I was in Sainte-Croix the other day – envious, aren’t you? About a kilometre above sea level and blessed, at least on the day I visited, with grey skies, low temperatures and melting snow cascading from the slate-coloured heavens, this village is high in the Jura Mountains, near the border with France.
In case you were not aware, Sainte-Croix is a hub of the Swiss music-box industry and has a distinguished history of involvement in the production of mechanical movements. I was in town to poke about the workshop of François Junod, probably Switzerland’s leading automaton maker.
During the 18th century the automaton was le dernier cri in gadgets, and as a field it attracted some pretty interesting characters, including Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson, who stunned 18th-century society with his digesting duck. Apparently, there were hundreds of parts in just a single wing of this animal. It flapped, it waddled and it pecked at grain spread out before it. It even appeared to excrete, although the green substance resembling puréed spinach came from another compartment and involved no digestion of the seeds, so it would be more accurate to call it the defecating duck. Anyway, the defecating duck is no more, apparently having been lost in a fire in the 1870s; the world is a poorer place as a result.
As well as being a capital of automata, Sainte-Croix is also something of a centre for absinthe, as I found when I strolled into the Hôtel de France. It may not be Sexy Fish, but what it lacks in metropolitan glamour, it compensates for with a table displaying more than a dozen bottles of absinthe [first picture], surrounding a glass samovar in front of which were what I can only assume were alcoholically correct glasses, topped with the slotted spoon to hold the sugar cube over which the spirit is titrated.
Clearly this was the HQ of the local chapter of “Aficionados of Absinthe” or whatever it is called, as around the walls of the restaurant were reproductions of absinthe posters from the days of Toulouse-Lautrec, a time when you could not call yourself an artist unless you were frying your brain on this hooch. Absinthe is a proud product of this neck of the woods and the nearby Val-de-Travers is regarded by many as the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti of this stuff.
In particular, my eye was drawn to a poster [second picture] advertising Absinthe Bovet, depicting a cat with its head in a glass of the stuff, lapping up the milky-looking spirit with great contentment.
It has since occurred to me that there is a spectacular way of celebrating the area’s fame for automata and super-strength intoxicants. Given that the digesting/defecating duck is lost to humanity, there is surely a place for a mechanical model of a cat that drinks absinthe and then delights observers by appearing to empty its bladder.