I spent the start of this week in Alsace, having been lucky enough to be given a place on the annual Ecole d'Alsace. This three day 'school' is hosted by seven of the region's most prestigious wine-making families (Hugel, Trimbach, Josmeyer, Schlumberber, Beyer, Mure and Dopff) who make up the Grandes Maisons d'Alsace. Over the course of the three days, each 'maison' took turns in hosting our group of ten eager UK wine trade professionals - teaching us about the wines, showing us their vineyards and instilling in us a passion for their beautiful region that will be long-lasting. On the final day, we were examined on all that we had learnt. Our reward? A stunning lunch in Alsace's only restaurant to boast 3 Michelin Stars: L'Aubege de l'Ill.
Alsace is often overlooked as a holiday destination but I cannot recommend it enough. Picture postcard villages a-plenty, sensational food, terrific wines and welcoming locals. We stayed in Riquewihr, a charming fairytale village/town surrounded by Grand Cru vineyards and with a wealth of great eateries. Kodak moments are round every corner. It is almost too perfect.
So, what of the food? The Alsaciens take their food very seriously. This is not the place to head for if you are on a diet. As Jean Trimbach said many times, 'why have olive oil when you can have butter?' I know what he means.
First on the menu was choucroute. Good to get it out of the way. Alsace's proximity to Germany is, of course, apparent in the cuisine. I have to admit to being somewhat apprehensive about this particular speciality. It isn't the sauerkraut itself that bothers me (I love cabbage). Instead it is the array of anaemic pork products that 'garnishes' the choucroute that strikes fear in me. One look at the slightly white 'wurst' and I'm rapidly loosing my appetite. In fact, I have to confess that last time I visited the region, I gave the whole experience a miss (a bit like going to Scotland and not trying haggis).
The offending dish arrived, with great ceremony, a half bottle of fizz nestled in the centre of the soggy cabbage (Cremant d'Alsace, Dopff au Moulin, bien sur). Choucroute Royale, no less. One flick with the waiter's knife and the fizz shot in the air, soaking one side of the table (and the ceiling). All very jolly, but I still wasn't convinced...
How wrong I was. Ok, so it may not look attractive, but it was surprisingly delicious. The cabbage is cooked over a long period in white wine (rather than vinegar, as in Germany). It was surprisingly moreish. And most of the cuts of pork were good too in a very baconny sort of way. Even the boiled potatoes (one of my pet hates) were good. Still not convinced by the palid sausages, but I did manage two helpings of the rest. Most impressive was a colleague who managed a whopping FOUR helpings. All that wine tasting makes you hungry, don't you know?
Accompanied by the requisite glass of Riesling (dry, of course), it all went down a treat. It was followed by an equally necessary Alsace delicacy - Munster cheese with Gewurztraminer. The aromatic exoticness of the Gewurz works wonderfully well with the pungent cheese. Munster is usually accompanied by cumin seeds. Apparently these aid digestion. We needed all the help we could get after the choucroute!
That evening we headed to Restaurant Brendal'Stub in Riquewihr. This modern, minimalist place is a new addition to the town and a good one at that. Local specialities were again the order of the day. We started with Tarte Flambees (grrr, how do I get accents?!). These have a very thin base (like a very thin pizza crust) and are topped with creme fraiche and various toppings (onion and bacon usually feature). They must be tried as descriptions are futile. They are delicious and I defy you to stop at one slice! Afterwards, we enjoyed some perfectly cooked ham with an array of salads (I have never had so much pork in one day!).
Pudding was a pretty dish of rhubarb with raspberry ice cream. When coffee arrived, the restaurant owner arrived with sticks of candy floss for us all. A taste of childhood that got everyone smiling - very original!
More on Alsace in my next post...