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. But they believe it is silly to engage in confrontation. They are sure of themselves, of their world, of their modest and recent successes, such as having dialect, at long last, recognized as a suitable subject for school teaching. They prefer to laugh at the French, rather than fight with them. There is a marvelously imaginative novel, Roue du Paon, by André Weckmann, published in both German and French, which expresses the happy go lucky lyrical style in which Alsaciens maintain their identity.
Because of the history of the language there is no agreed orthography. As elsewhere in the book I take the words of the menus as they come, in the spelling the proprietors used. The same word will have different spellings on different pages. Why enforce centralism? That’s not my kind of politics — except when it comes to good English, where I am as conservative as the next man!
During my two months of exploration I could not eat in restaurants every day — neither finance nor weight would permit that. I tried to find accommodation that would let me prepare my own meals, but found that most of the rental space in Strasbourg or Colmar was available only on one-year leases, and that the short-term vacation leases had mostly been fully booked for the summer since February. It was impossible to meet my original targets of Ribeauvillé, Riquewihr, Turckheim or Eguisheim — their touristy yet native charm was far too popular. And for various reasons there are almost no large-scale vacation apartment buildings as there are, for example, in the Midi.
However, by dint of finding cancellations I was able to obtain a sequence of apartments and hotel rooms, not always to my liking, in La Wantzenau (a sleepy dormitory for Strasbourg with excellent weekender restaurants), Gertwiller (famous for its spiced and gingered breads, too sweet for my taste, and where Madame and her husband – foreman in a major winery – provided me with an elaborately kitsch suite, radishes from a promiscuous vegetable garden, and discussed wines and food at length), St. Hippolyte (its roofs dominated by the Chateau of Haut-Koenigsbourg, and where you can find a great rarity, a marvellous Alsace red wine, Burgundy style, from the cave of Muller-Koeberl‚, and where the Hotel Munsch – Aux Ducs de Lorraine – has some fabulously romantic bedrooms, if you look beyond those with motel style), the outskirts of Colmar (economizing in the ware-house looking Motel Azur, with its basic hotplates, plug-in icebox for a supplément, and swimming pool sadistically kept away from guests during the extraordinary heat-wave), and a moulin hotel near Herrlisheim (with dark basic rooms but a charming courtyard that allowed us to escape outside with our word processors).
One of the most rewarding, because least expected, came from a leaflet pushed under my windscreen-wiper in a Colmar parking lot. Madame Klur-Stoeckl‚ of a friendly viticulteur family of Katzenthal devoted enormous energy to keeping a group of simple but modern studios and suites in tip-top shape for a continuous stream of guests. The picnic table outside by the lawn, with sprinkler going continuously in the heatwave, was a godsend, and because I was able to be there for a full two weeks, recognition and conversation with the villagers was easier than elsewhere. And I sampled some beauteous wines from the cellars — Gerwurztraminer vendange tardive, the magnificently light but non-acidic crémants, so much better to my taste than most champagnes, full-bodied Tokay-Pinot Gris, rieslings, edelzwickers, so many possibilities.
It was in Katzenthal that I found the fullness of the weekend fêtes — indeed, though I called in at several others, this was the one that moved me most, and seemed most spontaneous and happy-go-lucky. Every weekend through the summer and into the fall villages and towns in the region — even Colmar has its turn — organize a sequence of fêtes, taking whatever excuse they can — fête des frites in Illhaeusern, fêtes des pompeurs-sapiers, fêtes des pommes-de-terre, fêtes des crémants, fêtes de choucroute, fêtes de whatever-you-like. (Patricia Wells prints an excellent list of such fêtes in her Food Lover’s Guide to France. She also includes a very good list of market days in various towns.)
At such times barricades go up at all entrances to the village, reception committees take up an entrance fee, which usually includes a specially decorated dégustation glass, which you use to taste the wines of the area (for a price), or the freely distributed wines handed out from the procession floats.
The fête in Katzenthal was in honour of the Alsace Grand Cru Wineck, located by the village, and was typical in structure, beginning with official speeches on Saturday afternoon. Then the bands took over. It seems that every fourth building on the two short main streets (with one-block side-roads pointing straight at the sun-sloped vineyards) houses a courtyard with the structures and equipment of the encaveurs, where open dégustations take place, with the sleeping quarters of a three generation family are located, perhaps with guestrooms attached.
The streets are hung with coloured lights, the gates of the courtyards thrown open, trestle tables set out, and all the labour the family can muster is devoted to cooking the true, real, authentic spécialités de la maison. The tiny village of Katzenthal mustered at least eight first class bands distributed through the courtyards, all composed of locals, plus a visiting musique from Holland, with good singers from rock to Latin and Germanic schmaltz. Old and young join in waltzes and sambas, the tables fill, the wine counters do a roaring trade. Out in the streets, booths run by amicales — clubs and associations, including even school graduating classes — present sausages, crêpes, sweetmeats, waffles. A street barbecue loudly hawks pork chops.
As I tossed and turned that night, I heard the bands still doing their thing at four in the morning.
Sunday is naturally a bit of an anti-climax. The food continues, the bands try hard without let up. An open air Catholic service with Bishop and an appeal for Missions, causes some delay in getting going. At three in the afternoon a charming parade of floats, bands and costumes, women in their best, bearded men, a realistic Bacchus, self-conscious children and majorettes. The floats caricature steps in the making of the wine. From each chariot maidens pour wine liberally into the outstretched goblets in the hands of the happy onlookers. As the procession passes there is much gossip about who is who, and what they have been up to, and who they are romantically attached to (legitimately or not) .
Here I tasted my first tarte flambée (flammerkuche) [deliciously represented in the menu of the Lumière restaurant in Vancouver], which until then I had imagined to be a dessert. No, it is the Alsace version of pizza. It is based on an extraordinarily light crust, thin as stiff paper, with a most delicate filling of fromage blanc with herbs and onion, lardons and sausage pieces. It has to be baked on an open-flame fire, such that the flames slightly burn the outer crust, which is why cafés will not serve it except at pre-set times. (I subsequently had a pizza with a crust like that in Rome, but not nearly as delicate and without the interest of the filling.) It comes in a largish square, cut into smaller squares, which you can actually roll over sandwich-style. (There is a recipe in Patricia Wells.)
Here too I had my first fleischschnaka. Make a square of thickish noodle paté of mixed flour and semolina, egg and wine, spread it with soft herbed ground beef, chopped onions, egg to hold it and roll it more or less like an English jam roll. Serve it with fresh garden salad, and a wonderful mush of sautéed boiled potatoes flavoured with the universal lardons.
