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1940s Archive

An Epicurean Tour of the French Provinces

Alsace

continued (page 2 of 7)

Kaysersberg, wedged in between steep, vine-clad hills, is crowded with overhanging timbered dwellings. If you happen to arrive there on market day, a scene of unforgettable animation awaits you. Farmers from outlying hamlets bring in their pigs, geese, and cauliflowers, while their wives come bedecked in old Alsatian costumes with flapping bonnets, plaid skirts, and sashes tied in enormous bows. Kaysersberg is a village of artisans. Stone-carvers, toy-makers, etchers, and wood-engravers work in shops clustered around the square. And there is a charming village inn with a vinecovered garden where wine merchants regale their customers with crystal goblets of Riesling. This is the Hotel Chambard, and it is a thoroughly pleasant place to stop for a meal or for the night.

Riquewihr, a name which brightens the eye of many a wine amateur, is perhaps the most fantastic of all Alsatian villages. It is the absolute quintessence of quaintness. Mossy fountains, embellished with wrought iron, mark its street crossings. Carved Renaissance loggias just forth from the upper floors of its ancient houses, providing inquisitive housewives with fine lookouts over the street. The main village thoroughfare terminates in a tall, whimsical town gate capped with a nonsensical belfry. Its lean front is gaudily checkered with timbers, like a too-sporty golfer in loud tweeds. In this atmosphere of giddy unreality, you may sample the best of Alsatian wines. It is quite an experience! You may be puzzled by the “Gourmet” emblazoned on some of the houses of Riquewihr. In this rare instance the word retains its ancient meaning of “wine merchant.”

This is a good setting for a fleeting paragraph on the gay, palatable white wines produced on this verdant hillside. In contrast to the practice in other regions of France, the Alsatian wines take their names from the varietal grape vine, usually combined with a village name. Thus you may have to choose between a Riesling de Riquewihr, a Sylvaner de Barr, or a Traminer d'Ammerschwihr, and there couldn't be a more pleasant dilemma. The name of the wine grower is, as usual, your best guaranty of quality. The outstanding Alsatian grape varieties, Gewurztraminer, Traminer, Riesling, and Sylvaner, produce light, graceful white wines, clean to the taste and delicately perfumed. Like their distinguished Rhine neighbors, they are pale in color and deceptive in their hidden prowess. The French Minister of Agriculture had to taste 139 Alsatian wines in one day, it says here in my newspaper clipping. The balanced poise of statemen has rarely received a stiffer test. The Muscat grape also thrives in Alsace, producing an aromatic little dessert wine. And of course there is Alsatian beer, a fresh, savory brew which will forever be the perfect companion to choucroute garnie.

To the thousands who know Alsatian cookery only by way of Paris brasseries, choucroute garnie is the one, the overpowering dish of the region. They do it better in Alsace than on the Grands Boulevards, you may be sure. The sauerkraut is thoroughly cooked but light, perfumed with peppercorns. It is crowned with a slab of hot boiled ham and flanked with fat Strasbourg with a slab of hot boiled potatoes. (In parentheses, may I say that the Hofbrau in New Haven achieves Olympic heights with the dish, equaling the best that Alsace can produce.) This venerable dish is an accepted classic, and very possibly one of the reasons is that it is surprisingly digestible.

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