Comfort Yourself With a Chartreuse Blanket
Was that our winter? That brief dip in the deep freeze that saw the new year in and fluttered a few flakes of snow about the place, just enough to demonstrate to owners of four-wheel-drive SUVs the lack of invincibility those things are imbued with? At least it provided an opportunity to browse the LDB store for a little bottle of neon-green Chartreuse, that definitive cold-weather drink.
Chartreuse only comes in little bottles here--375 millilitres--and in only one variety, the Green (there being also clear and yellow Chartreuse; some even heavier-hitting with alcohol than the 55 percent of the Green). The price isn't little, nearly 10 cents a mil at $32.45.
It's anything but your everyday schnapps. Chartreuse has history and politics, tradition, secrecy, health claims, and cloak-and-dagger intrigue in its scrapbook. It isn't every liqueur that sojourned with Stanley into Africa to look up Dr. Livingstone. Or that ameliorates ruminant quadrupeds' upset stomachs--all of them. Or that can claim both Bon Jovi and Hunter S. Thompson among its aficionados. Or has a famous breed of cats named after it and a Canadian movie nobody can remember seeing. Chartreuse remains the most famous alcoholic drink still made by a religious order, and, like a lot of similar substances, it is shrouded in secrecy, which is not so much a shroud as a selling point.
The year was 1605 and an order of monks--les píƒ ¨res Chartreux--at a monastery near Paris were given a secret formula by the Maréchal l'Estrées, who was otherwise in charge of artillery for Henri IV. Is this telling? The manuscript--its title, An Elixir for Long Life; its recipe so complex hardly anyone could understand it--was already antique.
A century passed and the manuscript was brought to light again, in 1737, at le Monastíƒ ¨re de la Grande-Chartreuse, the main convent of the order, in the mountains near Grenoble. Here it was studied, concocted, and tweaked by one of the order, Brother Jéríƒ ´me Maubec, who had a deft touch with herbs and plants and ancient manuscripts.
The stuff tasted pretty good. The original élixir végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse also happened to run to 71 percent alcohol and proved as tasty as "medicine". It fairly flew off the shelves. The monks made a milder version--the Green Chartreuse--whose success was equally great and spread throughout Europe in a flash.
The ensuing centuries were full of marvellous intrigue: flights into exile, relocation, bankruptcy, legal and corporate wrangling, stock manipulation, surprising generosity by a group of businessmen who bought up all the near-worthless shares and sent them back to the monks as a gift, fires, mud slides, and more. There's a movie in there somewhere, and it's not Make Mine Chartreuse, a Canadian flick from 1987 with Joseph Bottoms.
Chartreuse continues to follow the original formula; to this day, only three monks are entrusted with the secret. What we do know is that some 130 herbs, plants, roots, leaves, and bits of bark are soaked in alcohol, then distilled and mixed with distilled honey and sugar syrup before being put into large oak casks and stored in the world's longest liqueur cellar to mature.
Taste it all on its own first and relish the unique, intense herby aroma. It gives new life to the venerable tradition of after-dinner drinks; the sweetness not so cloying as that of most other concoctions.
Cocktail ideas...most of them are fairly old; I don't see a lot of Chartreuse going down in Skybars and such. Chartreuse Champagne is lovely: a few drops of it into a glass of champagne, a few drops of cognac as well, stir gently, and drop in a twist of lemon. Or the French Green Dragon: equal parts Chartreuse and cognac, shaken with ice. Or the Rocky version of the Green Dragon: add an ounce of gin to the above.
Just about the best thing you can do with Chartreuse is to stir a shot into a mug of hot chocolate; that's known as a Green-Chaud or a Chartreuse-Mousse. Find yourself some of that Montezuma's Organic Drinking Chocolate at Sen5es Bakery (810 West Georgia Street), where staff say there should be more in stock in February, $25.95 for the tin, $14.95 for the "refill". It's the most amazing drinking chocolate I've tasted and with the addition of a shot of the green it becomes the apotheosis of hot drinks.
Coffee works well, too, as in a Série Noir: one part sugar, one part Green Chartreuse, one part Yellow Chartreuse (if you can find it, otherwise double up on the Green), three parts hot coffee, and gently cover it all with fresh cream. Let's see your baby barista do that one down at Bigbucks.
Cooks will have a good time experimenting; I have a great soufflé recipe, and there's a nifty steak condiment made with tomatoes, onions, butter, cream, and Chartreuse. But my favourite remains Bananas Chartreuse: peel four not-too-ripe bananas and quarter them the long way, then cut in half. Sauté in plenty of butter, sprinkle with a little ground ginger, and pour over a generous amount of Chartreuse. Ignite the whole, let it burn no more than a minute, and serve right away. Gelato Fresco Milanese Vanilla ice cream is optional. As always, experimentation is its own reward.
And it is true that Sir Henry Stanley carted a couple of bottles on his African expeditions and that Hunter S. Thompson loves to swill the stuff and that farmers in the Chartreuse hills still mix it with water and administer it to cows suffering from bloat.
And the cats? Those are the famous grey-blue Chartreux with the big golden eyes, one of the most highly regarded feline breeds in the world.
And, snow or rain or sleet or no, I'm planning to sit here by the fire with a mug of that Montezuma's 'n' Green and see if I can find a video store that has that '87 Chartreuse movie...