Alsace – Cultural Separatism

Alsace – Separatism in Food

NOTE in 2001 :  This was intended to be a chapter in a travel-food book. Details will have changed enormously since 1990, but the general principles, the distinctions between foods, will be much the same. HOWEVER I would be most interested if you can send me information about those changes and what you find.  Do so by email here — appropriate comments will be incorporated into the text.  I Will add images when I find them !!!!   You can submit images too…………..

There are those who doubt the seriousness of the contribution of Alsace to great cuisine, and those who declare that in Alsace there is the most refined and advanced regional cooking of France. Most of those who adhere to the first viewpoint are foreigners whose idea of Alsace cooking (with some justification) is that of heavy weight-producing massive plates. I  know of only one small English language book that is totally devoted to the recipes of Alsace — most English writers concentrate on Provence, because they think of it as a better place to live. Tra la la, we’ll see about that.

French writers, chefs, and English writers who describe the regions of France in a single volume, know better. The Robert Freson volume on the Taste of France contains by far the best, very short, account I know of in English on the cultural roots of Alsace food. Paul Bocuse’s most recent compendium gives good weight to the Alsace. Elizabeth David only tips her hat, and Patricia Wells is quite summary. Before I left Vancouver, several of the better French style chefs declared to me that in Alsace you will find the most imaginative and inventive cooking in the country. Perhaps they are not far wrong.

Many of the well known traditional Alsace dishes, from choucroute garnie to baeckaoffa, from foie gras to kougelhopf are heavy, often highly salted, cooked with butter or bacon fat or cubes (lardons). At first sight, especially when caricaturely downed with copious draughts of beer, they are not consistent with modern international tendencies toward light food and small portions.

A choucroute royale  will be a mountain of preserved cabbage, larded and seasoned, heaped with gigantic pieces of back bacon, ham, pig’s knuckle, at least a couple of kinds of fatty sausage, frankfurters or Strasbourg sausages, and as many other meats as imagination dictates. The mountain can be consumed by a single person in a restaurant, although it is often prepared for several, and as such fits, not unreasonably, the image of the Alsacien as gourmand and massive eater. While this kind of eating can and does occur, the modern Alsacienne cannot be bothered doing all that, and can be just as concerned about weight as anyone else. Hence domestically, and in many restaurants, there is more emphasis now on smaller servings of choucroute as a modest accompaniment to lighter dishes, and there is innovation to find ways of using it with different taste combinations.

Choucroute itself is a complex food with as many variants as there are commercial, artisanal, or domestic producers. It consists of finely chopped cabbage hearts, the outer leaves and stalks discarded, pressed between layers of salt (mostly washed out before final presentation) and left for several weeks to ferment. The taste of the final product, from highly to moderately acidic, changes as the cabbage is stored after fermentation is stopped. There is almost as much interest as in Beaujolais nouveau for the first arrival of choucroute nouvelle in the boucheries and delicatessens, which can be any time from July (where I sampled it in Katzenthal) onwards. When cooked it may be seasoned with lardons, potato, juniper, herbs, or left to its natural taste, and may be served as the base of dishes like the one I described above or as a bed, or lit, for almost anything. Some of these concoctions I will mention when we get to the restaurants that innovate on the basis of traditional beginnings.

The use of salt for preservation and fermenting is an art the Alsaciens have developed highly. One can be taken aback at the proliferation of sea fish dishes in an inland region (local river fish having almost entirely disappeared as a public source of food through heavy pollution and over-fishing). But salted fish, particularly North Sea and Baltic herring, and smoked salmon and trout, are part of the traditional fare. True “fresh” fish is rare, as it was in early England. But long before the invention of the refrigerator or freezer, Alsatian traders perfected the art of transporting fish well packed in ice, so that sea fish was a common part of the diet.

The use of salt for preservation à la choucroute was extended to other products, especially navets, i.e. turnips, (now, alas, quite rare in public menus) which were once used like choucroute itself, and beans. Josianne Syren’s book, describing potée aux navets salés simply says, from a base of salted turnips, make the suriruewa just as you would a choucroute and with the same ingredients.

The heavy use of salt, sometimes subtle, sometimes extreme, turned out to be the main difficulty I had with Alsace diets. It turns up of course in prepared meats of almost infinite variety, in cheeses, in sauces, to a level that is not so universal in French national cooking (although always in France and Italy I am aware of it.) I do not know what effects if any there are on blood pressure in Alsace; I do know that my own rose significantly, though perhaps not for that reason.

You cannot be long in Alsace before you discover that the country is both France and Germany, but wishes to be neither. The people do not love their cousins outre-Rhin, yet many of their foods and their dialect have important similarities. They love even less the centralizing mania of French bureaucracy and political life, a lack of amity that we will find repeated in many parts of France.  Read the rest