Saturday, May 28, 2016

La Belle É-"box"

Absinthe, that mysterious emerald elixir which calls to mind visions of bohemia complete with Parisian cafes, famous artists and enchanted evenings.  I knew that eventually I would want to write about it, and Thomas Cummings has given me the chance.  He produces his puzzle boxes under his “Eden Workx” label and is a self-described lover of hidden spaces, secret entrances and disguises.  Taking a puzzling concept from, as he notes, 18th Dynasty Egypt, circa 3150 BC, he has created a clever puzzle box from reclaimed barn wood, brass accents, and an old, hard piece of decorative wood he placed on top, which has a distinctive feature.  Etched into the wood are little squiggles which have a rather suggestive appearance.  Thomas said that upon seeing this, his wife queried whether it was “wormwood”.  While not made from the infamous bitter plant of that name, it is possible that little grubs might have burrowed in this wood in its past and left their footprints behind.  The name for this box went through a few permutations but in the end that was too good to pass up and it is now officially called the “Worm Wood” box. 

The Worm Wood Box by Thomas Cummings

The puzzle itself is fantastic and the interesting “worm wood” on top is just one of the nice details.  There is a brass dial or knob on the front, with some hinges, a few square studs around the top on all sides with verdigris brass accents, and a French polish finish to boot.   As a puzzle box it proves a very fun challenge complete with a few dead ends and misdirections, and a great ending.  As with his Navigator box, it has a rustic feel combined with an artistic finish, and provides a nice balance of novelty and difficulty.  Apparently the name also had Thomas searching out the “old bottle of Absinthe” – possibly to inspire another great design.

Are those worms on top?

Absinthe has a long, long history, going back to ancient Egypt and Greece and ending up in 19th century Europe where it was thought to produce visions in its imbibers.  It gets its name and the tales of its hallucinogenic effects from its most famous ingredient, wormwood, or artemisia absinthium.  Very high concentrations of the active chemical in wormwood, thujone, were once thought to produce mind altering effects.  Absinthe does not actually contain such high levels, and regardless, thujone has since been shown to have no such properties.  It’s likely that toxins and even poisons such as copper salts found their way into the drink due to cheap production methods in the late 19th century and that these are what made folks like Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec literally mad for the potion.  

Absinthe verte 

Wormwood was thought to have medicinal properties in Ancient Egypt and Greece, where it was used thousands of years ago to flavor wine.  Modern day Absinthe originated in Switzerland, invented by the physician Pierre Ordinaire in 1792, also with a medicinal purpose in mind.  They certainly had good medicine back then.  It’s not as silly as it sounds, since wormwood does have anti-parasitic effects and absinthe was used to effectively treat and prevent malaria in French soldiers of the day.  In the mid 1800’s it became the drink of choice for the bohemians and bourgeois of Paris, where it developed its air of magic and mystery, and was known as “la fée verte”, the green fairy.  Surely this was encouraged by the mesmerizing way that absinthe behaves when prepared in the traditional manner, which is by placing a sugar cube on a special slotted spoon which rests on top of the glass.  Ice water is then dripped slowly through the sugar and into the absinthe in the glass below.  Wisps of smoky, cloudy ribbons begin to curl and swirl around in the glass, creating what is known as a “louche” (French for “opaque”).  For you chemists, this is the result of herbaceous components in the drink which are not water soluble, such as anise, being released.  

The mysterious louche

Like the drink, the history clouds over around the turn of the last century, when another Swiss man murdered his family while under its influence (plus a tragic volume of other alcohol in his system as well).  World-wide bans on absinthe soon resulted.  In recent times, absinthe has been produced again, although with regulations on keeping the thujone levels extremely low.  France lifted its official ban in 2011, almost one hundred years after the backlash.  You can now experience high quality, authentic absinthe, either vert (green) or blanche (white), with its classic wormwood, anise and fennel flavors, at your leisure.  Whether you find artistic or other inspiration in the glass remains for you to discover.  Cheers!

A welcome pair of worm wood wonders

For more information about Thomas Cummings:

To read about his "Navigator" box please see:

For some classic and new absinthe cocktails:

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