It was the excellence of the rich taste of the potatoes that alerted me to one of my favourite pastimes — finding and consuming the outstandingly prepared European, particularly Alsatian, potatoes. First, the potatoes themselves are firm and flavourful in a totally reliable way that no North American potato can match. It brought home to me in spades the arrogantly destructive influence of McDonalds in Europe, insisting as they do that their potatoes be standardized into the almost tasteless form that they have developed for their famous fries. McDonald’s would be doing a service if they reversed the process, and used a European potato in the authentic French (or English for that matter) fry form — but it takes double cooking.
Mostly, the Alsace preparation of potatoes is a two stage affair, whether the outcome is to be a salad or some form of side dish. With the fleischschnaka the side dish was deliberately mushy — not to the extent of mashed though — but the flavour seeped into the juices. In a salad the potatoes are firm, contrasted with the oily or mayonnaisy dressing. In many garnishes, the potatoes are firmly sautéed.
Whatever the end product, you first parboil the potatoes. Second, you fry them, or mix them with the salad ingredients, or both. The frying is short and light, usually in butter, almost always with lardons added, giving the distinctive taste — and, according to objective, perhaps with onion, chives, pepper, herbs. Yummy.
Notice I said fry in butter. When at home I am sold on using olive oil for nearly all fry-pan cooking, because, rightly or wrongly, I believe olive oil is best for you. But I simply love the taste of butter — when a boy I used to have a passion for cold left-over boiled potatoes liberally dolloped with butter. However, now being an olive oil man, imagine my surprise when I found how difficult it was to find olive oil in Alsace, even in the supermarkets. Nothing could point up more the regionalisation of French cooking. If you don’t use butter, or that horrible substitute margarine which simply cannot duplicate the flavour, in Alsace you use other vegetable oils, particularly sunflower or even peanut.
There were all sorts of fruit tartes, including my favourite, the Alsace-rich fillings of myrtilles, blueberry-tasting bilberries. There was palette fumée (schiffala), thick slices of smoked shoulder of pork served with salad of potatoes, poulet au riesling, tourte vigneronne, a flaky buttery pie filled with ham and mushrooms, and much more, all home cooked.
And the wine flowed.
At another such fête in Ammerschwihr, in honour of the grand cru of Kaefferkopf, I found a stand that offered a marriage of pastries and vendanges tardives, the late sweeter wines. You could find places to choose choucroute garnie, coq au riesling, terrine “Marquis de Schultis”, pavé de saumon à
In other words, mostly coming out of the ordinary homes of the community, cooked by men and women of great spirit, came a menu that you couldn’t match in any restaurant, with individual dishes presented with enormous pride and skill, and names that were as fancy as any that could be proposed by a chef of standing.
The day I arrived in Katzenthal to take up my apartment for a fortnight was 14th July. Of course the buntings were out, and as I found a corner to park I heard a band and saw a group of dignitaries and villagers in the square by the new church. I walked up and stood modestly at the rear while speeches were given forth, was noticed by a young man who worked for the cave whose proprietor owned the apartment, and forthwith invited to the reception afterwards. We all trooped up a short hill to a basketball court beside the community hall. The mayor gave a report on the activities of the year and the state of the community. Then inside we went for glasses of riesling, and large slices of kougelhopf.
This is the ceremonial dish in Alsace, offered on all public or private ceremonial occasions, proudly presented in all pâtisserie windows. It is a huge fairly well sugared heavy bread-cake, a bit difficult to take too much of, though post-cards show children covering their faces with the optional outside sugar coating. Nowadays the ceremony counts more than the gourmandise. [Compare Italian pannetoni}
The restaurants of Alsace can be divided into several classes — fast food booths and cafés, traditional restaurants à l’ancienne, ditto with innovation or more style, and national restaurants using traditional ideas as a basis of innovation within a national menu.
Many of the fast food booths you find, tucked between shopping boutiques or set out in the middle of a pedestrian mall, are excellently innovative. Au Bretzel Chaud is one of several chains where you obtain bretzels (pretzels) from a serving window. And what bretzels!
Here Paul Poulaillon has created one of the pleasantest fast food innovations I have come across in a long time, moricettes. They are essentially sandwiches served in fine bretzel dough shaped like small hot dogs with extremely tasty and carefully prepared fillings. In other places they are sometimes called Moritz or molicettes. They will give you catering trays as well, and they make bite sized equivalents for cocktails. The cocktail sizes remind me of the tiny cocktail patties provided by a Caribbean pattie maker in Vancouver; — the moricettes themselves, because of their high standard fillings, of the open face sandwiches so popular in Copenhagen.
Duck in port wine, salade alsacienne with potato and mayonnaise and sausage, forêt noire with ham and cheese, straight ham, with crab, with mountain sausage or salami, chicken, bacon and nuts, fromage blanc, terrine of salmon as good as anything you can get on Canada’s Pacific coast; and dessert fillings such as chocolate. One of my favourite light lunches was to take one of these from the main pedestrian mall in Colmar, walk into the square by the new town hall, order a beer from a café, and sit in the hot 30o+ sun, people-watching.
I couldn’t help wishing that Au Bretzel Chaud would establish an outlet or two in Vancouver, where the public seems famished for new kinds of fast food. But alas if that happened the concessionaires would probably down-market the fillings, as the so-called crêperies normandes do.
We’ll pass over the freshness of the ice cream, as I mostly had to do: poire Williams, apple, myrtilles…..
We’ll pass over, too, the mouth-watering displays of prepared foods in the charcuteries, pâtisseries, and the breads and chocolates, or we’ll be here all day. And the cheeses, especially from the markets. I could have had a totally different menu each meal for the two months I was in the area and not touched a restaurant, the only cooking necessary being a bit of re-heating. Only Paris and Strasbourg, to my knowledge, rival the choice of Colmar. One small bakery gave me a list of the breads available that day: eighteen, including bread with olives, with cheese, with bacon, Grahame with raisins and almonds, cumin. One well known chocolatier specializes in sugar-reduced confections.
The gourmet touch even applies to frozen microwaveable dishes. The only other place in my experience, believe it or not, which had such a range or microwaveable foods of such subtlety and success, has been Santa Fe, New Mexico. Since I didn’t have access to a microwave I had to use the boil-in-a-bag method. But I found that the French genius for the discerning use of herbs and sauces transferred most successfully, and that while, as is usual in such dishes, there might be too much moisture after cooking, there was not nearly as much as in North American versions. Incidentally, some brand names such as Findus are packaged precisely the same as certain cuisine minceur packages like Light Delight in North America, but with all the taste difference in the world. (The French genius for taste even applies to military food packs, as the American troops who were fortunate enough to taste them discovered in the Gulf War.)
