The tipple of the thal

Fri, 03. Jul. 2020

Either you love it, or you hate it. The flavour has been described by some as “unpleasant”, and the odour “repulsive” and “nauseating”. It is one of the few food products whose simple evocation can provoke a wince of revulsion.

Either you love it, or you hate it. The flavour has been described by some as “unpleasant”, and the odour “repulsive” and “nauseating”. It is one of the few food products whose simple evocation can provoke a wince of revulsion. But Enzianschnaps (Gentiane in French), made from the root of the yellow gentian flower, is a classic Swiss eau-de-vie that has been produced in the Berner Oberland for well over two hundred years. Our local “yellow fairy” in fact has an enthusiastic following.

The yellow gentian grows in the Alps on calcareous soils between 500 and 2500 metres above sea level. The protected plant takes eight years to develop from seed germination to the first flower, growing up to 1.4 metres tall. Gentian roots have an acrid taste due to numerous bitter substances, which have an excellent appetising effect, stimulate the digestive system, and have antimicrobial and immunomodulating properties. They are also considered efficacious as a worming agent, anti-inflammatory agent, antiseptic, bile production stimulant, antipyretic, coolant, menstrual stimulant, and stomach tonic.

Gentian roots were known as a medicinal bitter remedy as far back as Roman imperial times. The ancient pharmacologist Dioscorides (c.40-90 AD) mentioned the yellow gentian as a remedy against the plague in his work De Materia Medica, and another antique medico, Galen of Pergamon (129-199 AD), recommended the root against gout and certified its great cleansing power for the body, “consuming” the sick juices and “opening” the constipation.

But it was the monks of certain abbeys in central and western Europe who, seeking new plants for distillation and the manufacture of liqueurs, brought gentian into the world of drinks from the middle of the 17th century onwards. Gentian distillation is mentioned in German archival documents dating back to 1620, and in Neuchâtel in 1796 it was recorded being made by a Michel Scheleppy, of Bernese origin. A report in 1805 mentions that “in the Pays d’Enhaut of French-speaking Switzerland, this liqueur is used only as a medicine, both external and internal, whereas the inhabitants of Gessenay and Siebenthal (Simmental) use it as a drink.”

Gentian harvesting is a low-yielding and laborious process, with 100kg of roots giving only 6-7 litres of brandy (about 30% less than that obtained from fruit brandy production; consequently, its price is higher). Once the gentian roots are harvested, they are either roughly washed, or simply rubbed by hand, then chopped up and put into barrels. Water and yeast are added to promote fermentation, which can last two to three months, depending on the quantities and the ambient temperature. During distillation, the spirit must reach a minimum of 37.5% alcohol content by regulation.

The resulting earthy and lingering flavor can only be described as unique. But the salubrious qualities and memorable savor of Enzian are heralded by many in the Saanenland. My father-in-law swears by it, a postprandial sip of Jänzene being a long-standing family tradition.

Enzian is best consumed neat, more as a digestive than as an aperitif. It is usually served as a “stirrup shot” (Steigbügel-Schluck), a f a r e w e l l drink for a shortly departing guest who already has one foot in the saddle. It is also said to be good for Swiss cows, being used up until a few decades ago to treat colic. In Château-d’Oex: 1000 Years of History (2005), the author notes: “whenever attempts were made to ban the distillation of gentian to combat alcoholism among the mountain population, protests arose and the importance of gentian for the care of livestock was stressed.”

Now, if only it worked on coronaviruses. Things around here would be a lot less bitter.

Alex Bertea


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