Bi-lingual Land Rich as Rothschild
The Alsatians, who are accustomed to people coming from all over, have made it their business to be very welcoming. Though it is the smallest province of France, it’s obvious why it has been invaded by almost every other European group, beginning with the Celts, the Franks, the Romans, the Vandals and the Huns. Even Charlemagne laid claim to this rich land.
Today its capital, Strasbourg, is both a university city as well as one of the European Union’s principal capitals; it’s home to the European Parliament, the European Court and the Commission on Human Rights.
Half-timbered three- story buildings, beautiful pottery shops and graceful willows line the banks of the meandering Ill River in the Petite France area. The magnificent 15th-century pink sandstone Cathedral Notre Dame overlooks shops straight out of Goethe and Gutenberg’s time. In fact, when Goethe was 20, his father sent him here to study. Like many young people, he did everything but—he fell in love with a beautiful girl, wrote romantic poetry and often climbed to the top of the elegant cathedral, making himself "dizzy with ecstasy." (Sounds modern actually, doesn’t it?) Gutenberg invented the printing press while he lived here.
What I found most remarkable as I traveled to dozens of charming villages in Bas-Rhin, the northern Alsace departement—Bouxwiller, Weiterswiller, la Petite-Pierre, Hunspach, Hoffen, Pfaffenheim, Niederbronn-les-Bains—was the absence of twentieth-century decor. Even in the two larger towns, Hagenau and Wissembourg, no neon, chain stores or garish advertising interfered with my pleasure in viewing beautifully crafted pastel stucco and half-timbered wooden houses, many with orange tiled roofs, set upon cobbled streets. There is in all the these townscapes a harmony and sense of grace: architecture, store fronts, shop signs, flower boxes, all the visual details contain the best of French and German country design.
Besides being an attractive region to tour, Alsace has food and wine specialties galore. Conventional wisdom calls it a mix of French ingredients and German portions. I do confess to preconceived notions about the kinds of food and wine I would find here. Some Alsatian wines I have drunk in the ‘States seemed too fruity, too ordinary. I was certain that anything I’d find in Alsace would be outclassed by the very fine French flavors I knew of Paris, Provence or Burgundy. Happily, I was wrong, on all counts.
French people of all regions maintain that the only good ingredients are those that are grown locally. The Alsatians in this northeastern corner of the country have access to a fulsome larder. Countless farms and vineyards dot the river plains. Game runs wild in the forests of the softly rounded VOSGES Mountains and fresh trout and salmon are fished from the local rivers.
There’s a heartiness to the culinary scene in Alsace—this is one region where cuisine minceur never caught on. Local specialty dishes of sauerkraut and meat or fish are unlike anything you have ever eaten before. (Alsatian sauerkraut bears no resemblance to that white stuff in a jar that you keep in the back of your refrigerator.) Dishes of game meats are delicate and seasoned with fruits and unusual spices.
You don’t even have to be dining in top restaurants in order to taste the region’s tastiest foods. Eighteenth century tea salons offer foods that haven’t changed in two centuries: warm gingerbread and rhubarb pie and kugelhopf, the yeasty raisin and almond coffeecake. At lively cafes and bars, you can enjoy amazingly good fresh pommes frites and carpes frites, both of which are, much to my surprise and pleasure, served with mayonnaise. Talk about gilding the lily! Then, there’s locally made pate, rich as Rockefeller, or, as they say in France, Rothschild.
The enormous cheese selection reflects the inherently agricultural aspect of the district. Locally produced eau de vie (brandy), Kronenbourg beer and sparkling Alsatian wines round out any meal and contribute to the conviviality of the dining out scene. In other parts of France when eating in restaurants I often encounter hushed reverence. In Alsace, the bi-lingual crowd is at once vivacious and slightly guttural. Wherever I ate, I heard raucous laughter.
TRACKING DOWN SOME REASONS WHY ALSACE IS SO RICH
The very first book I ever read in French was the story of an Alsatian Romeo and Juliette. Stephenette, the eponymous heroine, was French; the boy was German. They were young star-crossed lovers, forbidden to see each other, as their families were at war, fighting, among other things, for the right to claim Alsace as their territory. Although I no longer recall the details of their lives, the dramatic story of a region that has richocheted back and forth between two countries has stayed with me always.
Today Alsace belongs to France, as it has for the last 56 years, yet its French/Germanic/Alsatian culture is vastly different from all the other regions of France.
I decided to visit the part of Alsace where I thought the Stephenette and her lover were from. I concentrated mainly on a rural area called Outre-Foret, full of Hansel and Gretel villages, between Strasbourg and the northern boundary with Germany. It turned into a trip of historical and culinary discovery. I didn’t meet the lovebirds, but I think I may have found some of their relatives.
