Monday, November 8, 2010


17 August

While I generally would prefer to take the train in the morning and have the whole afternoon in a new city, the hostel in Colmar wasn't open for check-in before 5:00 pm, so I didn't leave Strasbourg until about 4:00 pm.  It was a short train ride - just half an hour - to get into Colmar.  After my first luggage fiasco in Aix, I didn't want to take any chances rolling my luggage over any more cobblestones than necessary, so from the train station in Colmar I took a bus to my hostel.  The hostel was about a kilometer outside of town, and it wouldn't let me reserve a room in advance, so I was a little nervous as to whether they would have space... but I needn't have worried.  They had so much space that I was able to spend an extra 5€ per night to have a private room, which brought the grand total to about 19€ per night... sheets not included.  I'm glad I brought my own!

Once I had taken my luggage to the room and familiarized myself a little with a map of Colmar, I headed into town to find a restaurant for dinner.  I asked at the tourist office for a good spot to get some choucroute - in English, sourkraut, but it's so much more than that - and the woman behind the desk told me all the local restaurants had it.  Not exactly the response I was looking for - what happened to locals being able to give you the best recommendations??  But after my trip, if there's one thing I know how to do in France, it's find a good restaurant.  One of the first spots I found was this impressive building:

The Maison des Têtes, or House of Heads, gets its name from the many small carved heads decorating the facade of the building.  It was built in 1609 by a merchant who would go on to become mayor of Colmar 14 years later.  Today it is a hotel and restaurant.  The menu looked promising and did offer my choucroute, but there was an extra requirement for today's dinner: the restaurant needed to be on the Place de l'Ancienne Douane (the Plaza of the old Custom's House).  It was Tuesday evening, and at 8:30 pm every Tuesday evening in the summer there is traditional Alsatian folk music and dancing on the Place de l'Ancienne Douane, and I wanted to be nearby and able to see it.  So I made a reservation for the next night at the Maison des Têtes, and continued on to the Place.

Now, in general, I would never recommend choosing a restaurant right on a big Place - you're much more likely to find a good meal a little further off the beaten path.  And the food at the restaurant I chose was no exception to this meal; it was very mediocre.  I started with a planchette de charcuterie:

Planchette means board, and charcuterie is essentially like deli meats - hams, sausages, cold cuts.  In this case, there were three meats: jambon cuit ("cooked ham"), jambon cru ("raw ham"), and lard fumé ("smoked bacon").  The cooked ham (covering most of the board in this photo) tasted a little saltier than your standard American deli sliced ham, but was about as interesting.  The raw ham (the slices topped with a cornichon, or mini-pickle), which had been cured and smoked, had a strong smoky flavor, almost like a campfire, which drowned out the flavor of the pork, I thought.  It was better than the cooked variety, but not great.  The bacon smelled sweet, like brown sugar, and had a sweet, smoky taste, kind of like a sugar cured ham.  It wasn't bad, but again, it wasn't very interesting.

The real reason I think I chose this restaurant, though, was for the main course, which could be served with five crus de vignoble:

That's right, a flight of five Alsatian wines to get a taste of the region.  The wines, from left to right, are:
  • Riquewihr-Edel: One of the few wines produced in Alsace from a blend of grape varietals, this wine had a fruity, floral nose, a little citrus in the taste, and a little astringency in the finish.
  • Riesling: Along with Gewürztraminer, Muscat, and Pinot gris, Riesling is one of the "noble grapes" of Alsace.  This wine was a little greener than the Edel both in color and flavor, and had a much smoother finish with a nice, bright acidity.
  • Tokay Pinot Gris: The "Tokay" label is left over from the fact that this grape was brought to Alsace from rootstock in Hungary.  This wine had a buttery nose with a round sweet flavor with a hint of anise in the finish.  This wine was a little spicy and, according to my notes, a little "funky."
  • Gewürtztraminer:  This full-bodied wine had a strong, spicy, sweet taste, with flavors like Gala apple, cinnamon, and bourbon.  It was a little too sweet for my taste.
  • Pinot Noir: The only red wine produced in Alsace, this Pinot noir had notes of red fruits like cranberries and tart cherries, as well as a woodsy flavor.  This is a very light red wine - if you're looking for something fuller-bodied, head west to Bourgogne!
The main course that came with all this wine was a flammekueche:

Flammekeuche, or tarte flambée in French, is kind of like a super-thin crust pizza, only with no sauce, and instead of cheese there's cream.  The traditional toppings are onions and bacon, though you'll find many other toppings available as well.  I would have preferred if the onions had been cooked a little before being thrown on top - they were a little too raw for me.  The bacon added smokiness to the dish.  The crisp crust with the light, airy, barely-cheesy cream was a nice combination.  If this had been made with top-quality ingredients, it would have been a knock-out, but even as it was it was pretty tasty.

Around 8:15 pm, the spectacle started, though there were enough other tourists with the same plan that I had to watch the music and dancing that it wasn't easy to see very much.  See the red and white blurs?  Those are couples whirling around a dance floor.  The music was fun, though, and the dancers made a point of involving the crowd - for a few of the dances, the dancers went into the crowd to find a new partner to join in the dance.

