Saturday, May 7, 2011

Chartreuse and other Herbal Tonics

The history of Chartreuse liqueur is one of France's ancient mysteries. In 1605, the Carthusian monks of Vauvert, near Paris, produced an alchemical formula that had been developed through the Middle Ages, a tonic of medicinal herbs infused and macerated to produce an "elixir of long life." This medicinal recipe was sent to La Grande Chartreuse, the central monastery of the order, near Grenoble. By the year 1737, father Jerome Maubec had deciphered the formula, and production of the "elixir vegetal de la Grande Chartreuse" began. The liqueur was a potent 71 percent alcohol, starting with herbal notes, and a spicy, pungent finish. Conceived as a medicine, people were drawn to its particular flavor. The monks set out to produce a more approachable beverage. In 1764, Green Chartreuse was bottled and distributed at 55 percent alcohol. The distinctive flavor and green color was still derived from the 130 alpine herbs used in the original formula.

The Order of Chartreuse was dispersed in the years following the French Revolution, and production of their magical elixir was disrupted, but the secret recipe was preserved. By 1838, the monks began producing Yellow Chartreuse, a slightly sweeter tonic with an even lower alcoholic content of 40 percent, it's yellow hue derived from saffron.

A relatively recent addition to the Carthusian monks production is the Chartreuse V.E.P., which stands for Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolonge, exceptionally long aging in oak casks. The flavors and complexity of the elixir improves with aging, and this liqueur is intended to highlight those qualities.

Genepi and other Herbal Elixirs

Chartreuse is only the most widely known of these ancient medicinal infusions. All the countries of Western Europe produced such elixirs in the Middle Ages, and some have survived, though the recipes and brands have changed over the centuries. Throughout Southern France, many bright green herbal liqueurs exist today under the generic term of genepi (zhe-nay-pee). Genepi refers to any liqueur made of mountain flora or aromatic plants, and are often homemade, with no particular brand name or distribution. Some have no name of any kind, other than the generic term genepi. One of the better known liqueurs I have encountered comes from the town of Le Puy en Velay, a monastic town on one of the ancient pilgrimage routes of St. James of Compostella. It is called Vervain, named after its principal ingredient, verbena. Today, these elixirs are almost always comsumed for their spicy herbal flavor rather than their healing properties, but the stigma of their ancient origins remains intact, as do the magical compounds that gave them promenance to begin with.


For a few fleeting moments in mid spring, the elder tree blossoms with huge umbels of starry white flowers. Throughout Europe, this richly fragrant aroma is traditionally preserved in cordials, a simple syrup accented with a variety of flavors. My friends in Switzerland have an elder tree that yields their annual holunderbluten mit zitronenmelisse, elderflower syrup with lemon and honey. In it's simplest form, this is a refreshing spring and summer cocktail with gin, or a splash of soda. The famous French liqueur St. Germain is an elderflower infusion great for many other cocktails.

It can also be used to infuse cream for desserts, from custards, sabayons and panna cotta, to parfaits and jellies that go well with rhubarb, strawberries and other seasonal delights. Do not apply heat to the flowers, which will lose much of their heady citrus aroma and become very bitter. Allow the time for a cold infusion, and then strain and enjoy.