The restaurants or inns serving truly traditional food are not to be found in the Michelin, except for one or two that come under my traditional-innovative category. Mostly you will find such dishes in Wistub or out of the way village cafes. They are worth seeking out. Here are some I found.
Around the rivers, of which there are not many, and particularly along the Ill, a happy kind of picnic style dish consists of fried carp with or without pommes frites. Indeed the Alsaciens are great fish cooks. But the only time I came across this on a menu was in Aux Trois Poissons, a small and generally over-rated place in Colmar near the fish market. It is served with a good salad, and a somewhat thick sauce tartare, in curved chunks with an excellently crisp non-greasy batter that would put British fish and chippers on their mettle indeed.
I didn’t get to eat much wild game — mostly my season was too early — but struck wild boar, marcassin, (probably of Polish origin?) at the Motel l’Européen, a watering hole on an island where the bridge crosses the Rhine toward Freiburg, where families picnic on rough grass and novices learn to water ski. The sauce was chasseur with a plentiful touch of red currant, though it was totally and unusually spoiled by the side vegetables which included beans, tomato, cauliflower, carrot, fennel, celery, red cabbage, and a dab of potato pancake, absolutely boiled to death, with no taste, substance or texture left. Extraordinary. Like Britain in the 1940s.
One of my favourites, which you can find often in Alsace restaurants elsewhere, and which I must always taste if ever it is on the menu, is tarte à l’oignon (recipe in Elizabeth David – and a great version available at Le Crocodile in Vancouver). It can be great or it can be ruined. One of the best examples is in the Alsace showcase restaurant on the Champs Elysées in Paris. And I had a wonderful one in L’Alsace Gourmande in Strasbourg, as well as many from charcutiers to take out.
It is always a bit of a chance. At Aux Dominicains in Colmar it was eggy, with little onion, and hard burnt pastry. At Chez Hansi in Colmar it was also eggy, with an excellent crust, and a good onion flavour, though the onions could not be seen — were they pulverized within? For my book the crust must be crisp, perhaps just burnt but not too much, and the onions should be at least equal in texture to the eggy filling.
One of my pleasantest homely finds was across the bridge and over the street from the world famous Auberge de l’Ill, or which more, much more, later, in the village of Illhausern. Both establishments have their own character right on the river. A la Truite is a simple village inn. I saw tourist cars wander by, look at it with disdain, and move on. What a mistake.
Here we have familial home cooking with fish that used to be from the Ill, but is now there hard to find, so comes from pisciculture on the edge of the village. It is run by middle aged ladies, more than willing to enter into a discussion of Alsace food. One woman was using an ironing machine in the corner. An old red-nosed man drops in for a demi of vin rouge and enters the discussion. The food is very carefully and proudly done. It is the sort of place that will not enter the guides, but is luckily not to be missed in any serious consideration of what Alsace food is to Alsaciens.
I had more than I could eat, just to sample. What about schiffele (schiffala), a large slice of cured ham, with delicious potato salad. Or caille rôtie with petits pois à la française, an exquisitely done little quail in a most savoury dark gravy. In places like this you don’t take the menu too literally, you roll with the offerings. Instead of little peas, the accompaniment was string beans fresh from the garden sautéed in butter and onion, and modest fries. Who was I to complain — soft and succulent, yet with every bit of texture clear, the finest beans I’d had in a long time. Or truite rosée fumée delicate farmed trout, lightly smoked by the ladies themselves, generously served with raw onion rings, butter, lemon wedge, tomato wedges, sprinkled with parsley. On enquiry, yes the butter is for you to tartine with (spreading both butter and trout on pieces of baguette). Of course you can have trout in half a dozen ways, carp, civet de chevreuil in season with spaetzle.
Since we seemed to be conducting a seminar I asked them about dishes that were mentioned in Roue du Paon. One of them, called mahlknepfle, I had not been able to find. Oh yes of course, they laughed, these are special dumplings that we always cook on Sundays for family feasts. (Alas I was unable to get there on a Sunday.) We do them with our civet de chevreuil. One of the ladies ran off into the kitchen and came back with one — small rolled dumplings mixed with bone marrow. They were not cooked, so I didn’t get to taste, but the idea seems delectable — dumplings to me need some kind of flavouring to make them palatable. On pp 9-10 the book lists some Alsace dishes that I hadn’t heard of, and did not see — but my hosts gave me some hints. The dishes were damfnüdle aux myrtilles, rappkiechle, cuissot de sanglier aux airelles – pot of wild boar with cranberry or myrtilles, gansekepfle – a goose “mousse”, griespfludde, suppeflaïsch avec meerratti – meat soup with horseradish. If anyone can track these down, do let me know.
In Katzenthal, though the village is totally rebuilt following the wartime destruction, there is a traditional half-timbered inn called Caveau Bacchus. Its advertisements feature a mechanical marionette band which blares which struts its stuff every so often during the meal. Like so many of these village inns, which may or may not be called wistubs, it is totally unpretentious, with casual though effective service, much coming and going of friends and relatives, and much back chat among the staff.
Here I tried out salade pot-au-feu, consisting of the “restes” (remainders) of a pot-au-feu, in other words left over stewing beef, cold, diced, mixed with touches of onion and boiled egg, set on a bed of lettuce, marinated in vinaigrette, sprinkled with finely chopped parsley. I can imagine no better way of using such “restes”, the meat full of the original flavours of the stew, enhanced by its marinade. And there were onglet au Gewurtztraminer, pommes de terres rissolées, salade verte. Alas, the beef flank tough and stewed to death, too salty, sprinkled with chopped garlic, garnished with soft potatoes for absorbing juice and a modicum of ordinary salad. Perhaps you like it that way. I didn’t. You can’t always win when you are experimenting.
Mind you I didn’t have to have it. I could have tried, in this little inn, salade mixte – cervelas et gruyère, cassolette d’escargots, cassolette de Munster (fromage, jambon, mushrooms), pain de crevettes (shrimps with toast), poulet au riesling, beignets de truite, schiffala with sauce raifort, marmite de ris et rognons, tête de veau vinaigrette, bouchée à la reine, quenelle de foie with pommes de terre rissolées, vol-au-vent de gibier, escalope à la Pilsen et à la crème. But I didn’t.
A better known inn of this type is the Caveau “Morokopf” (Moor’s Head) in Niedermorschwihr. I couldn’t get a straight story as to why Moors figure so prominently in the nomenclature here. It is another timbered inn, with an open patio at the back. Proprietress in bathing shorts (there was a heat wave on). She shakes hands with party of troisièmes ages, on crutches. The proprietor walks around doing little. A boy of around 12 gets in the way enthusiastically helping. Large voices. Waitresses mature and competent, but not chatty. They don’t know where the salmon comes from (certainly not from around here).
