Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Strasbourg II

16 August

I woke up around 8 am on the 16th - 11 hours of sleep really helped after averaging maybe 5 hours per night in Switzerland!  I had breakfast at the hostel, and then went back to my room to change and head out for the day.  For the first time on my trip, I was glad I had brought along a jacket.  After the indefatigable sun and heat of Provence, Strasbourg was cloudy, rainy, and chilly!  The night before at dinner, the owner of the restaurant commented to one of the servers "Ce n'est que le 15 Aoüt, et on a déja l'automne !" (It's only August 15th, and autumn is already here!")

I headed towards the middle of town without a specific destination in mind.  I was glad to have my umbrella with me!

Alsace was the first place in France where I saw widespread examples of half-timbered architecture.  Some of the buildings are very intricately decorated, like this one on the main square by the cathedral:

Maison Kammerzell
It was cold and rainy enough that it wasn't a very nice day to walk around and explore, so what's a girl to do?  I simply had to duck into some shops to avoid the weather, which meant I simply had to buy a new pair of shoes and a couple of tops.  It was pretty necessary.  I also stopped in an cybercafe for a couple of hours where I got up a blog post about my time in Brussels.  By this time it was around 2 pm, and I was getting hungry, so I set out in search of a boulangerie/café with indoor seating, and after walking in circles around the same block about four times, I finally found a Paul.  Paul is a chain with shops all over France that has a nice selection of breads, quiches, sandwiches, and pastries, as well as carrying a few local specialties.  I ordered a tourte courgette-chèvre:

A tourte is typically a meat pie, but this had no meat and no upper crust, so I'm not sure why it was called a tourte.  What it had instead was chèvre (goat cheese) and courgette (zucchini).  In any case, it had a beautiful flaky crust, and the chèvre was fresh and tangy.  It was good, but nothing special.

I also had a bretzel:

If you want a pretzel while in France but you don't want to make a trip to Germany, then having on in Alsace is the next best bet.  This was a nice soft pretzel, freshly made with a barely crispy crust and a rich bready flavor, with just enough salt dotting the outside.

I finished the meal with a slice of tarte au fromage blanc:

Unlike your standard dense New York cheesecake, the French tarte au fromage blanc (literally, white cheese pie - or, essentially, cheesecake) is much lighter and airier - almost like angel food cake, flavored with vanilla and just a little sweet.

After lunch, I decided to head to the Musée Alsacien (Alsace Museum) to continue my attempt to stay out of the rain.  The museum is just across the canal from the Grand Ile.

The museum is in two typical Alsatian homes that have been connected to each other.  The visit guides you through the rooms in a particular order, sometimes veering outside into a courtyard in the middle of the homes.

The museum features exhibits of traditional furniture, decoration, and tools from Alsatian homes.  Of course you know that it was the kitchen and cooking equipment that captured my fancy:

Note the grey pottery with blue decoration to the left, and the carved wooden chair on the right, both of which I noticed the day before at Chez Yvonne.

Grandpa, I thought of you when I saw these Springerle cookie molds!  (The sign notes that they are on top and to the left).

Now here was probably my favorite part of the museum:

Halloween masks?  Totem pole faces?  No, these were attached to the flour boxes in old mills.  When the flour was separated from the bran, the bran flowed out through the mouths of these fearsome figures, representing devils, soldiers, and strangers (terrible Turcs or malevolent Moors).  They were intended to drive away evil spirits in the flour, which were believed to be the cause of ergotism, a nasty disease known today to be caused by a fungus in the ergot of rye and other cereals.

They also had a nice collection of traditional garb, including this ensemble:

Can you guess who it was worn by?  No, not Carmen Miranda wannabes, though that is a good guess with the fabulous fruit-topped hat.  In fact, it was (and I think maybe still is?  They had a photograph of a whole group all wearing this from the 1980s!) worn by... soldiers when they receive their first commission.  Or something like that.  Really.  Wouldn't this make you want to join the military?

But of course, the breathtaking couture isn't just for the men.  Ladies, we too got in on the fun with ridiculously enormous bows on top of our heads.  Now, I know that right now you are wondering to yourself, 'Val, what would you look like with a ridiculously enormous bow on top of your head?'  Well ask and ye shall receive:

Please note careful placement of my reflection!
I got lucky - just after I took this photograph, the guards came into the room and announced that the museum was closing and we had to leave.  It's a pity, as I didn't get to see the whole collection and they had a lot of fun and interesting pieces.  If you're caught in the rain when you visit Strasbourg, it's definitely worth a visit.

After leaving the museum, I had about an hour to wander before dinner.  I chose Chez Tante Liesel (Aunt Liesel's Home) for dinner this evening.  This was a tiny winstub - I would estimate it could seat a maximum of 36 diners in an evening.  The wooden chairs, the red-checked table cloths, the beamed ceiling, the kitschy hearts and pans on the wall - all an excellent representation of traditional Alsatian restaurant hospitality.

I kind of wish my dining room looked like this...
The table was set traditionally, too, with the grey and blue pottery water pitcher and mustard jar, the Hansi plate, and the green-stemmed wine glass.

Hey there, Hansi
Note, too, my notebook and pen in the lower right corner...  I took notes throughout most of my meals, recording my observations about the restaurant set-up, service, and clientele, the wine, and of course the food.  This was one of my favorite restaurants I visited.  I arrived at about 7:00 pm, right when the restaurant opened.  I was the only guest for about 30 minutes or so, but once others began to arrive the ten or so tables filled up quickly.  For a while, I only saw one person working in the restaurant - a woman with an apron, who seemed to be simultaneously single-handedly manning the front of the house and the kitchen.  When the restaurant began to fill up a little more, a second woman appeared and took over most of the serving.  She was heavily pregnant and wearing overalls.  I love restaurants like this - small, homey, not too formal, where the service really seems to be a family affair.

