I am so happy to be back in Alsace, especially here in Strasbourg. I have not been here since the 90’s when while teaching at Boston Latin Academy, I was part of a French teacher exchange hosted by the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Strasbourg Sister City Association of which I am a trustee.
This trip is a celebration of our “jumelage” -the 50th anniversary of our partnership between our two cities and I am hoping to meet again my hosts of the original exchange,Yvonne Sprauel and her husband Philippe.
Strasbourg is even more beautiful than I remember it as I walk from my Hotel Beaucour to the Place du Corbeau (Square of the Crow). The city was founded thousands of years ago upon an island formed by the River Ill’s two branches, but before crossing one of the many small bridges connected to the island I must stop and enjoy a late lunch. I step into a tiny cafe’, Le Petit Pêcheur and enjoy a bit of the Alsatian specialty, tarte flambee’ (flaming tarte). It arrives, hot and smoky with a blackened crackly crust not much thicker than a sheet of paper. The tart is baked in a ferociously hot wood burning oven and is strewn with little “lardons” of thick-cut bacon, crème fraîche and carmelized onions. It hits the spot as does my glass of pinot gris, a local Alsatian wine.
As I move along the narrow streets, I notice that Strasbourg is already preparing for their annual Marché de Noël or Christmas Market. Many of the old black and white timber-framed buildings and shops are already displaying holiday decorations. There are many feathery white angels and silver garlands as well as floating doves and majestic “boules” hanging from the wires strung over the narrow streets. The shop windows are so enticing with their displays of chocolate Pères Noël and other tempting delights. I resolve to return for purchase of some of these seasonal treats. As I approach the magnificent medieval cathedral of Notre Dame, I am overwhelmed by the majestic beauty of its stone carvings and sculptured figures. It is a symbol of the Golden Age of Strasbourg. The cathedral is noted for having only one spire and the interior is tranquil with choir melodies soothing the spirit. This is in contrast to the cauldron of convivial tourists thronging the streets. Later I succumb to buying dolls for my three grand daughters, Adriana, Lillian and Sylvia, but still restrain myself from purchasing the tempting chocolate truffles and cookies and cakes displayed in the windows of the shops.
Close by the cathedral is the famous Maison Kammerzell, a restaurant dating from 1427. It is a building of restored half timbers in the Gothic style. Returning to the hotel I admire the elegance of the white and silver holiday decorations already surrounding its courtyard. The hotel is charming with many rooms decorated with picturesque red and white checkered hearts, a symbol of welcome and hospitality of the city. It is my first day back in Strasbourg and jet lag inspires an early retreat
The following day I walk towards the Place Gutenberg. It was in Strasbourg, already a center of humanist scholarship, that Johannes Gutenberg developed his printing press thus changing universal literature and opportunities for education among the populace of the Middle Ages.
Although the city is preparing for the Christmas Market, autumnal colors of brown and gold still reign. Many tourists are sitting at outdoor cafés and bistros chatting and drinking wine. A number of the streets in this area have names denoting the old food purveyors who once thronged this ancient quarter. There is the Vieux marché aux Poissons (old market of Fish), rue des Bouchers (Street of the Butchers), and the marché aux Cochons du Lait., (the Market of the Suckling Pig)–somehow the colorful names lose their charm in the English translation. The souvenir shops surrounding the cathedral are catering to lively groups of visitors with their displays of kugelhopf molds and colorful ceramic casseroles for baeckoffe. Kugelhopf by the way is a special molded cake native to Alsace similar to a bundt cake. It is filled with raisins and sometimes other dried fruits and is gilded with a light glaze. Baeckoffe is a dish of potatoes and several meats marinated in white wine baked in terrines in a baker’s oven. The names come from the German as Alsace went back and forth between France and Germany from the 17th century onwards. It became part of Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and then part of France again after World War I, then German with the advent of Hitler in 1939, and now French since 1945. I decide to have a mini lunch outdoors at one of the cafés. A simple crepe, lacy and delicate has a light filling of lemon butter and it is delicious as is my glass of Edelzwicker, an Alsatian white wine. These regional wines are always served in green-stemmed glasses. The glasses remind me of my years living in Idar-Oberstein, Germany close to the French border where the wine was served also in the same type glass, another contribution of Germany to France, or was it France to Germany? Even many café menus are printed in German (Alsatian) as well as French..
