17 March 2010
A (Small) Taste of the (Large) Alps
Navigating the cultural differences in the deep and often isolated valleys of the Alps is comparable to exploring the limitless boroughs of New York City. Though it is easy to feel worlds away when traveling in and out of them, some are separated by only a few city blocks. So it is with the Alps and, more specifically, the Western Alps. Driving over a pass or through a tunnel may only take a few kilometers but the differences in language, architecture, clothing and appearance, food and drink, and other cultural traditions are often leagues apart, even within the same country and same geographic region. Behold, Genepy. Or, Génépi. Or, Liquore di Genepì. Or, Liqueur de Génépi. All depending, of course, which deep, isolated valley of the Western Alps you happen to find yourself nestled.
Genepy is the general name given to a liqueur made in the Savoie region of France, the Valle d’Aosta region in Italy, and, to a lesser extent, the lower Valais region in Switzerland. These three areas are connected at the Mont Blanc massif and the alpine environment each share produces a drink that typifies not only the three distinct cultures (and many sub-cultures) but also the landscape from where the liqueur originates.
The liqueur itself is made from the silver genepy plant, also a general term for several species of wildflowers related to the wormwood family: Artemisia genepi, Artemisia mutellina, Artemisia glacialis, and Artemisia umbelliformis.
The genepy wildflowers flourish only in the three immediate regions surrounding the Mont Blanc massif and only at higher elevations of 2,000 meters and up to 3,700 meters. The flowers of genepy, which bloom only once a year, are dried and macerated in a neutral grain spirit (like vodka) and added to varying amounts of sugar and water. The color of the liqueur ranges from pale yellow to light green to dark green and is determined by the amount of chlorophyll found in the plant samples. The sweetness of the drink and the alcohol content (usually around 40%) is controlled by the producer.
Genepy is available commercially either in bars, restaurants, or markets but mostly within the three regional areas of the Savoie, Valle d’Aosta, and lower Valais. The audience for genepy is small and the commercial production is even smaller. In terms of manufacturing and selling genepy and the regulatory agencies that oversee such matters, the lack of popularity allows for some freedom of movement. Like limoncello in southern Italy, many bars and restaurants within these areas produce their own house versions to sell or pour after a meal. Typically the difference between the homemade and commercially produced versions is a matter of simply infusing the herbs with the liquor (in the former example) and distilling the ingredients (in the latter) which allows for better extraction of essential oils and tends to create a more refined, balanced, and vibrant drink.
So what is the taste of genepy? As its ingredients, geography, and climate from where it is produced would suggest, genepy tastes like springtime in the mountains. A good version is slightly sweet, clean, crisp, and nuanced with wild mountain herbs like chamomile. Like grappa or schnapps, the acidity is high, but unlike grappa and schnapps alcohol is neither the first nor the last component you smell or taste. Along with the sugar, the natural oils of the plants lend a viscous texture to the drink and the high altitude tannins impart a slightly bitter citrus element reminiscent of orange or lemon zest. As opposed to its richer, more brooding, and anise-based cousin absinthe, everything about genepy is bright, light, and fresh.
Historically, genepy is a drink made and contained locally in small, isolated villages and used as an elixir. Annual bottlings varied according to the August harvest of the plants and the preference of the individual villages. As is typical in folk groups, recipes were handed down mostly by word of mouth. Shepherds, or those tending livestock in alpine pastures, spread awareness and disseminated the elixir as they moved herds of livestock over mountain passes, inevitably coming into contact with other shepherds from other villages. Exchanges were made, stories were told, and the existence of genepy circumnavigated the Mont Blanc massif only topographically where the right conditions could support the production.
These days genepy is less a medicinal cure-all and more an après-ski pick-me-up or an after meal digestif. Production is no longer confined locally and commercially produced versions from larger firms like Dolin, and Pernot (who isn’t even located in the Savoie but in the Franche-Comté!), and by the fine monks at Chartreuse. Versions have even sprung up in places as far away as Provence and the Ardèche using imported genepy plants. The best are still produced in small batches and purchased at wine or regional specialty shops within the three region, three country area of the Mont Blanc. The unpopularity of the liqueur keeps prices fairly low: 750ml bottles, both artisanal and mass-marketed versions, average between ten and twenty Euros.
Within the fairly loose definition of what goes into a bottle of genepy, the result is a concoction geographically bound by ingredients and the foodways of very distinct folk groups. In other words, the herbs used to make genepy - indigenous to the area surrounding the Mont Blanc massif - along with the lifestyles and livelihoods of the people who inhabit that space, create a liqueur unto itself where, in most cases, it is virtually unknown outside the environment of the Western Alps. Order a genepy on the western side of Lake Geneva, for example, or in Milan, or anywhere north of Sion and it’s likely that the bartender will respond as if you tried to order a plate of tacos in Little Italy. And this is precisely what makes genepy so special: it exists as a literal offering of a people firmly rooted in a particular place. Genepy is a liquid distillation of history, aesthetics, folkways, and geography from a small, three-region alpine culture and to experience it is to inhabit, however briefly, a specific place and time.
Le Génépi book
Elexir Génépi poster