By Sharon Hudgins
Photos by the author
Quick: Which region of France has also belonged to Germany—and is a top culinary destination for travelers from all over the world?
If you answered “Alsace,” then immediately pass GO, collect $200 from the nearest ATM, and head for a memorable meal in one of the most famous culinary regions of the country.
Bonus: You can drink well there, too.
Eguisheim, one of the most charming villages on the Alsatian Wine Route
Alsace produces fine wines from Riesling, Sylvaner, Gewürztraminer, and other types of grapes, as well as clear, potent, aromatic distilled liquors (eaux-de-vie) from the many varieties of fruits and berries that grow in abundance in this northeastern corner of the country. Located along the Rhine River across from Germany and Switzerland, Alsace is also the main beer-producing region of France.
And all of these local beverages pair perfectly with a cuisine that anchors Alsace solidly on France’s gastronomic map.
TRADITION MEETS MODERNITY
Alsace has long been known for the high quality of its cooking, from home kitchens to cozy bistros and brasseries to some of the top-rated restaurants in France. Based on locally grown crops, farm-raised animals, and wild game from the forests and fields, traditional Alsatian cuisine reflects the rustic simplicity of rural life, influenced by next-door Germany (to which Alsace has belonged at different times in history), but with a decidedly French twist.
Modern Alsatian restaurant chefs have sought to reduce the butter, cream and lard so prevalent in past preparations, and to lighten the load of pork products and heavy casseroles that once characterized the cuisine. Some have even fallen for the fancy foams and deconstructed dishes of the latest food fads. But most of the region’s modern chefs remain true to their roots, using fresh, local ingredients in creative ways that still pay homage to the established traditions of Alsatian cooking.
WHERE TO EAT
Modern Alsatian cuisine can be tasted at many of the region’s highly rated upscale restaurants (see list). For more traditional fare, look for smaller, family-run restaurants, bistros, bakeries and pastry shops. Some of the best of these are located along the Route des Vins d’Alsace (Alsatian Wine Route) between Marlenheim and Thann, in little villages of old half-timbered houses, their window boxes bursting with red geraniums in summer.
Road signs mark the 100-mile Alsatian Wine Route
Many traditional restaurants serve their dishes in rustic handmade earthenware from the pottery town of Soufflenheim. And they pour excellent Alsatian white wines out of handmade blue-and-gray stoneware pitchers, from the pottery village of Betschdorf, into tall, thin, green-stemmed wine glasses set on tables covered with Alsatian-made linens. Dining in Alsace is a feast for both your palate and your eyes.
WHAT TO EAT
► Kugelhopf, a richly flavored, light-textured, yeast-raised cake studded with raisins and almonds, baked in a special fluted mold shaped like a Turk’s turban. Traditionally eaten for Sunday breakfast, accompanied by big cups of café au lait (coffee with milk). Also served in the afternoon with coffee or tea and sometimes after dinner as a dessert dressed up with sweet sauces and whipped cream.
Kugelhopf, the classic cake of Alsace, baked in an earthenware mold shaped like a Turk’s turban
► Choucroûte garnie, mild sauerkraut cooked in white wine, beer or cider and seasoned with juniper berries and black peppercorns. Considered a “national dish of Alsace,” the big mound of sauerkraut is served on a large platter and topped with a variety of meats—especially ham, bacon, sausages and other smoked pork products—along with cooked whole carrots and boiled potatoes. Traditionally served as the Sunday midday meal, but now available on many restaurant menus every day of the week.
A serving of Bäckeoffe, a hearty Alsatian meat-and-potato casserole, baked in a sealed earthenware pot from Soufflenheim
► Bäckeoffe, a stick-to-your ribs casserole made with layers of sliced potatoes and leeks with two or three kinds of meats (beef, pork, lamb), cooked together in white wine inside an earthenware casserole hermetically sealed with a strip of bread dough. In earlier times, Bäckeoffe was assembled at home on Monday mornings, then taken to the local bakery to be cooked in the wood-fired oven while the housewives were busy doing their laundry by hand.
► Tarte flambée, the Alsatian answer to pizza, made from a very thin crust of bread dough topped with a layer of crème fraîche (slightly soured cream) or fromage blanc (fresh white cheese), thinly sliced onions, and small pieces of smoked bacon. Known in Alsatian dialect as Flammekueche, the best of these are baked in wood-fired ovens.
► Munster cheese, from the Alsatian town of Munster. When ripe, this cow’s milk cheese has a slightly creamy interior and a deliciously pungent aroma. Often served at the end of the meal, accompanied by slices of fresh fruits or garnished with a sprinkling of caraway, fennel or anise seeds.
► Fruit tarts, from rhubarb in spring to apple and pear in autumn. The Alsatians have a well deserved reputation as excellent bakers of breads, cakes, tarts and cookies. Their bakeries and pastry shops are among the most tempting in France.
Alsatian tourism: www.tourisme-alsace.com/
Alsatian Wine Route: www.france-for-visitors.com/alsace/vosges/route-du-vin.html