That evening I get together with Yvonne and Philippe for dinner at restaurant L’A Table.77. We enjoy an amuse-bouche of beet sorbet with sea salt crystals and a dab of lime gelée. This is followed by my favorite smoked duck foie gras. Filet of sole with lime flavors and garden herbs is my choice for a main course. For Yvonne it is coquilles San Jacques (diver scallops in a cream sauce) served in a flaky puff pastry crust, and for Philippe, sea bass with risotto in squid ink. A chocolate croustillant pastry serves as dessert for me but I am also tempted by a macaron infused with tea and whiskey, and also a poached pear tart.
The next day I meet with our group of “delegates’ from Boston and our fearless leader and trip organizer, Kathy Portle, vice president of our organization. Dinner that night is at Le Tire Bouchon,( The Corkscrew). This charming old townhouse is a delight with its rustic country interior and colorful linens. It specializes in cuisine of the “terroir” (land) and is a beacon of warmth and color. I admire the ancient culinary artifacts of the restaurant while enjoying my terrine of smoked duck foie gras (Well, it is the season you know) served with a house made black cherry conserve and warm slices of buttered bread This is followed by sea trout meuniere or miller style with a caper, thyme and lemon butter. For dessert there is chocolate mousse tart with drizzles of whipped cream and fresh berries.
On Monday we enjoy a guided tour of the old city. Our guide is Vivianne Beller, a French speaking native of Springfield, MA. We walk to the cathedral where Vivianne educates us on the religious symbolism of the exterior sculptures and.carvings. From there we proceed to St. Thomas Church home of the wonderful Silberman organ once played by Mozart and also Albert Schweizer. We are in luck as a practice session is going on and we are fortunate enough to hear some of the magnificent strains of this beloved instrument. Following our visit we venture forth to La Petite France, the most picturesque and romantic quarter of the city. Half-timbered houses are situated in narrow winding streets along the banks of the Ill with its several covered bridges dating from the 14th century. Many of the buildings were at one time mills, laundries and tanneries, enterprises that needed water from the various river canals. Now these same structures are restaurants, shops and cafés frequented by tourists and students. The area was also once home to a hospital specializing in venereal diseases for which Napoleon’s French soldiers were blamed, hence the name Petite France.
A visit to the Alsatian Museum is next. Dedicated to all aspects of rural life in pre-industrial Alsace the museum is notable for its reconstruction of actual interiors of several houses. It is located in three Renaissance timber-framed homes overlooking the river. Here everyday life of an earlier time is displayed with traditional furniture, ceramics, kitchen artifacts and toys..
Our dinner that evening is at “Au Cerf d’Or” (At the Golden Stag). Again I enjoy foie gras of duck prepared “home style”cooked au torchon (rolled in a dishcloth).with geleée, and garnished with chives accompanied by warm toast and butter. This is followed by veal Forestière-style with wild mushrooms, white wine and cream. There is also house-made spaetzle (small German dumplings). A nut tart with crème anglaise (custard sauce) served in a tall shot glass ends the meal on a happy and satisfying note.
The following day we go to the MAMCS (Museum of Arte Moderne et Contemporaine), one of the largest of its kind in France. Here, a rich collection of modern art with paintings by such luminaries as Max Ernst and Vassily Kandinsky impresses. A cruise on the Ill follows. It is very relaxing on this mellow late autumn day to view La Petite France with its charming narrow streets and timbered buildings.