But I had it anyway, in the form of a tarte. And was I glad. The not too thick but decently firm pastry was totally, generously, filled with delicately herbed salmon. Oh ye cooks from the Pacific West Coast, where salmon is so good, how much you could learn from a visit here. And the schuffala, too, was worth the visit — generous slices (palette) of smoked pork = ham, with horseradish and a marvellous salad of potatoes, sautéed, marinated in oil and vinegar. And the tarte aux myrtilles, pièce de résistance as far as I was concerned, the pastry firm and thin, so as not to detract from the enormous filling of blueberry-like bilberries. That is another thing that North American pastry-chefs and cake shops need to learn — make the pastry firm, not soggy with wet materials, and fill it with the fruit. It is the contrast between pastry and delectable fruit that counts. And don’t overload with sugar. Let the natural flavours do the job. They will. Wherever I went in Alsace I took a piece of tarte aux myrtilles and never was I let down.
Other traditional dishes on the menu included pôté vigneron en croûte, tripes au riesling, bibeleskés with fromage blanc, and pommes sautées, presskopf, baeckaffa (for four), wèdle (jambonneau), fondue de vigneron (for two), rognons au pinot noir with spǣtzle maison. Anyone who thinks Alsace food is limited to choucroute and sausage is greatly mistaken.
My inspection of the famous baekaoffa (recipe in Elizabeth David under the name Beckenoff) came at a small-town hotel, the Hôtel du Soleil in Neuf-Brisach, across the Rhine from the dramatically castellated town of Brisach in Germany. The short-handed staff of townspeople was doing its duty manfully and womanfully and with some disorganization in view of a fête d’honneur that was taking place in the hotel’s large salle next door, from which speeches and laughter and song emerged playfully. It was a Sunday. In the dining room itself, we visitors consisted of passing tourists, and bikers, some middle-aged, some young, daring with their sweat and grubby shoes to penetrate the holy of holies, the place where families take their meal. There was an African dignitary who seemed to be having a study tour. And there were two inhabitants, sitting at a table, with sharp words flowing between them, all smiles and happy discussion as people came in and out of the fête, and stopped with surprise as if to say why aren’t you in there with us? Much shaking of head and bitter laugh especially from the man. One could imagine the invitation to attend had not been sent, and he was making his point very clearly.
But the baeckaoffa for all that, was disappointing. It is essentially a stew, with several meat components, in this case cooked to a dry death. I made a note to try somewhere else, but never did, the dish usually requiring some notice and being served for several.
It took some time to get to eat at S’Parisser Stewwele in Colmar until I found it was open only at certain evening hours, inside a traditional drinking inn with habitués dropping by for a half-litre, with a few tables apologetically set outside on Place Jeanne d’Arc to catch the passing tourists. I asked the firm efficient waitress, who seemed to have a proprietorial interest, what Stewwele meant. She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m not Alsacienne, how would I know? I think it means small dining room.” The indoor decoration mixes some pretty awful kitsch with typique ditto, e.g. the big brass “Controle” sign over the bar with a monkey climbing up it. The service matches. He who brings the wine carefully smells the cork and wipes the bottle rim in such a way that some of the muck goes inside. The wine itself, riesling in half-bottle, is sour to the taste.
The food, however, although the sautéed potatoes smack of Paris, is interesting. Bibelekas was served as hors d’oeuvre, fromage blanc coming in a side dish and pommes sautées in another. The fromage blanc is mixed very strongly with garlic and some parsley, the potatoes are served thin sliced and crisp, so much so that I thought they had not been pre-cooked, but was told they were. The saucisse croque paysan aux pommes de terre consisted of a large veal sausage with the sliced and diced potatoes and herbs cooked inside the sausage, with delicious effect. La salade de choucroute crue Hansi – gésiers confits, cervelas grillé, boudin noir grillé is the sort of thing the Alsaciens do to perfection, though this one was rather meaty and heavy, with pieces of kidney, cervelas and boudin grilled sausage on a bed of choucroute.
Many of the offerings are board written. Among the ones not noted so far elsewhere were salade de filet de canard, la salade de magrets de canard fumés, l’onglet lucher bem [brushed at the last minute] à l’ail, le saumon fumé sur lentilles vertes du Puy, la terrine de pêche et melon.
A true bierstube, winstube = wistub right in the tourist track is the Ville de Nancy on the main street in the charming be-floralled town of Riveauvillé. Here the emphasis is on drink, with limited menu items, some of the tourtes coming across the road from a one star hotel dining room (the Vosges, see later). By luck I had one of these, a magnificent tourte au riesling, salade verte. A large slice, two inches or more thick, entirely filled with ground pork and its seasonings, top and bottom pastry absolutely comme il faut, not at all thick, retaining crispness. If with eggs would be a wonderful competitor to the greatest English bacon and egg pie. Plain salad. It more than made up for the bad-tempered waitress. There is also a terrine de marcassin garnie, escargots à l’alsacienne, a wide range of beers and the wines of Robert Faller by the glass.
Other great simple dishes I remember. An omelette paysanne in L’Alsace Gourmande, the terrace of the sterilely modern Sofitel in the heart of Strasbourg, a place nevertheless which brings together fashionable journalists, men and women, worth admiring, from the offices of the local Alsace newspaper. It was flavoured delicately with chopped onion and ham, the texture perfect, and admirable potatoes on the side. Here too I enjoyed the fine Alsace lentils, which can be as perfect a bed for food as choucroute itself — I had them underneath a perfectly smoked Kaessler chop, with a sausage as garnish……!
Another terrace that is worth while in Strasbourg is attached to the famed Kammerzell, a three story restaurant in an old timbered building, of which more below. Their tourte vigneronne with salade verte is a classic, a flaky buttery pie filled with ham and mushrooms, without any of the gup you get in English pies, gup which results from inadequate pastry or making up for the lack of content with farinaceous (or other) glue. It is also a great place for watching the crowds, tourist and other, milling about the place that abuts the cathedral, especially on a hot summer day, and quality-price is infinitely superior to the lesser terraces on the near-by streets.