To start, I ordered a glass of Pinot Gris, one of the seven Alsatian wine varietals.  It had a bright yellow color and a vegetal flavor, not too dry and not too sweet.

I ordered the baeckeoffe:

Baeckeoffe (literaly, "baker's oven," pronounced buy-uh-koff-uh) is a traditional Alsatian dish that takes two days to prepare.  Potatoes, leeks, and sometimes onions and carrots are marinated along with a hunk of beef, one of lamb, and one of pork for two days in white wine (typically Sylvaner), juniper berries, and herbs.  After marinating, the meats and vegetables are put in a casserole dish and baked until tender.  As a side note, while grey pottery with blue decoration is typical of vessels on the table, dishes that go into the oven are typically glazed with a dark background color and brightly painted patterns.

This baeckoffe had a sour flavor from the wine and a piney flavor from the juniper berries.  The vegetables were cut into very thin pieces and had really soaked up a lot of flavor from the long marination.  There was one piece of each of the meats, all of which was super tender, falling apart on my fork.  Everything came in a pale yellow broth that colored and flavored the potatoes.  It is a hearty, warming, filling dish, but not too fatty or heavy - perfect comfort food for cold weather.  Yum.

For dessert, I ordered the tarte "Riwele":

This tarte was served cold and was loaded with thick slices of apple topped with walnuts, cinnamon, and powdered sugar.  The sour apples really shone, without being overly sweetened, but it was the rich, warming cinnamon flavor that stole the show.  The walnuts were toasted and flavorful, but they're still not my favorite - Mom, you would have loved them.  Overall, a very autumny dessert - a perfect match for the chilly weather!

And, of course, un café (décaffeiné, bien sur!) to finish:

A very nice meal!

After dinner (which took about two hours - gotta love the long French supper!), I headed back to the hostel to discover the maids had made my bed during the day - so luxurious!

17 August

I woke up early to have time to eat, shower, and pack before check-out at 9:00.  I was able to leave my luggage at the hostel before heading out for a few more hours in Strasbourg.  While I was off to a good start tasting Alsatian meals, I had yet to visit any pâtisseries for breads or pastries (though I had done my fair share of window shopping), so the first order of the day was to find a few sweet treats.  My first stop was La Boulangerie du Vieux Strasbourg (The Bakery of Old Strasbourg) for the ubiquitous Alsatian pastry of choice, a kugelhopf:

Kugelhopf is a mildly sweet buttery pastry that you see in every boulangerie and pâtisserie window in Alsace.  It is always baked in a pan shaped like a Bundt pan, but sizes vary from mini like this one, about three inches tall, to grand, around the size of a standard Bundt.  The confection had a dry, buttery dough that was hardly sweet at all - most of the sweetness actually came from the raisins and sultanas scattered throughout.  The crust is bien doré - a beautiful golden brown - and a few almonds studded the top of the crown.  It was not bad, but I would have preferred it to be a little moister.

My next stop was Thierry Mulhaupt, a pâtisserie that focuses more on the intricate, delicate, beautiful glazed fruit tarts and small dry cookies that have become so popular in big French cities, rather than the traditional, down-home local favorites you might find at the Boulangerie du Vieux Strasbourg.  I opted for a lingot d'épices classique:

Pain d'epices is typically translated as gingerbread; in this case, lingot translates as ingot, a reference to the small dense shape of the cake, not unlike a gold ingot.  However, the English translation listed on the label was "honey cake," which is a much more fitting name.  Unlike American gingerbread, sweetened with molasses and spicy with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, the primary flavor in this cake was the honey that sweetened it.  The cake was very sweet, almost fruity, with just a hint of the spices of its American cousin.  It was also very dense and heavy - the "moelleux extra" (extra moist) listed on the label was accurate, especially if we're comparing it to the kugelhopf!

From the look of them, Strasbourg has a lot of great pâtisseries - I wish I had had enough time to visit more of them!

After picking up my pastries, I visited the same internet cafe for a couple of hours before heading to lunch at Barthelemy, a boulangerie/patisserie with some excellent lunch fare and indoor seating on Place Broglie.  I ordered a tourte:

Unlike the courgette-chèvre-filled tourte I ate at Paul the day before, this tourte was indeed a meat-filled pie.  The meat (certainly pork, and probably some beef too, though I'm not sure) was ground and nicely seasoned, and baked within a flaky pastry crust.  It was a hearty, warm, heavy meal - I'm glad it came with a light green salad to balance it out a bit!

In addition to lunch, Barthelemy also has a nice selection of macarons, chocolates, and jams - so of course I had to pick a little something up for my good friends, the Barthelemys!  (Remember Celine, whose family was so kind as to host me in Brussels a few weeks earlier?  She's a Barthelemy.)

After lunch, I headed back to the hostel to pick up my luggage, and then headed to the train station to head South to Colmar.  But that is a story for another day.

Coming soon: Wine flights and tastings in Colmar - more than you ever wanted to know about Alsatian wines!

A bientôt,


Frank said...

Patrick's is the best bakery and pastry shop in Strasbourg. It's in the German Quarter, and it's fantastic!!!

I need orange said...

I keep thinking "Where was I when you were doing this?????"


I would have loved those walnuts, I am sure.


Val-Paris said...

Frank, where was this advice when I was actually in Strasbourg???? I guess we'll just have to go back together :)