That evening we attend the exhibit “Par Avion” at the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). This cultural exchange of art organized by project author, Ann Forbush, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Boston Strasbourg Sister City Association. Several of the members of our group are artists from the De Cordova Museum and they are participating in this exhibition of contemporary art. The exhibit is called “Par Avion” as originally French artists sent several of their works to our participants and other artists, who then added a second layer of imagery. The paintings were collected and photographed and then mailed back and forth across the Atlantic thus the inspiration for the title “Par Avion” (Air Mail).This exhibit was a transatlantic endeavor and is filled with ingenuity and humor. Following the exhibit we enjoy a light dinner at Gurtlerhoft, a popular rathskeller in the Cathedral Square. Since we have been downing crémant d’Alsace, a delicious special vintage of the area and munching on hors d’oeuvres at the exhibit, our meal choices are light. In my case it is simply grilled chicken livers over an herbal salad intensified with a vinaigrette dressing.
On Wednesday we visit the astonishing wine cellars located in the hospital, Hospices de Strasbourg. The hospital dating from the 15th century was a charitable institution in the Middle Ages where wine played a big part in hospital care. Wine quenched the thirst and relieved the pain of the patients, most of whom were victims of poverty as well as illness.There are thousands of bottles of Alsatian wines in these “caves” some of which have been kept in the vault for six centuries. I enjoy the cre’mont d”Alsace again and appreciate its champagne-like fizz. Next follows a tour of the European Parliament, a symbol of the international importance which Strasbourg holds as the capital of Alsace
That evening we are invited to a reception at the US Consulate given by the Consul General of the United States, Evan Reade and his wife Mary Rose Reade. The reception is in honor of our delegation from Boston. The consul delights us with stories of his tenure in Strasbourg while we enjoy hors d’oeuvres of gougère (cheese pastry puffs) and crémant (of course). The evening is enlightening and interesting and our hosts are most gracious.
The next day is extremely foggy but we set out by bus to tour the Alsatian Route des Vins or Wine Route. On our way we visit a former abbey where the studios of Jean-Charles Spindler are located Three generations of the Spindler family have been celebrated for their work in marquetry or wood-inlay paintings. Marquetry is the art of applying pieces of veneer of diverse grains to form decorative patterns and pictures. The diversity of the wood helps to create the scene.The display of marquetry pieces at the studio is dazzling and Jean-Charles’ explanation is both interesting and enlightening. The studio is also a work of art with its Art Déco furnishings and touches of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century.
Our next stop is the marketplace in Obernai I would like to plunder through this display of fresh vegetables, clothes and local crafts but we are due at the restaurant La Cloche (The Bell) for lunch so naturally we scurry. The restaurant is warm and cheerful after the dark and foggy weather and the luncheon portions are enormous and filling.! My choice is a baked dish of potatoes with cream, cheese and bacon. It is delicious but so huge that I can only do justice to half of it. I look across the table and notice that Vivianne, our guide, has chosen the typical dish of Alsace, choucroute garnie. This abundant dish consists of a massive portion of pork chops and sausages atop a mound of sauerkraut. I am wondering if she will be able to do justice to this robust dish.
Following lunch we travel to the castle at Koenigsbourg. By the time we reach the castle it is dark. Together with the heavy fog there is not much for us to see. We do learn however that the castle built in the 12th century was restored in the early part of the 20th century by William II of Germany to honor the Reich of which Alsace was then part. The castle is a mass of dungeons and canons and in its earlier days was often attacked and pillaged. It posses a spectacular view of the Alsatian plain and the Black Forest I am told, but of course we see nothing of this due to the weather. On the way back to Strasbourg we stop at the winery Sipp Mack in Ribeauvillé. A tasting of several vintages awaits us. There is a crispy pinot blanc-very herbal and dry, as well as a riesling, a blend of citrus and mineral notes. My preferance of course among the other wines tasted, is the cre’mant, a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blanc.