And finally that heavy dish that for a while I avoided, le jambonneau confit sur choucroute, pommes vapeur. I had it in the Vosges mountain retreat of Les Trois Epis, built around sanatoria, with breathtaking views of the Rhone valley and (if you let your imagination penetrate the pollution haze) the Black Forest. When I found some oxygen to allow my breath to recover I entered L’Auberge, the casual-in-the-European-manner-thence-stuffy verandah of a pretentious hotel. The pork knuckle (jambonneau) looked huge on its bed of choucroute as it came and I thought it was the wrong order. But most was the huge bone, and the meat came off firm and succulently tender rather like a good osso bucco. The choucroute was full and redolent with its lardons. Straightforward pommes vapeur, without skin, very slightly buttered. Simple, but not at all easy to bring to the point, to get that pork so delicate it melts in your mouth and you feel ready for more……
But times change, and with them food tastes. The home kitchens of Alsace do not make the heavy choucroute garnie in these days when young women are at work, or have different ideas about flat tummies, or men have heart attacks in mind. So there is a great deal of change, as is evidenced by the success of cuisine minceur pre-prepared dishes in the supermarkets. And chefs are looking to go beyond the old-time and find new things to do with the classic — with much success. Even the pâtissiers get into the act.
One of the good pâtissiers of Colmar, Sitter, had a major contract to provide easy-to-eat food in the arena area of the Colmar fair, that enormous exhibition of wine and other delights. In its honour he created the shiffala brattstall, a bretzel brioche with a mousse of smoked pork shoulder, refined and appetizing; a sorbet coupe of blanc brut Dopff au Moulin, excellently mild, very like the colonels I used to have in Geneva; and, alas unavailable for tasting, what sounded to be a very promising pomme bière, roasted apple stuffed with sabayon of frangipanni, sauced with an eau-de-vie of beer.
Fifes figure prominently in the nostalgic history and present ceremonial of Ribeauvillé, that most charming of towns that maintains its air of traditional village, close up against vineyards and the Vosges mountains, despite being a major administrative and commercial centre, with its walking streets of half-timbered houses thronged with tourists who seem part of the natural fauna, with its charcuteries and pâtisseries that rival those of Colmar and Strasbourg.
Zum Pfifferhaus is a Wistub in traditional inn style on a site that was once the gathering place of the ménétriers, the pipers and minstrels. Inside it is decorated with vivid murals recently painted by an improvident habitué in return for his flagons of wine — they are worth the visit in themselves.
Totally ignored by Michelin, given good marks in the Pudlowski Guide (which, however, makes uncalled for rude remarks about the ownership), and voted by national chefs in Les Restaurants des Restaurateurs to be one of the best 39 restaurants outside Paris in the Family category, who is right? I am.
There is no excuse but prejudice for the Michelin omission, prejudice against anything that is not “national” cooking. For this is adaptive, may be even inventive, Alsace cooking, presented with great care and immense culinary concern. Only eight tables (four chairs each, or banquettes), and at least five chefs and their helpers in the kitchen, two women hostessing and waitressing — what are the economies? Not of scale, that’s for sure. Specially printed cloths, magnificent dried floral display. Françoise Laurent signs her name to the menu; the group of chefs is headed by a distinguished looking man. Pudlowski criticizes the accueil very sharply.
I do too but in a different way. The waitress was off-hand, young but humourless (maybe the high heat?). My wine glass was chipped on the rim, and two others chipped at the base. The patroness was business-like, fine, and afterwards talked in a straightforward, helpful way about the food and the restaurant and other places where there are good Alsacien menus. Called a Wistub, nevertheless the emphasis was definitely on food rather than wine — I did not see a wine list, but I believe the ambience changes in winter, when there is a steady stream of local clients, most of whom right now will be en vacances.
So, the food? Epitomized I think by la salade Ganzalies’.This is a goose salad in the manner of Lies’l, the young lady character in the Alsace folk tales of Hansi. On a bed of mild choucroute with oil dressing goose gizzards (gésiers). Surrounded by red salad leaves, on which lie thin slices of smoked goose breast. Soft, mouth-watering, simple, delectable.
Or take if you will le boudin aux pommes en feuilleté, an imaginative and well conceived dish. The apples and boudin (blood sausage) are mashed very finely together, resulting in a colour that is totally boudin, and a slightly sharp taste, the whole in an excellent croûte. Served with a redolently tasty salade de pommes de terre and a small green salad. You might try, too the kassler (smoked pork) en croûte, le jarret de porc sur choucroute, or les rognons mijotés à l’Alsacienne.
No visit to Strasbourg is complete without a visit to the Kammerzell, a fine old heritage house with dining room upon dining room rising several stories with windows opening in the summer onto the cathedral, a place for Strasbourgeois doing business or enjoying themselves, as well as visitors. The service from top to bottom of the hierarchy is delivered with style and friendship, and so is the cooking, the whole ambience, despite well-filled tables, thoroughly peacefully pleasant.
The basic cooking approach is French “national” with a careful representation also of Alsace food, traditional and modern. On this fine lunch day I tried first the salade de poireaux Adeline. Notice how the Alsace chefs love to call their salad creations after their ladies — in this case Madame Baumann Mére, the grandmother of the family. The leek is thin, chopped small, very lightly cooked (minus three minutes) for blanching only, hence some bits were strong in taste, on a bed of lettuce and sprinkled with chopped chives. Simple, but perfect.
For long I had been puzzled about the popularity, on menus, of fish with choucroute, since choucroute, however blanched it may be, continues to have a strong flavour by comparison with most sea creatures. Since choucroute aux poissons figures prominently on the Kammerzell menu, I decided this would be the best place to put the combination to the test. I have to give really high marks for the excellent execution. My big question is whether fish can take choucroute. The theory I suppose is that the acidity is somewhat like that of a lemon, hence it should be alright. Of course the choucroute is mountainous and overwhelming when it is the main object of affection. In this case, three fish, flétan (halibut), salmon and smoked haddock were filleted and laid on top of the choucroute, which itself was quite powerful. (I wonder if halibut in Europe is the same as halibut in the Pacific, because it would be hard to get a Pacific halibut filleted down so thinly, looking rather like sole.) So the fish were theoretically strong, but I did not find them so in practice, and had to accustom myself to the idea that the choucroute was going to dominate. The whole was made successful by being served on a butter sauce that I found was an excellent way of marrying the ingredients when you made sure the butter permeated the choucroute; but this may not have been the intention. If I had known I would have asked for more of the butter sauce, since there was not enough to penetrate the whole. Visitors at a next table were impressed with the look of mine, large though it was, and three ordered it; the fourth contenting herself with an hors d’oeuvre of smoked salmon on choucroute crue.
This allows me to digress to another Michelin decorated restaurant, Au Fer Rouge, in Colmar, one of the most unnecessarily pretentious and stuffy French restaurants it has been my privilege to attend. Again in an old heritage house, with a young well-known chef in command of the kitchen, the “welcome” is a put-down all the way. But the cooking can reach superb heights. So it was there that Claudia and I tried another fish-choucroute combination.
Sandre à la choucroute et aux lardons sauce arôme de lard, it was called. It demonstrated like no other dish I tasted that it is possible to marry choucroute and fish according to the modern taste, without burying the fish in inappropriate (to us) strong tastes. The choucroute was finely cut and delicately flavoured, the sauce was light and only slightly infused with the “lard”, but in such a way as to link perfectly with the fish which retained all its integrity while gaining from the accompaniments.