I didn't want to stay too long as it was quickly getting darker and I had a long walk back to the hostel along a somewhat deserted road.

18 August

I had breakfast in the hostel, then headed into town around 9:30.  It was raining again, so I decided to visit the Musée d'Unterlinden, the major art museum in Colmar.  The museum's best known piece is Grünewald's Issenheim Altarpiece, which has multiple levels of displays depending on which wings of the altarpiece are opened to show different scenes according to different important liturgical dates.  The best known of these is the hideous, rotting corpse of Christ, twisted and mangled on the cross just after his death.  The museum is in an old convent, and the famous altarpiece is set up in the chapel in an arrangement that successfully shows how the many facets of the altarpiece fit together.  It was a powerful exhibit.

You can see other views of the altarpiece extending towards the apse, beyond the dead Christ figure
Beyond the Altarpiece, the museum had a very nice collection of 15th and 16th century German painting and sculpture art, as well as rooms of Alsatian furniture and armor, and then finally, a modern room with a couple of Picassos.  (What European art museum doesn't have a couple of Picassos???)

After the museum, I decided to find some lunch.  I stepped into a small salon du thé (literally, tea room - generally, these are small eateries serving tea and light lunch-type fare) where I ordered a tarte aux oignons et salade verte, and a thé jasmin:

The tarte aux oignons (literally, onion tart) was excellent.  It was not unlike a quiche, baked in a this, crisp pastry crust and served hot and fresh.  It was filled with sweet caramelized white onions in a cream-based filling.  I love cooked onions, and this dish really showed them off at their best.  The salad (called a salade verte, or green salad, to differentiate it from a salade composée, or composed salad, which would have many more ingredients than just lettuce and tomatoes) was dressed in a nice, standard acidic dressing.  The tea was mildly jasmine, and very forgettable.

After lunch, I decided I needed a little something sweet to finish, so I visited a pâtisserie called Sorbier where I picked up a slice of tarte aux myrtilles:

tiny blueberry goodness on a crust
Myrtilles are tiny wild blueberries, and a tarte, as you may have discerned, is anything that is served with a thin pastry crust as the bottom level - just like a tart in English.  In this case, the crust was an excellent pâte sucré, or sweet dough, which is often used for dessert tarts.  This one was sweet and just a little crunchy, a perfect foil for the tons of tiny berries that were bursting with juice.  The berries were very sweet, but had a nice fresh tartness as well.  I am not always a huge fan of blueberry pie, but this was one of the best desserts I had during my trip.  I wouldn't normally recommend going to France in August because so many shops and restaurants are closed for a few weeks for summer vacation, but I'm sure you can't get this tarte any time except for when the myrtilles are in season, so I'm so glad I was around at the right time to taste it!

After having sufficiently gorged myself, I set out to walk around Colmar and get to see some more of the town.  I noticed a sign for a dégustation du vin (wine tasting) at 5 pm outside the Domaine Viticole de la Ville de Colmar.

Domaine Viticole de la Ville de Colmar
I signed up for the tasting for 5€, and then spent the next few hours enjoying how cute Colmar is.  The town is filled with half-timbered architecture, some of which dates back as far as the 16th Century!

Maison Pfister, built in 1537
Why are there so many Irish pubs in France??? They're everywhere!

In addition to the half-timbered buildings, I also saw that perennial Colmar favorite, the Manneken Pis:

Really?  And he's still nekkid??
That is to say, the reproduction of the "Oldest Bourgeois citizen of Brussels" that was given to Colmar in the fourth year of the liberation to remember the oppression of both Belgians and Alsatians by the Germans (Alsace had been a part of Germany from the 1870s until 1944), and in honor of the "unalterable Belgian gaiety" and the "courageous Alsatian good humor."  At least, that's according to the long inscription on the fountain.

Around 5:00, I headed to the dégustation.  We started a little later than anticipated because a few other people had registered for the tasting, but then failed to show up.  So I ended up having a private tasting of 5 wines.  Given that you may possibly have read a commentary on a tasting of 5 Alsatian wines somewhere recently (I know it's a pretty popular topic these days), I'll try not to repeat myself.  The wines were:

  • 2008 Pinot blanc: A light, everyday wine, with floral and apricot notes, good for cooking - very pleasant.
  • 2008 Riesling: A good pairing with seafood (fresh or smoked), in Alsace this is also the standard pairing for choucroute. Apparently we always speak of "minerality" (think pebbles) when we taste Alsatian Riesling - and having tried it with this in mind, I would concur.  Still my favorite Alsatian wine.
  • 2008 Muscat: Apparently, when describing the nose of a Muscat, there are no good descriptors, "it just smells like itself."  So we say it smells like Muscat.  There are also some citrus notes, but it's hard to name flavors in this smooth, slightly sweet wine
  • 2005 Pinot Gris: I was told this was a special batch of wine produced occasionally (when the conditions are favorable) to match a special 1986 vintage prepared for the citizens of New York in honor of Bartholdi, the Colmar native who designed the statue of liberty.  This particular wine is sweeter than your standard Pinot Gris, and the sweetness makes the wine almost seem fortified.  With notes of dried fruits and mushrooms, this would pair well with foie gras, or work well as an apératif.
  • 2008 Gewurtztraminer: The sweetest and heaviest of the wines, this is a complex wine with notes of peaches and wood.  The sweetness and complexity of flavor makes this a good pairing dishes as diverse as red fruit tarts, chocolates, or even curries.

