10-minute walk from Porte de Clignancourt there is a busy motorway bridge, chock-full of traffic and fumes. Not the kind of place to stick on the front of a postcard perhaps, but this less-than-lovely structure holds just as prestigious a place in the cultural history of Paris as the Rodin Museum or Sartre’s favourite, Café de Fiore. For it was in a caravan under this bridge that a young guitar player named Django Reinhardt invented jazz manouche, or ‘gypsy jazz’ – the true sound of Paris.
Imagine a black-and-white film which is set in Paris in the 1920s or ’30s. A young couple – he in a chic suit, her in a flapper dress – are doing a quick step, swinging each other around a dance floor to whipsmart guitar, violin and double bass. The characters are moving just a little too fast and the screen flickers and judders. The music that springs to mind is jazz manouche – outlandish acoustic guitar licks, walking basslines, offbeat rhythm guitar – irresistible in its nostalgia for a pre-WWII culture of impossible glamour and suavity. Django developed his instantly recognisable style after a fire in his caravan left him with severe burns to his left hand, only two fingers of which could then be used to play the guitar.