Note: Happy New Year!
When we asked P’s friends at school where they went for Christmas, a disproportionate amount responded “Alsace”. That was not surprising, considering that we too were lured by the region’s hyper-effective marketing campaign pitching Strasbourg as “the capital of Christmas”. In the end, we spent 3 days in the city and along the Alsatian wine route, excessively eating and drinking, because, you are allowed to this time of the year.
There are plenty of unique food items to taste in Alsace that cannot be easily found in Paris and elsewhere. Here are some of my favorite bites:
Kouglof: I’ve always been a proponent of the brioche. I mean, who would not like to tear into an eggy and buttery bread, then munch on its fluffy innards? Kouglof (aka Kougelhopf) is an Alsatian brioche, typically sweet and dressed with raisins and almond slivers. Their unique bundt shapes are thanks to the earthenware molds in which they are baked. While I resisted from buying one of those prettily hand-painted kouglof moulds, I did my best to sample the bread. Besides the slightly sweetened original, one can sometimes find other flavors because the plain bread is just so versatile. In the picturesque medieval town of Kayserberg, we found ourselves at Kouglof (Un Curieux Patissier), comparing both sweet and savory versions. Walnut and bacon was a very fine choice, but better still was the cheese kouglof, still warm to the touch with just the right amount of cheesy funk.
Baeckeoffe: After my Alsatian ex-boss described Baeckeoffe – his favorite local dish – to us, P immediately decided that he had to try it at least once on this trip. A quintessentially meat and potatoes dish, Baeckeoffe is a hearty stew that involves slow-cooking different types of meat (usually lamb, beef and pork), potatoes and some vegetables in a crockpot (of the same earthernware material as the kouglof pan). The braising liquid is not stock nor water but a bottle of riesling. No way could P, the meat and wine lover pass this one up. We hit a minor snag on our search for baeckeoffe in the town of Ribeauvillé because, as the winemaker whom we asked for dining recommendations commented, it was something one eats at home. At last we chanced upon the meat stew on the menu of a random winstub, A la ville de Nancy, and finally got a taste of the dish. It was, as the winemaker said, a homely dish, very plain looking but with a lot of tender meat and deep, wine flavored broth. A perfect dish for a cold night, this is one dish I might recreate at home, with it being a simple one pot dish.
Tarte Flambée: Also known as the flammekeuche (Alsatian) and flammkuchen (German), the tarte flambée is my hands down favorite Alsatian dish this trip. I love everything about it, the paper thin crust that keeps its crisp texture despite the generous lashings of crème fraîche; the unctuous and slightly tart cheese; the sweet, caramelized onions and of course, the bacon bits. In fact, I liked it so much that I had it two days in a row, the first time plain, and the second with topped with stinky local munster cheese, all melted, gooey and glorious.
Pain d’épices (gingerbread): We went souvenir shopping at Mireille Oster, a gingerbread specialty shop in Strasbourg’s Petite France quarter. To find the shop, one just needs to follow the maddening aroma of ginger, cardamom, cloves and anise, just some of the many ingredients that go into Mireille Oster’s fantastic spice and nut filled pain d’épices. The shopkeepers were exceedingly warm, instantly offering us little squares of the dense gingerbread and explaining to us the different varieties on offer. Call me a traditionalist, but for once, I rejected the chocolate version for the original recipe with 7 different spices, lightly sweetened with honey and a thin sugar glaze. Perfect on its own or with a cup of tea.
Wine: And how can I not mention Alsatian wine? Though most famous for their Gewurztraminers and Rieslings, Alsace also produces several other grape varietals such as the Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and even Pinot Noir. There’s plenty of vineyards to visit and wines to taste along the wine route that begins ~30 km away from Strasbourg, but one of the most interesting wine related site is located in Strasbourg itself. The historic cellar of the city hospital (Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg)was founded in 1395 and can still be found in its medieval premises, the basement of the hospital. The hospital became a large land owner (with accompanying vines) because in the olden times, hospital fees were often paid in kind by a part of the farmers’ crops or livestock. While there are no guides, the employees are friendly and helpful enough to answer some questions about the ancient barrels and equipment on display, the wines that are selected to be matured in these barrels and bottled under the hospice brand, and the extraordinary vat of wine made in 1472. The oenologists did a test about 15 years ago, and apparently, it is still good!
Alsace is a year-round destination, but it literally lights up during the Christmas season. While some nitpickers find fault in the rampant commercialization of the marchés de Noël in Strasbourg and Colmar, they are still quite interesting to wander through and miles ahead of the cheesier Christmas markets (Champs Elysées, and worst, the London Hyde Park Winter Wonderland) we visited in 2011. And if one has a car, a marché or winery hop (depending on your interest) through the medieval towns on the Alsatian wine route is absolutely charming.