This tasting was great because I learned a lot about Alsatian wines in general.  For example, when stocking your wine cellar, you should know that 2008 was a good year and 2005 was an excellent year.  But you should stay away from 2010s, once they hit the shelves - all this cold and wet weather, which started a couple of weeks before I arrived, is apparently unheard of in August and probably had deleterious effects on the grapes, which do better with the typical hot and sunny summer Alsatian sun.  In autumn the temperatures lower more quickly here than in other regions of France, which helps to produce excellent white wines but is a disadvantage for producing reds - in Bourgogne and Bordeaux, the summer is generally milder and the warmth lingers later in the fall.  Most Alsatian wines are drunk young, but a good wine can be aged 7-10 years and will continue to develop flavor.

It was a little past 6:00 when the dégustation ended, and my reservation for dinner was for 7:00 when the restaurant opened.  The half-hour that followed was probably my most uncomfortable in all of my travels, and I wandered frantically through the streets searching for a bathroom, which was beyond necessary after tasting the wines.  I even found a public pay toilet at one point, but I didn't have exact change and it wouldn't allow me to overpay.  So lame!

Dinner at the Maison des Têtes was very different from the winstubs I had chosen in Strasbourg: rather than being comfortable and homey, this had a distinctly Nice Restaurant feel - servers wearing black blazers, rushing around and speaking to each other in hushed tones.  The decoration was much more bourgeois, with white linens and fancy glass carafes d'eau (water pitchers) in place of the red-checked tablecloths and grey-and-blue pottery.  Instead of having a basket of cut bread, the servers handed you each roll individually with a pair of silver tongs.  The servers were also just a little pushier about asking me if I'd like an apératif (a before-dinner drink) or some eau minérale (mineral water) than in other restaurants I visited.

I chose the menu Colmar, a three-course prix fixe (fixed price) menu, as well as a glass of Riesling.  The meal started with an amuse bouche:

The amuse bouche, a one-bite starter, was comprised of lightly smoked salmon wrapped around... some kind of mixture of herbs and vegetables.  My notes are limited and I don't remember much about that bite, so it must not have been too memorable.

My entrée was the Terrine de canard et ses petites salades:

A terrine is a dish made of chopped, shredded, or ground meat that is emulsified with fat and pressed into a form, often in a loaf-shape.  Canard means duck, so this is a terrine of diced duck meat, with a liver pâté in the middle and a white outer coating, not unlike a dumpling wrapper.  The terrine was served as a slice of a larger loaf.  The chewy, smokiness of the diced duck paired nicely with the smooth, creamy liver center.  The terrine was also served with five "small salads," each based on a different vegetable: beets, arugula, tomatoes, fennel, and a white vegetable I couldn't place, similar to a mild radish.  Each salad was relatively simple, but put all together they provided a great depth and complexity to the dish.

For my plat, of course I opted for the choucroute garnie:

Hello, gorgeous.  When you order choucroute garnie, you're getting not only the fermented cabbage, but also at least 5 varieties of meats (here there were three types of sausages, ham, and a thick slab of bacon), and sometimes a potato or two - that's the "garnish."  The dish has cooked for a long time - long enough to let all those flavors mingle and meld together.  The sourness of the choucroute has left its mark on the meats, and the mellow round meaty flavors have added depth to the cabbage.  The pleasant acidity keeps the dish from becoming too heavy, even with all those cuts of meat piled on.  The dish was brought out in a cast iron pot and served at the table; there was more cabbage and meat still in the pot, though I couldn't finish what was on this plate!  It was a delicious dish, though not something I could eat every day.

When they finally took my order for dessert (I would say 40 minutes after I finished my choucroute - ridiculous!), I chose the Vacherin glacé:

This decadent dessert was a sandwich of two meringues surrounding two types of ice cream, vanilla and raspberry, and then all topped with some crème Chantilly, pistachios, and spiked grapes.  The meringues were light with a little crunch, and the raspberry ice cream was particularly tart and nice.  The dessert was also served with three tiny petit-fours: a macaron, a small layered pastry, and a curved almond cookie.

It was a nice meal, but not spectacular.  I have to say I really prefer the homier, less pretentious restaurants I visited more often to this more formal style.

After finishing dinner, I stopped briefly in a cybercafe to check email and train schedules for the next day, and then headed back to the hostel to pack and get ready to leave the next day.

Coming soon: Besançon, home of the inestimable Elise... and the most important group of males on earth.

A bientôt,

1 comment:

I need orange said...

Sorry I wasn't there to share the choucroute! I would have loved it, I am sure. Also the blueberry tart. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. :-)