Sitting at the edge of France, rubbing shoulders with Germany (and, off and on during its history, also being part of Germany), Alsace has been influenced in many ways by its neighbour. The Alsatian language, for instance (as we discovered during an informative boat tour of Strasbourg) draws heavily from both French and German. It also borrows from Hebrew, Yiddish and English, but that’s another story.
Language isn’t the only thing in this part of the world that draws from Gallic and Germanic sources; the food is of equally diverse origins. The light dressings on salads, the lightly sautéed potatoes and the glacés that help cool off on a hot summer’s day are very decidedly French. The pickled cabbage—known in German as sauerkraut and in French as choucroute—is, on the other hand, well-known as a definitely Germanic dish. And it appears on menus throughout Strasbourg, from upscale brasseries to stand-by-the-roadside fast food counters, along with boiled potatoes to meats of every type: bratwurst, liver dumplings, boiled beef or pork, ham and bacon. Some eateries, like Ami Schutz on Ponts Couverts, do a sauerkraut special that gives you the works: six different types of meat with sauerkraut and potatoes. Others, like a small shop called Super Hamburger, between the Cathedral and Place Kebler, serve a takeaway that’s spiced up with sauerkraut: an Alsatian version of a hotdog.
But sauerkraut isn’t all there is to Alsatian food. Other specialties that you’ll see featuring prominently on menus include flammekueche, tarte à l’oignon, and quiche Lorraine. The tarte à l’oignon (onion tart) and quiche Lorraine are similar: both consist of a pastry shell filled with a custard of eggs, milk, butter, onions and generous doses of cheese. Where the quiche Lorraine scores over the tarte à l’oignon (in my opinion!) is in the addition of a judicious amount of bacon. A good onion tart or quiche Lorraine is creamy on the inside, crisp on the outside, and filling without sitting in your tummy.
A flammekueche—also known as a tarte flambée, and equally common in restaurants—is also a baked dish with a base of pastry, but it’s very different from the tart and the quiche. This is more like a very thin crust pizza, except that the topping has no tomatoes. A traditional flammekueche is simply topped with yoghurt, chopped onions and lardons, tiny pieces of smoked bacon. It’s then popped into the oven until the onions are cooked, the bacon crisp and the topping absolutely luscious. You’ll find spiced up versions of flammekueche, of course, including some with distinctly Italian ingredients like olive oil or garlic, but don’t miss the opportunity to try a traditional one—if it’s good, it’s excellent.
There’s more, including matelote, a fish stew traditionally made with mushrooms and tiny onions, with cream and wine—typically Reisling—and a healthy dose of herbs to give it flavour. Unfortunately, my experience of matelote was less than inspiring: the only time I had it was at L’Ancienne Douane, and it was woefully bland. Another Alsatian specialty with Reisling, however, got our unstinted vote: poulet au Reisling, an Alsatian version of the legendary French coq au vin. This one consists of pieces of boned chicken in a rich, Reisling-and-cream sauce with mushrooms. The poulet au Reisling we had was at the Taverne de la Cathedrale, where they served it along with spaetzle, a local pasta that’s tossed in butter and is very good.
The abundant wine also makes it presence felt in the superb game stew known as baeckoffe. This includes vegetables—carrots, leeks and potatoes in the version I tasted at Ami Schutz—and can be based on different types of meat. The excellent baeckoffe at Ami Schutz is rabbit, but the one at L’Ancienne Douane is made of three types of game.
While we’re on the subject of wine, this is probably the place to point out that Alsace’s two best-known wines are its Reislings and Gewürtztraminers. Both are superb wines, and run (like all wines) the gamut from dishwater to nectar, so ask for a taste before you pick on a bottle you’d like to buy. Nearly all cafés and restaurants offer a wide range of local and other wines, some by the glass—though how good a wine that’s sold by the glass will turn out to be is usually a hit-or-miss affair: I’ve had some fabulous stuff, but then I’m easy to please.
Even my adaptable tastebuds however didn’t think much (can tastebuds think?) of Strasbourg’s big dessert-breakfast item, the kügelhopf. This is a sweetish bread, studded with raisins and baked in a distinctive ring-shaped mould. Dusted with icing sugar, it’s all right as a breakfast food with a hot latte, but nothing to write home about, as far as I’m concerned. The city makes much of kügelhopf, though, and you’ll see tiny kügelhopf moulds, made of porcelain and prettily painted with flowers, on sale as souvenirs all over Strasbourg. Much, much better is the tarte aux myrtilles, which I had at a small café in front of the Cathedral (the Place Cathedrale, by the way, is a good place to begin searching for Alsatian food—nearly all of the cafés in the area serve local delicacies). Tarte aux myrtilles is a blueberry tart. It has a base of pastry which is topped with a thin layer of custard and shovelfuls of cooked blueberries before being baked one last time. Sublime.
And now for the biggie: Strasbourg’s very own star, pâté de foie gras. Pâté de foie gras supposedly originated in Strasbourg (or at least in Alsace), and the best there is—and I have this from a person who grew up in Strasbourg and should know—is to be bought at Edouard Artzner’s. Artzner have been making pâté de foie gras for over two hundred years now, so it’s hardly surprising they’re good at it. They make a wide range of pâtés, both of goose as well as duck, and they make related products such as terrines and confits. The shop, at 7, Rue des Mesanges, stocks a vast number of Artzner specialties in different forms—for instance, if you’re travelling and want to take pâté back with you, ask. Products to be consumed fresh are different from those that can survive storage. Artzner, by the way, also serve food to be consumed at the shop (they have seating available). Although the emphasis is on pâté and similar foods used as ingredients in recipes, you’ll find other options too, including salads. It’s not cheap, but the buttery goodness of a well-made Artzner pâté is not easily forgotten.