The term "picturesque' could have been coined to describe Alsace: quaint villages sitting among the vineyards, half-timbered houses with elaborate wood carving, overflowing geraniums in their window boxes... Could this be real? In spite of appearances, Alsace is very real and also firmly French.
A little bit of geography. Alsace is actually the smallest French region: nestled between the Vosges Mountains to the West and the Rhine river to the East, it is a 30 mile wide corridor that stretches 120 miles North to South. The Vosges are old mountains; the summits are called "ballons" because of their rounded shape. The Grand Ballon barely reaches 5700 feet. The Vosges create a very effective shield for the foothills below to the East: the warm sun/low rain microclimate is perfect to insure the long, slow ripening of wine grapes. The fertile Rhine basin has become a huge granary that enables Alsace to earn top rank for the culture of hops, tobacco and cabbage. Other significant crops include wheat, corn, potatoes, root vegetables and asparagus.
A little bit of history. Alsace is classic example of how geography often influences the history of a region: a "lieu de passage" between two mountain ranges (the Black Forest is the German counterpart to the Vosges), located at the crossroads of Europe, Alsace was bound to attract travelers and invaders as well. In 58 BC, Julius Caesar and his armies set camp at the southern part of the region at the expense of the Germans. Five centuries of Roman rule were followed by Germanic invasions all over Gaul until Clovis, first king of the Franks, was able to defeat the Teutonic nations. Charlemagne united Europe but his grandsons divided it again and in 870 AD the Franco-German border was established on the Moselle river, West of the Vosges. Louis XIV brought back Alsace to the French kingdom in 1648 and the Rhine became the new border... until 1871 when Alsace was ceded to Germany... until 1918 when it was given back to France... until 1940 when it was promptly annexed by the Third Reich... until 1945 when it became part of France again. Not surprisingly, the signs of this stormy history are seen everywhere in Alsace: language, architecture, traditions and cuisine reflect the variety of cultures that influenced this region.
Culture and traditions. The Alsatian dialect derives from the Frankish and the Alemannic. Although the roots of the words are German, it is a popular, spoken form that preexisted Goethe's language; it varies from one area to the next and constantly evolved. Architectural styles tend to be more original than in other parts of France because they assimilated various influences as well. The Saint Foy de Sélestat church showcases Romanesque style while Gothic architecture is at its most magnificent in the Strasbourg cathedral. About 200 medieval castles can be seen in Alsace, usually in the Vosges foothills, and the ruins of fortifications remind us that many cities were walled in for protection. The Little France district in Strasbourg and the Little Venice in Colmar still show fine examples of Renaissance houses, former homes of bourgeois and nobles. Half-timbered houses have not been built for over a century but can be seen just about everywhere and in the village of Riquewihr, "the pearl of Alsace", over 90% of the houses date from the 16th century! In the traditional Alsatian house, the side wall almost always faces the street; a tiled entrance leads to a steep staircase; the main rooms are grouped on the main floor: the Gross Stub is a living and dining room that connects with the alcove, or master bedroom; the kitchen is usually small and more bedrooms can be found upstairs. Alsatian conviviality extends outside the house as there is nothing that Alsatians enjoy more than their "fêtes": the annual village fairs and the festivals celebrating choucroute, beer, cherries, bread, turnips, Christmas or the wine harvest provide plenty of opportunities to set out tables and benches in the street and to bring on the food, the wine and the accordion. And while these street parties can only be experienced locally, there is one Alsatian tradition first documented in the 17th century that spread throughout the world: the Christmas tree.
Food and wine. And beer. Alsatian dishes are often described as a combination of robust German fare with the subtleties of French cuisine. The basic ingredients may well conjure up visions of "peasant food" but the exceptionally high concentration of top rated restaurants is a tribute to the finesse of Alsatian cuisine. Pork lovers find themselves in heaven when visiting Alsace as the charcuteries offer an infinite array of delicious hams and sausages such as cervelat (smoked pork), Strasbourg (pork, beef and caraway) or Montbéliard (lightly smoked pork). Some of them make their way into choucroute, arguably the best-known regional dish. Choucroute refers both to the sauerkraut and to the finished dish where a mound of white cabbage is liberally garnished with sausages, smoked meats and potatoes. Many variations exist from traditional ones such as sauerkraut with goose or duck, to more modern recipes like "choucroute de la mer" where fish and seafood replace the meats. The Baeckoffe was the traditional Monday lunch: it is a casserole of three different marinated meats and potatoes that women would drop off at the baker's in the morning on washing days so it would cook in the oven for at least three hours; they would pick it up on their way home for lunch. Pot au feu gets a special twist in Alsace: here, the dish of boiled beef is served with an array of salads radish, celeriac, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, beets and horseradish sauce. Although the Romans introduced geese and foie gras to the region, the first pâté de foie gras en croûte was created in Strasbourg in 1780 and quickly gained favor with the king... and the rest of us. Because hunting has been strictly regulated for the past 130 years, game is still plentiful and often available in restaurants and through the local butcher, either as meat or in the form of terrines and pâtés. Southern Alsace shows a huge concentration of small ponds that team with carps and led to "carpes frites", the regional version of fish and chips: sections of carp are dusted in soft wheat semolina for a crunchy exterior, then pan-fried or deep-fried and served with French fries or a green salad. Matelote du Rhin is an impressive stew of freshwater fish marinated in white wine. Other well-known dishes include a large variety savory pies such as onion tart and the delicious Flammekueche (tarte flambée) where cream, onions and lardons top a thin layer of bread dough cooked in a wood-fired oven. Munster cheese is served hot or cold, and also used in many recipes. Perhaps Alsace stands out the most for its breads and pastries: when most French people are satisfied with a basic baguette, Alsatian bakers tempt their customers with endless displays of bretzels, brioches, Bredele (Christmas biscuits), gingerbread, Springerle (anise-flavored cookies), Bierwecke packed with dried fruits, strudel, fruit tarts, cheesecake and Kougelhoff, the famous yeast cake baked in a special mold. Perhaps the best way to discover the many treasures of Alsace is to follow La Route des Vins: you get to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Vosges foothills, to visit picture-perfect villages, to sample fine wines at the wineries and to dine in some of the many Winstubs, the unpretentious wine bars/ restaurants that showcase regional wines paired with regional food: for a perfect combination, try a late-harvest Gewürtztraminer with foie gras, a Sylvaner with escargots, a Pinot blanc with onion tart or a Riesling with choucroute (although an Alsatian beer will work nicely, too). You could finish your meal with a little glass of Kirsch, or another clear eau-de-vie distilled from local fruits such as mirabelle plum, poire williams or raspberry, and poured from the tall, skinny bottles decorated with labels that look like parchement. And perhaps your best bet will be to stay in a nice little ferme-auberge where you can safely experience Alsatian hospitality: remember, La Route des Vins always seems more winding after the wine tasting...
Our recipes from Alsace:
Alsatian Onion Tart-Flammekueche
Foie Gras in Pastry-Chaussons de Foie Gras
Chicken Legs in Beer-Cuisses de Poulet à la Bière
Alsatian Fruit Cake-Bierwecke
Honey Ice Cream with Berries-Glace au Miel de Sapin aux Fruits des Bois