Monday, January 6, 2014

FoodTrek: Our Journey to Northern France - Alsace that Ends Well

I shared the German half of our trip to Europe, and now I'm sharing the French-German portion that drew our adventure to a delicious close. Since we were on a tour that followed the Rhine, we visited the Alsace region of France, a beautiful area that has as much German influence as it does French, since cities and towns changed hands between the two countries over the last few hundred years. As a result, you get a distinctive combination of both cultures, delicious food and wine, and some interesting history. Shall we proceed? Allez!

Welcome to France, commence pastry gorge - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Our first official French city was Strasbourg, which, yes, sounds very German. It means "the town at the crossing of roads," which is especially meaningful, as the official language is of course French, but most streets are in both French and German, the residents are bilingual and you'll have as much of a chance to find schnitzel and beer as you would croissant. But it's definitely French at heart -- despite what Paris may claim -- the French national anthem, La Marsellaise, originated in Strasbourg. The anthem's original title was Chat de guerre pour l'Armee du Rhin, the War Song for the  Army of the Rhine.

German pretzels, French patisseries and boulangeries, and a golden goose - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Frankly, all I cared about was pastry and eating good things. This was my first time in France, so I wanted to make the most of it, and while I know it's not Paris, I found Strasbourg to be charming, full of life, and much easier to find your way, even after getting lost a few times, since I was wandering around on my own. I did a lot of window-browsing, admiring the beautiful pastries and breads, deciding where my caloric intake would live for the day.

Sightseeing to stir an appetite - Strasbourg's Notre Dame Cathedral - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I did fit in a bit of historic architectural appreciation -- the Mister and I toured Strasbourg's Notre Dame Cathedral, first thing in the morning. Its construction spanned such a long period of time, so its architecture is a combination of Romanesque and Gothic; another sign of the city's Franco-German lineage. A stunning structure to behold from the outside and a breathtaking experience of awed silence inside, as a person from such a relatively young country as America, you can't help but marvel at it and think, yep, they definitely don't build 'em like they used to. Most modern-day churches look more like shopping malls, most likely with a Starbucks set up inside. I think I'll stick to finding religion in Europe, the digs are much nicer.

Pastry-browsing and flammekuchen-eating - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Walking around a rainy Strasbourg, admiring cathedrals built to the heavens stirred up an appetite. Despite it being before noon, I bucked tradition and had my very first flammekuchen, aka, tarte flamme/flambe. A popular local dish, it perfectly embodies the Alsatian cultural mashup -- it's a thin flatbread smeared with a cream sauce (usually creme fraiche), sprinkled with cheese, onions and lardons/speck, before getting blasted in a hot oven until crispy-melty-delicious. I was tempted by all the other French pastries, but mostly admired them through the glass. The beautiful dessert tarts covered with fruit and chocolate were a vision. And I loved the distinctive shape of the Provencal bread, fougasse, which has a pattern that's supposed to resemble an ear of wheat.

Touring Strasbourg through their canals - beautiful, even on a rainy day - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I managed to mangle my way through the French language to have a late, light lunch of buttery escargot, and stopped off at a couple of places to have some Alsatian wines -- the sweet Muscat and the more dry Cremant, which went well with the escargot. Despite the rain, a day wandering/getting lost in Strasbourg was one of my favorites, just because I went where my curiosity took me. I lingered in front of windows, read all the restaurant menus, did a little shopping, and leisurely ate and drank my way through the day. While I've never been to Paris, it felt like a sleepier, more manageable version of it, if you only have an afternoon to wander around. Walking over the small canal bridges throughout Strasbourg, I loved seeing the padlocks people have left, symbolizing secrets, wishes and promises. I think my only regret was not leaving a padlock there, although I'm happy to return to remedy that.

Visiting quaint wine villages and eating our fill of flammekuchen in every form - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Our last day was spent in France, heading to the rural region of the Vosges Mountains. We traveled by bus through fields of incredible vineyards in autumnal colors, to visit the small towns of Kaysersberg and Riquewihr. Again, that Alsatian combination of German and French, the city names may be German, but very French in food and wine. Kaysersberg -- the Emperor's Mountain -- was originally a military fortification town, and ironically the birthplace of the very peaceful Albert Schweitzer. It's a charming village nestled in the region that produces Alsatian Pinot Gris wines, so they are clearly continuing to do some great work for mankind.

Storks are totally metal in European folklore - Photos by Wasabi Prime

It was also where we were like, "What's with the storks...?" The legend of the stork delivering babies originated in Alsace and considered a symbol of the region, but of course, like all Old World stories, the original tale is kind of intense. People believed storks were the birds who could deliver the souls of the dead who are reincarnated as newborns. The storks are welcomed as signs of fertility and prosperity, and perches are set up on buildings to encourage their rather ginormous nests. While we were visiting late in the year, we managed to see one stork who decided to hang out a little longer into the fall, which was a rare and special sight to see. The takeaway from all this was that storks are pretty metal in Alsace.

More pastries and old world charm in Alsatian villages - Photos by Wasabi Prime
You know what's also pretty metal? Eating more food and drinking lots of wine before we have to haul our Yankee asses back to (A)Merica. We fortified ourselves with sweet and savory snacks before wine tasting in the Medieval 16th century town of Riquewihr, which is lovingly preserved as kind of a Disney-perfect town. I got us a few sweet bites of mini Florentine cookies at a patisserie -- again, butchering the French language rather heroically. And furthered my mangling of the French language ordering sweet beignet-style bretzel and a savory flammekuchen-style one, covered in cheese and lardons. We furthered our flammekuchen obsession by having them for lunch at a little brasserie in town -- it felt decadent to get one for each of us, but the crust was thin and good lord, they were cheesy-delicious, so we had no trouble eating them.

Wine tasting at the so very foxy Maison Zimmer - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We spent a good part of our time in Riquewihr at Maison Zimmer's tasting cellar, a family of winemakers making the good stuff since the 1800s. They stick to the Alsatian traditional white wines: Muscat, Pinot  Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Cremant, although they also had a Pinot Noir, just to mix things up. The tasting cellar in town is literally underground and a cool spot to sip wines, as well as to admire and take silly photos with their collection of taxidermied foxes. Seriously, there's a lot of them there, at least half a dozen, in various poses.

We picked up a few bottles (not foxes) to bring home; we had some interesting wines that are very unlike the versions we have in the States. Maison Zimmer's Gewurztraminer was dry, on the tart side, but refreshing, unlike the sweeter styles we're used to here. I admired, but sadly did not bring back any traditional Roemer wine glasses, which was the preferred and traditional glassware to enjoy the local vintages. We were lugging back a goodly amount of wine and I feared breakage, since these glasses are quite delicate. Originally all-green in the early days of the Holy Roman Empire due to impurities in the local sand, the Roemer glasses' color was kept as the process was refined. It became a visual symbol of the region, also called "forest glass." The wide mouth was a French influence, as it was believed it would enhance the floral bouquet of the wines.

A parting view of France and our trip doth endeth! - Photo by Wasabi Prime
It can't be said enough how wonderful a trip this was, through both Germany and France. You can't escape the incredible history in this region along the Rhine, and the fact that so much has managed to be preserved is a testament to the people who have kept their culture thriving amid hard times and war. I look forward to returning to this part of the world again; it nourished us in so many ways beyond its food and drink -- we were charmed by the beautiful sights, the kind people, their stories and a sense that this area will continue to flourish.

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