My first attempt at fish with choucroute, however, was not quite so successful. It was at the Zimmer, a lovely bourgeois dining room in the first Alsace village of La Wantzenau, on the Ill north of Strasbourg, almost a dormitory suburb, full of restaurants of style.
Medaillon de lotte sur son lit de choucroute et ses lardons. The highlight, however, were the most beautiful pommes de terre persillées on the side, my first, unforgettable, experience of the magnificence of French potatoes on this trip. The choucroute, alas, struck me as being far too strong for the delicate lotte blended with a touch of tomato and fine ham within. The lotte in itself was full of texture and flavour, but not well conceived with its lit. Accompanied by pommes de terres gratinés with touches of carrot and zucchini.
But to return to the Kammerzell. There you may also sample choucroute au saumon frais, choucroute au confit de canard, choucroute jambonneau (waedele), suri nierle (rognons aigrelets comme chez ma Grand-Mère), baeckeoffa (surely moister than the one I reported above).
Both the Kammerzell and Au Fer Rouge are accorded national status in the guide books, which gives me the opportunity to make the transition to the reputedly great restaurants of the region, of which these are two. Much to their credit, there is not a one that does not make the most of Alsace ingredients, recipes and ideas. But I have to say, too, that they can be disappointing on occasion (as well as the epitome of fine cooking) if you depend on Michelin as a bible. It was here that I began to have confirmed my opinion that the good unnoticed French restaurants of Vancouver are often worthy of two stars in the Michelin galaxy. Some of Michelin’s one-star I would not give up the time of day for (though occasionally there is one that is worthy of two); and you cannot depend on the cooking unless there are two or three stars, and then not always. So out of this lot, what did I find?
Let me munch you through a selection. In doing so, I notice that in these restaurants I seem to have given as much, if not more, attention to the appetizers, listed in the correct French manner as entrées, and, for the first time, apart from tarts, to desserts. In contemporary French restaurants it is not done to speak of hors d’oeuvre — who in their right mind would admit to something being outside the main work???? — and the size of portions of the preliminary courses is often large enough to constitute a meal, and at main dish prices or thereabouts. Indeed sometimes the main dishes are an anti-climax. The openers are total works of art. And the apex of French culinary skill lies in the desserts, where the genius for blending tastes is epitomized.
I have already mentioned the choucroute of sandre at Au Fer Rouge in Colmar, I may say one of the most expensive restaurants we came across. It is an old house on the edge of the tourist district, with a totally charming centuries old exterior. Inside the decor is Old Colmar, divided into small discreet rooms, though being in the first downstairs room, we did not see the whole.
Although it is modern cuisine Alsacienne of the finest kind, as good as anywhere we sampled, with delicate marriages, the prices are simply not worth it — not even entrées are under 100 francs ($20 as the franc was then – remember this was in the early 1990s), many main dishes (and some entrées as well) are substantially over 200 — since you can get similar cuisines, as well prepared, elsewhere for much less. Claudia had a menu consisting of terrine de caille au foie d’oie, pot-au-feu de lotte aux arômes d’anis, feuilleté de pigeon farci à l’estragon, plateau de fromages, crêpes fourrées à la crême de citron et au coulis de framboises, for 350 francs, a somewhat more economical way of finding a delectable, well balanced meal — provided that night you have the stomach for it! She did. One of the great things about Claudia is that if you bring on delectable food, she has the stomach for it. No ifs, buts, or maybes…
For starters there I had six small oysters in their shell in a totally soft light échalote sauce. There are so many other starters that gave pleasure.
I remember lapereau en gelée au tokay, little pieces of rabbit with a wine-tasty gelée including touches of carrot and herbs, small slices of tomato and artichoke on the side plus a very small salade vinaigrette served with a main dish price. (Note: The Alsace tokay is a dry wine, unlike the Austro-Hungarian).
I was at Chambard, an elegant restaurant in Keysersburg. One star in Michelin, Pudlowski says it has the epitome of Alsace chefs, but there is hardly a touch of Alsace in the menu. The pleasant dining room, with windows looking up the main street of Keysersburg, decorated with huge gladioli and posies on the tables, with a willing and unpretentious young serving staff, including a sommelier who has plucked eyebrows and pale skin and who would be at home in Cabaret, is otherwise totally dedicated to snobbisme, and to pleasing anglophones who are present in very small numbers.
Thus salted butter. Uninteresting rolls — but when I asked for something better they came — useless truffle on the pigeonneau. The initial clientèle, elderly, fractious, US and Germanic, sans chic. Outside, Japanese at the hotel, but they don’t come in, being fawned upon by hosts. A young couple walk from hotel to elsewhere (there are some nice inns) she in a lovely ecru lace dress that melts with her body. La toute snobbisme, the open black MG, he in suit and tie, she in evening dress, take off for elsewhere. Inside, about 8.30, more interesting chic arrive. A young woman, not well dressed (clothes rumpled from travel) and her weak looking partner, she knowing French, takes charge. Nevertheless they are having a good time (but too inhibited to touch, much giggling). A shaven head I think of as the fils de Yul Brunner, with a short-cropped blonde, both tall. A woman in a black svelte dress and her partner . OK but not exactly jet set.
I followed up with pigeonneau en papillote et son jus. The papillote in which the pigeon was baked was removed before service. The pigeon was full of flavour, presented alone on the plate, with a tiny slice of truffle on top, quite ridiculous since it imparts no flavour whatsoever. There was a small potato pancake, but not enough to absorb the juices. Wonderful buttered firm beans on side.
But the place is worth a visit for its sorbet au marc de gewurtztraminer alone. I am very fussy and count myself an expert on sorbets. There is first the texture of the sorbet itself, which can range from crispy flaky to thicky mushy. Then there is the taste embodied in the sorbet, which can be ice-creamish and should not be, or redolent of fresh fruit, which it should be, yet not so strong that it sets the teeth on edge as often a lime or lemon sorbet does. Then there is whatever it is with which it is arroséd, not by preference a sweet liqueur, but more suitably a marc or eau-de-vie depending on, and necessarily blended with, the whole.
I have no difficulty in making what may seem to be an extravagant statement. This was the best sorbet I have tasted in my whole experience, going back to Swiss confections of the 1960s. I will never forget it. The home made citron sorbet must be ordered in advance. Its texture was pure, melting, well-bodied, not flaky, the taste delicately right. It lay in a coulis of marc de Gewurtztraminer of excellent quality. That was a sorbet to refresh, to be dawdled over, to spend the afternoon with, and to make love afterwards. Alas, I was alone.
