It was one of those breezy sunny (sweltering) Sundays of July and Joseph and I whirled along the Alsace wine route – the route du vin – from south to north on our way back to Strasbourg. I know the itinerary down pat by now, but there are always discoveries to be made – and stones (and new vineyards) unturned … Our trip starts there where it usually winds up – among the ramparts and conical hills of Eguisheim. The birthplace of Pope Saint Leon IX has several sights named after him – a chateau, square and fountain.
It’s amazing how a simple sign can have such eternal fascination … the decorative wrought iron enseignes of France have that hold over me. The sign on A La Ville de Nancy in Eguisheim is like that – adorably pretty and seemingly always wreathed in a bright blue sky. As we tuck into plates of pickled choucroute with fish, the owner tells us that the Fête des Vignerons will descend on the village in August (it seems to me the food and wine festival in Alsace is actually year-round … )
“L’ALSACE EST CHOU!” proclaims a banner as we wind through countryside marked by medieval huddles of red-tiled roofs, church spires, fountains and flower boxes. The jingle has as a double sense – chou means cabbage, but also darling in French (how are you my little cabbage? mon petit chou, or even chouchou – give it a whirl!)
I will never forget … “In Alsace cabbage is king,” the taxi driver told me when I first arrived at the Strasbourg airport over 15 years ago. Much of Alsace’s agricultural wealth was founded on the cabbage, which also underpins its iconic regional dish – le choucroute garnie. Alsace’s answer to sauerkraut is not for the faint-hearted (or vegetarians as myself) … It comes on plates piled high to the ceiling with cabbage, potatoes, onion, bacon and massive chunks of pork.
Anyway, just as choucroute embodies Alsace’s geographical and cultural contradictions (the region was volleyed back and forth across the Rhine River five times between 1871 and 1945 …anyone would suffer a personality crisis after that) … so too do many of its iconic dishes and wines. Notably the Gewürztraminer.
Here the most famous dishes are not entrecotes and crème caramel, but choucroute, kougelhopf – a moulded brioche of macerated fruits – and flammekueche or tarte flambée (depending on whether you speak Alsatian or French tongue) … a crispy wood-fired rectangular crust topped with lashings of fromage blanc (fresh white cheese), crème fraiche, sliced onions and smoked ham.
Heading south from Strasbourg, the Route du Vin sweeps in over 100 Hansel & Gretel pretty villages in the foothills of the Vosges mountains. Each has its own typical tastes and “messti” – festivals – celebrating the cultivation of wine, hops, cabbage and onions, and fabrication of kougelhopf, mirabelle plums, Munster cheese, bretzels and baeckaoffa – another hefty spud and meat casserole.
Riesling and Gewürztraminer are the two predominant grapes … as one winemaker puts it, “The four seigniors of Alsace wines are Riesling, Tokay-Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewürztraminer, which all fall under the AOC (appellation) vin d’Alsace”.
The adorable and cosy winstub – little wooden dens for drinking loads of wine – and eating hearty dishes – dot the village streets, decked with hearts and roosters (and more hearts and roosters) – geese and grapes, red checked tablecloths and dainty jade green stemmed glasses.
The distinguished family run maison Hugel & Fils has graced the fortified village of Riquewihr since 1639 (clearly the maison was well-fortified too by all that wine to withstand worse-than-Viking attacks) … Winemaker Etienne Hugel puts Alsace’s “identity problem” in a nutshell … (let’s call it a split personality in a nice, doubly rich kind of way) … “Because of this problem, there has been a lot of confusion between Alsace and German wines.” (Reading between the lines this has done lots of damage … how could we forget the Blue Nun Rieslings of the 70’s any more than candle-bottle Chianti) … Clearly the Alsatian vignerons feel their product is far superior … A moot point as the wines on the other side of the Rhine escalate in quality too, but I still have my firm biases on the whole.
Hugel says a “Riesling revolution” is underway, and Alsace’s dry, full-bodied Riesling is distancing itself from traditionally sweet and sticky German wines to establish itself as a gastronomic wine par excellence (I can vouch many times over for that).
In the neighbouring fortified florally town of Ribeauvillé (definitely more under siege by geranium pots today than Vikings or any other threat) … Pierre Trimbach – the “roi of Riesling ” – is 12th generation winemaker at the Domaine Trimbach, founded in 1626. While Riesling is the flagship wine, he believes delicious Pinot Gris, with its mix of herbaceous, pollen, smoky and forest floor notes is a good Chardonnay alternative. (Pinot Gris makes a fantastic companion to spicy Asian dishes, noodles, coriander etc.)
Every June, the citizens of Ribeauvillé spend an entire Sunday debating whether their village can lay claim to the birth of the Kougelhopf. (These are the kind of quaint and sweet folkloric activities just about every Alsace village engages in) … The toasted almond wreathed cake, shaped like a crown, is the festive symbol of Alsace, and often downed with aperitif or dessert wines. At Patisserie Confiserie Schaal & Co (28 Grand’Rue), I buy packets of petite chocolate-dunked bretzels and soft gingerbread pain d’epices – traditionally Christmas cookies, but good at any time of the year.
Oh and briefly back to the Flammekueche. In Obernai, at Winstub Le Freiburg (46, rue du Général Gouraud) we down gratinéed tarte flambées of Emmental cheese, onion and cream, and finish sharing a sweet cream, apple and cinnamon variety. The key to a perfect, crisp, almost paper-thin tart, says Sacha Bender, owner and cook, lies in sticking closely to tradition. Flammekueche means flamed, referring to the lightly charred outer crust. The Frisbee-shaped tarts started out as a humble worker’s dish in the 1930’s. They kept a bit of dough aside as they made bread on a communal oven, and used the time while the stove was warming up to cook the tarts which they ate direct from the shovel. Today authentic winstubs such as this still serve them up straight from the oven to the table on a wooden board.Nothing embodies Alsace’s bon vivant spirit – the proverbial gemütlichkeit – better than the winstub, and the food and wine they deal in. So bon appetit – make that guten appetit perhaps? Ah non, in fact it’s e güeter Àppetit … Parlez vous Alsacien?