Besides the storybook villages, I explored crumbling castles, good hiking paths in high- and lowlands, sparkling streams for fishing and—my own special interest—monuments and structures that highlight the very complicated history of the once wartorn region.
A visit to the Municipal Museum and the Alsatian Museum in Hagenau provided background for the region’s many invasions. On a tour of the three-story building which houses artifacts from the last twenty centuries, I learned from the 70-year-old volunteer tour guide that Alsace’s fertile river valleys have always attracted settlers. This man lived under both German and French governments and shared information about the conflicts that families face under these circumstances. Although I didn’t know him well enough to ask, I sensed there may have been a "Stephenette" story or two in his family.
Long ago invaders—possibly the Romans, possibly their predecessors—discovered perfect growing conditions for cultivating grapes in the alluvial plains and the sloping hills of the gentle mountains of the Vosges. In addition, clay soil found here was ideal for making pottery. Both products are still in high demand and form a significant part of the local life. Vine-covered fields and dishes with a vine-motif are found everywhere.
Two villages, Bechtsdorf and Soufflenheim, offer different versions of the colorful pottery. Both are pretty places that have artisanal workshops that you can tour. Pitchers, jugs, bowls, steins and an artfully shaped glazed pot resembling a chef’s toque make fine souvenirs. (Alsace’s most popular sweet treat, kugelhopf, is cooked in the toque.)
LIVING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE
I tasted, at every opportunity, a great new collection of wines, heretofore little known by me. Alsatian wines are often best drunk fairly young, and they do not always travel well. About 95 % of Alsatian wines are whites, "big whites," that is to say they stand up well to meat, sausage and game dishes as well as strongly seasoned fish and poultry.
Of the better known wines of Alsace—Tokay, Sylvaner, Riesling, Chasselas, Pinot Blanc, Edelzwicker, Gewurtztraminer—none is more argued about than Gewurztraminer. Some wags say that it’s not ordered much in the U.S. because it is so hard to pronounce (Geh-Vuhrtz-TRAH-MEEN- ah), but the problem may be because it tends to be rather too grapey-sweetish when it is exported. Wine authority Alexis Lichine refers to it as "A delicious fruity wine when good, it is an excellent accompaniment to strong-tasting spicy dishes...including meat and local cheeses." I tried several glasses of locally produced Gewurtztraminer, and found it to be good.
The dining and drinking experiences were made special by the fact that I wasn’t treated as a pariah in restaurants just because I was a woman traveling solo.
Right after I was seated, I would put myself in the hands of the patron (owner/boss), the mâitre d’, and the sommelier. I did it wherever I dined, fine Michelin-starred restaurants and homey winestubs alike. Although people often report a sense of intimidation in dining out in France, if you admit up front that it is your first visit to the region, you almost always will find the staff happy to educate you. This can enhance the dining experience, because the French have a reverence for good eating and drinking. I found also that waiters and other staff tried very hard to make conversation and do little extra things, like offering a selection of desserts or an unordered aperitif, probably feeling sorry for me, the solo diner. Most places where I ate have an attractive habit of placing "geueles"—small- portioned appetisers—before me while I examined the menu.
By the trip’s end, I’d had had a crash course on the Alsatian wines, and had the pleasure of learning how welcoming these lively people are.
Two restaurants where I dined stand out, one for its easygoing warmth and good food and wine, and the other for its elegance and great food and wine. The first one, L’Ami Stub in Strasbourg, is a homey, tavernlike place with red-checked tablecloths, family-run and chef-owned. The other dinner guests and the staff all seemed like old friends; I thought I imagined several couples looking half-French, half-German. Again, I was unable to satisfy my curiosity.
Here I ate all things typically Alsatian (sauerkraut and sausages, strong cheeses, etc.) I remember thinking that the atmosphere of the whole city made me feel that Strasbourg might be a very nice place to have a second home. I made a note to myself to see if my husband thought it sounded like a good choice.
Auberge du Cheval Blanc, in Lembach, almost at the German border, is an award-winning chef-owned and run restaurant. It was the kind of place that couples went to to celebrate important anniversaries. As if to make up for the fact that I was partnerless that evening, the serving staff seemed to be extra attentive. I dined on caviar, foie gras, aiguilettes of duck petite deglacee a la fine Champagne, crouton de chevre frais and a dessert so pretty I almost couldn’t eat it. It was chocolat and orange and chocolat and orange, resembling a tiara a princess might wear.
As every course was served, the sommelier consulted with me and made recommendations. Champagne, fine Rieslings and an Edelzwicker matched up with the appropriate foods. I left that restaurant thinking, wouldn’t it be loverly to return to celebrate an anniversary with my husband? I think they would treat us both well.