Excellent wine range including many good half bottles. For me Baumann’s Riesling Grand Cru from Riquewihr.
On with another entrée. More lapereau, a salade tiède (lukewarm) this time, au vinaigre de xérès. It came finely carved – what a difference that can make to rabbit – as pretty as a picture on the plate at La Barrière, a bourgeois restaurant stuck out of the way by a railway crossing in La Wantzenau, for benefit of Strasbourgeoises.
Not only for the ladies. I was to notice much more frequently than in the past that dining guests sometimes consisted of couples of men with more than a passing interest in each other. They had the benefit of white starched tablecloths, glistening glass, and dramatic vases of fresh cut flowers that must have cost the earth to keep up. The womanly service was unpretentiously effective with the style of a hostess in a homely dining room. Among the other guests were Germanic pot bellies, Zola-esque beards and pince-nez, gentlemen who seemed like brisk up and coming lawyers, all of course impeccably suited.
When Claudia and her friend Ingrid arrived in Alsace to say hullo we decided to splash a little at the Vosges in Ribeauvillé. I knew I had liked it on my one and only previous visit to Alsace, but could not remember details. But it kept up to expectations. When I was here a couple of years ago I was impressed at lunch with the gracious hospitality and fine food. One mark of a good restaurant is that the staff make the utmost effort to accommodate single diners, even if the place is otherwise packed, and this they did. It is a hotel dining room, but feels better than that.
An entrée to be remembered: la salade aux petits légumes du moment, lardons de tête de veau et truffes. A totally successful blending in vinaigrette, the lardons providing much of the oil context.
We were chatting too much to take serious notes. But the menu items, and we enjoyed them all, included such inventions as: la joue de porcelet confite, foie d’oie poêlé, lentilles vertes, sauce raifort; le saumon cru et anguille fumée à l’huile d’olive et citron vert; la pochée de foie gras d’oie et langoustines au consommé de truffes; le millefeuille de foie gras d’oie et pommes fruits au vieux Porto; la matelote de sandre et de sole sur morilles noires; le suprème de sandre farci à la mousse de tourteaux (crab), crême de raifort; le pavé de saumon aux lentilles vertes et aux lardons; le pot-au-feu de pigonneau, foie d’oie, anis
In 1990 there were not many people to dinner that night. The service was pleasantly jocular without imposition, the plates picture perfect, Ingrid inspired to take photos. Off the menu I remember we had noisettes de chevreuil et d’agneau. At a near-by table was a happy party of acquaintances, a maker of artisanal eaux-de-vie and liqueurs, who had spent time selling and explaining to me. One of the things I like about Alsace is that it is easy to make acquaintances, who remember.
How about tranches de boeuf fines, a la vinaigrette. This you will find at Zimmer, another comfortable dining room in La Wantzenau. As entrée it consisted of exceedingly fine cut slices of good beef, immersed in a dark sharp vinaigrette, with bell peppers, contrasted with a bed of salad that gave refreshment to the taste, and with fresh thin beans. At this, my first meal in Alsace, I remember the matronly way the hostess-owner welcomed her mainly elderly guests. with much discussion over the tables, care of the walking sticks, personal conversation, soft-keyed as in a home.
A few desserts. The charlotte de framboises at Les Ménétriers in Ribeauvillé, which also serves excellent salmon. The plush room is so easily missed by visitors, because it is hidden in a large unwelcoming building opposite a gas station on the road south, yet its young chef is establishing a major regional reputation. The charlotte was a perfect marriage, the charlotte itself fruitily well rounded without being strong, with a meringue topping, the coulis of raspberry soft instead of sharp as it can so often be, yet not tasting sugary.
You will find kougelhopf glacé‚ on many menus. Watch out. All that means is that the confection is cut in the shape of a kougelhopf (the sweet bread I described above). I had one called kougelhopf glacé aux noix at the Motel L’Européen consisting of thick ice cream cake, served also with a little ordinary kougelhopf on the side. If nuts, they must have been turned into a paste as part of the ice cream, giving it the solidity; not distinguishable in terms of taste. I had another kougelhopf glacé au kirsch at L’Auberge in Les Trois Epis. This was a straightforward icecream cut as in a kougelhopf wedge, with a couple of raisins. But swimming in eau-de-vie de kirsch. Accompanied by a weak aerated cream, not good that. A dish, I believe, to be avoided unless you have some secret information.
Change mood. Find out what a mirror of myrtilles is all about, at a place you can be confident in, Kammerzell Terrasse, no less. It is a very light sponge-type slice of cake impregnated with myrtilles, the miroir being the thin glaze on top, with thick sculptured cream on the side. Real cream. Real myrtilles, and plenty of them. Worth two stars in my book. More please.
Is that all I have to say about Alsace?
No. I must tell you about one the most charming restaurants in the whole of France. And I must tell you about the wine. So stay with me. Be patient.
The two most famous restaurants, gastronomically speaking, in Alsace, are Le Crocodile in Strasbourg and L’Auberge de l’Ill in Illhausern. The first gets mixed reviews as being sometimes too pretentious, not quite sure of its quality control. I hasten to say I have never been there. Being in the heart of Strasbourg, it seems to me to require an Occasion, and a Party, to compete with business suits and European parliamentarians.
Not so L’Auberge de l’Ill. Of course, you dress up to go. Who wouldn’t, except tourists caught by surprise? More encouraging, everybody in Alsace, to whom I put the question, where is the best Alsacian food you can recommend, whether they were “simple” vignerons, clerks in motels, chefs themselves, post office clerks — all said without hesitation as their first choice, Auberge de l’Ill. That is a remarkable unanimity. First, for a restaurant with a three-star national and international reputation to be regarded as something that belongs to the community, of which the community is proud, which is thought to represent the community — that is rare. Second, because people from all walks of life felt that it could be their practical goal to go there and enjoy.
So when Claudia arrived in Alsace, we celebrated on a fine, hot summer’s mid-day. There is nothing hurried about L’Auberge de l’Ill. Everything it totally orchestrated to give maximum comfort and relaxation, without appearing to be so. Our first maître d’ (after we had been warmly welcomed by the chef-owner himself) seemed a bit affairé, his mind too much on the orchestration of all the parties. But he relaxed, and the individual waiters, attentive, personable, were superb.
There is nothing more capable of setting a mood than a garden setting for dining, even if it were only to look upon. Here the garden, its willows and lawns, on the banks of the little slow river, is a joy beyond compare. You do not dine there. First you are introduced to your table in the dining room, ours in a bay window overlooking the scene outside. Then you are gently guided to a table under the trees for a leisurely apéritif. You place your order and, when the time is right are summoned to the inside table by reservation name. Some tables are totally inside without direct view, but the room is light and fresh, with modern paintings, soft in colour.