Next day we visit the Médiathèque André Malraux This palace of technology named for the writer and former minister of culture, André Malraux, was constructed from old grain silos located along the quais of the Ill. Here thousands of documents are displayed and among them is the original Gutenberg Bible and the text of Georg Daniel Flohr’s Journal of his travels and experiences in America as a soldier of the revolution Flohr was a German living in Strasbourg when he enlisted in the American army of 1776. His travels and sketches of American life at that time are highly interesting and informative regarding the society of that period. The journal describes the many small towns and villages of the colonial period and provides a highly interesting account of American life. Following our visit to the Médiathèque we go on to the Museum Tomi Ungerer. Tomi Ungerer, a native of Strasbourg, has collected thousands of ancient mechanical toys and games. These are displayed here along with the artist’s political cartoons and graphic works..Children’s books illustrated by Ungerer are exhibited along with his colorful and amusing satirical cartoons. In the basement of the museum a collection of Ungerer’s erotic drawings is on view. Here are many drawings and sketches of little froggies cavorting around enjoying the universal pastime.The froggies appear to be in a very jolly mood while participating in athletic frolics of nature. They are a happy group indeed.
Friday is our last day together and our hosts from the Strasbourg side of our association invite us to a “Dîner d’adieu”, It is an evening of tarte flambée and local wines. The Restaurant L’Espérance is tucked away in the little town of Handschuhheim, another reminder of Alsace’s German influence in the area. The conversation is dynamic, some of it in French or German or English. We begin our meal with a Christmas beer or Bière de Noël, aromatic with Christmas spices of pumpkin and cinnamon. The tarte flambée served is in the original style, that is with crème fraîche, carmelized onions and crispy lardons. It arrives on a huge board and will be served non-stop until we say, “Fini!”. We drink Alsatian pinot gris while enjoying the tart.and afterwards end the meal with a dessert tarte flambée of apples and cinnamon Various other tarte flambées are listed on the menu some made with the fall flavors of chestnuts and pumpkin, others served with mussels, butter and parsley or of roquefort and chèvre (goat cheese) garnished with walnuts and cress.
Next day I do some shopping finally no longer resisting the chocolate truffles and pralines at Jacques Bockel and La Cure Gourmande. The spirit of St. Nick and Père Noël is definitely in the air. I munch on a huge warm cheese pretzel purchased from a street vendor and drink a glass of edelzwicker. Later I have dinner at the home of Marie Maurer who serves a delicious paté of duck foie gras purchased that day from the nearby market. We drink pinot gris and Marie presents me with a bottle of it to take home. To finish the meal we enjoy a luscious but light cheese cake followed by a creamy fromage, Mont d”Or .
It is my last day in Strasbourg. I attend mass at the cathedral where rows of elderly former soldiers stand in uniform holding their battle flags. They are honoring the day of Liberation of Strasbourg by the French in November of 1944.. Afterwards I drink a glass of pinot blanc in a café and watch the people streaming toward the Marché de Noël now being constructed. Here twelve “chalets’ will soon be erected around the cathedral and in the tiny streets of the colorful half timbered houses of the old town The merchants will display their arts, crafts and produce thus continuing a tradition which was begun in 1570. . Later I go to the restaurant l’ Illbourg on the outskirts of Strasbourg for another tarte flambée with Yvonne and Philippe but first we drink an aperitif at their lovely apartment whose only ascension is three flights of steep highly polished wooden stairs. Yvonne shows me her calligraphy work and I am quite impressed. She is a true artist. The restaurant l’ Illbourg is elegant but simple and is in simple Germanic style. The tart is smoky, tangy and sweet, a true Alsatian experience. After a velvety and unctuous crème au caramel, we bid good-by and I return to my little “chambre” to finish packing.
Within twenty-four hours I am home again in the US. My thoughts are still in Strasbourg however and as usual I am romancing my visit. Hopefully it will not be another fourteen years before I will return to this graceful and interesting city. Hey! What am I talking about? I won’t be around in fourteen years. That can only mean one thing and that is that I must return to Strasbourg soon..
About The Author: Isabel Chesak holds linguistic degrees in French and German, has lived in several European countries, and now calls Massachusetts home. She is a retired language teacher, has written two cookbooks, taught cooking classes in Madrid, and is an enthusiastic traveler, accomplished cook and one of our favorite culinary writers!
Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons