Wormwood

The Danes have a saying equivalent to “a fly in the ointment,” where in their culture, the fly is replaced with wormwood. The bitter taste of wormwood is used as a metaphor for something that spoils a good experience. But wormwood deserves a much better reputation. The herb has a wonderful taste, if used correctly. For example, wormwood is an essential ingredient in Absinthe, which is now highly fashionable in the coolest bars around the world.

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The word wormwood is phonetically related to the Italian word Vermouth. Wormwood is also an important ingredient in the popular aperitif, and historically, wormwood has also been used to flavour beer, as a way to create the bitterness in the beer instead of hops.

Woodworm is found in countless forms, both in wild and cultivated versions, not just because the plant tastes so wonderful, but also because its silver-coloured leaves are an attractive decoration. Roman wormwood is a favourite, with its rich aromas, it is an important ingredient in many liquors.

Woodworm is perhaps most famous – or infamous – for its use in the unique absinthe, a drink forever associated with bohemian lifestyle in Paris in the 19th century.

The potent drink was a favourite among artists during Paris’ famous Belle Époque period. Absinthe’s effect has been popularly described: “After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are …” It should be noted that some of the compounds in wormwood are closely related to Cannabinol, a substance that gives cannabis its intoxicating properties.

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Wormwood also contains a significant number of essential oils and its essential ingredient, absinthin, gives the drink its bitterness. Wormwood is also known for having a fair amount of thujone, which in large amounts may produce muscle cramps, since it interferes with GABA, a substance that regulates the function of muscle in the body. It is precisely thujone that has led to Absinthe’s myth as being a poison.

But there is strong evidence that thujone is not the culprit: Absinthe was a very strong liquor and it was heavily consumed in Old Paris, and this led to many people developing alcohol dependency problems. The effects were attributed to a high content of precisely thujone, but modern analyses of the old bottles shows that the amount of thujone was generally well below the safety limits that are stipulated today by European health authorities. The biggest health problems from absinthe can easily be attributed to the extremely high alcohol content. If people did not thin their absinthe sufficiently with water, the 80% alcohol content quickly became a serious problem.

Only a few people have used wormwood as the sole ingredient, since it requires very special steps before the herb’s pure essence can be enjoyed positively. In this regard, one of the most important exceptions is a Norwegian schnapps where Sea Wormwood is the only ingredient. A very short infusion time and limited amounts of the plant material are used to achieve a moderate bitterness. The end result can be wonderful – especially if the schnapps is allowed to mature for a number of years.

A good wormwood schnapps is a brilliant accompaniment to food that is fatty, like roast rib of pork or duck breast. At the same time, the schnapps has a potent aroma, which is noticeable even when the food being consumed is very strongly flavoured and pungent, for example mature cheese. Woodworm is a famous medicinal plant, which was historically used to stimulate the digestive system. A good woodworm schnapps is also very good for the stomach and intestinal system – especially after a lavish meal.