The food achievements totally live up to the reputation. It is the finest of cooking (though other chefs sometimes seem nearly equal) and ingredients. The imaginative combinations seem highly complex when you think about them, but in fact combine several pieces of simple beautiful cooking placed side by side in harmony. Nothing is mushed together. You taste each element, and move from one to another as you will. It is the total contrast to the North American style Mexican mush your beans, quacamole, cheese, chile all together into a solid soup kind of thing (there is a place for that, but it is so different.)
Slowly, slowly. It is a perfect day. Relax. We are together. The sun, the sky, the river, and now the food and wine. To be savoured. This may never happen again.
It was a crime to the occasion to take notes, and much I have lost in detail. But this is at least part of it, if we may be technical for a moment. Le soufflé de saumon. Deliciously light as an entrée, the soufflé part covering a filet of salmon, the whole in a light sauce. La terrine et filets mignons de lapereau, au foie d’oie accompagné d’une petite salade. Sliced filets of rabbit, with a generous piece of foie on top, on a bed of decorative cucumber style salad, and a confectioned sauce. Canard Colvert, for two, rôti aux épices et sa garniture de choux rouges confit aux figues, en deuxième service les cuisses grillées sur salade. The duck utterly tender and rare-ish, the red cabbage flavoured with fig, and a fig on top, expertly carved at the table, the thighs set aside for separate eating with a salad, roasted in its own herbed juice. I think we had a dessert, but by that time I was out of it. The wine list is replete with excellent half bottles, supported by good advice willingly given, so that for once we were able to have a sequence for each dish instead of a single bottle for the whole meal.
We were not ready to leave. We returned to a spot in the garden for coffee and people watching and feeling the breeze of the river and the trees, and the warmth of the occasion. We will not forget.
As we finally did move on, new guests were beginning to show up to sit in the garden with apéritifs and enjoy the evening air before dinner.
I cannot close without a few words about the wines of Alsace. Overseas we mostly know a few names of the large commercial houses, the great ones like Trimbach and Dopff et Irion, and some of the not so great. But what is remarkable on the spot is the sheer number of highly reputable growers and encaveurs. Grandfather Klur-Stocklé took me one day up to one of his grands crus terroirs, and told me much about it.
The grand cru appellation has only recently been applied in Alsace. It consists of locations with traditional names which, technically speaking, are ideally suited to the best growth of grape. Factors taken into account are the slope in relation to the sun, the hours of sunshine, the soil. The grower chooses his own variety to plant, and his own technique. He may make mistakes. A wine from a grand cru area does not have to be great. Next door to the finely tended vines of Klur-Stocklé, were some rows of badly weeded, untidy grapes that his neighbour was selling to a cooperative.
But the wine usually is of great quality, even from the non grands crus terroirs. Certain provisions are rigorously upheld, of which the most important is that no irrigation is permitted. The vines must fend for themselves, their roots searching for the ever-descending water table. Good growers leave space between every second row, permitting ease of machine treatment, and giving a little more space to individual vines. Women participate in the husbandry as of right and as of skill — there is a total mystique about that which anthropologists have recorded.
Land is individually owned, with some attention to the claims of extended families, and is extremely expensive and difficult to come by. Almost no grapes are permitted on the flats near the Rhine. There is no new land available. Major economies of scale are not possible, since in each terrain the grower may wish to combine different grapes according to the minutiae of conditions.
Once the grapes are harvested, the grower has three choices. He may sell to a cooperative. This has been the choice of the less intense growers, with the result that most, but not by any means all (Wolfberger of Eguisheim has a good track record), cooperatives have a lower reputation for quality. Or he may sell to a large commercial house, whose job it then is to be selective as to quality, and to sort grapes from different growers and terrains to provide the consistency needed for their great marques. And finally, and most interestingly, he may decide to produce and market the wine himself. Most good growers do.
The result is an enormous and amazing proliferation of encaveurs. Each village has numerous caveaux, large barn-like complexes with living quarters around, replete with equipment from computers and barrels, packing materials and account books. And dégustation arrangements, inside or out, where the visitor is welcome and tastes to his will, without obligation.
Nearly all produce the same range of wines — tokay, pinot gris, riesling, sylvaner, edelzwicker, muscat, pinot blanc, gewurztraminer, and now crémant d’Alsace. Among these many go for special quality vins de grande réserve with specially selected grapes, or vendange tardive, the late grapes, the Queens of the wine, for apéritif drinking or special occasions.
Some encaveurs specialize, or concentrate on the unusual. Alsace has always been thought of as white wine country, and it is. Light, refreshing, with good fruit and nose, perfectly agreeable, without huge demands, but just the same challenging to the taste. But now pinot noir, the classic grape of the Burgundy, is re-making its appearance. Wolfberger makes a pinot noir that I have not tasted, but I have tasted productions from Ste. Hippolyte, based on Burgundy vinification methods, and old Alsace traditions, that is full of nose and spirit. My guess is that in ten years time, critics will have to think again. [There are now a considerable number of g ood producers.]
Witness the amazing adaptability and inventive spirit. The eaux-de-vie are without doubt, glass for glass, the best, most flavourful, most delicately harmonized, most beautifully odoriferous, in the world. There are far too many for me to even list. Each maker has his own supply of fruit, berries, nuts, many of which come from the wild mountains of the Vosges. Trees like the rowan, completely ignored in North America, produce good bottles. Apple, quince, peach, berries, scores of possibilities. All based on experiment and innovation.
And to top it, who would have thought that Alsace would have produced a bubbly that can seriously rival all the champagnes and pseudo-champagnes in the world? Let me be the first to announce it. The crèmants d’Alsace, unknown perhaps eight years ago [written 1990], are now produced by almost every encaveur. They are totally delicious, mostly made from the sylvaner grape. They are light but full of taste, dry, but without the gross acidity of brut champagne, which, frankly, is beginning to put me off, yet without the cloying sweetness of some Spanish and German. They are, in other words, perfect. And they are not expensive. There are some rosé. A major point here is that this industry grew from nothing to a major preoccupation in a few short years, each grower having to learn from scratch how to do it — with great dedication, industry, intelligence and investment.
On a hot summer’s day, find if you can a bottle of Alsace peach liqueur, combine it as in a kir with a glass of Alsace crèmant, and you have a drink that will revive your spirits and keep you happy all day — and no after effects.
I could live in Alsace. My kind of country.
If it were not for so much salt in the diet, so much polluted air trapped between the Vosges and the Black Forest, the high price of real estate, and the sadly diminishing water table.
Maybe, one day.