Thursday, May 3, 2012

Choucroute Garnie in Strasbourg

Strasbourg’s outstanding historic architecture is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site; its medieval churches, grand public buildings, and tangle of narrow streets offer a unique insight into a bygone age. Long contested by both Germany and France, its shifting borders have also given it a distinctive cuisine, exemplified by a deliciously heaped platter of choucroute garnie.

The capital of Alsace, Strasbourg lies on the French/German border, and has habitually scuttled back and forth between France and Germany. In fact, from 1870 to 1945, it was alternately French and German no fewer than four times. Its checkered nationality is evident everywhere, from the medieval neighborhood of La Petite France to the grand Neo-Gothic German Quarter, both of which carry street signs written in French and the Germanic Alsatian dialect.
La Petite France is impossibly charming, with a web of waterways, half-timbered houses, and wooden bridges, but its hospital and noisy canal-boat workshops led the Germans to skirt the area when they annexed the city in 1870. They struck out instead past the old town, throwing up grandiose public buildings, private homes, and graceful gardens, spawning the German or Imperial Quarter. The buildings still sparkle today, and the German influence on local culinary habits remains as palpable. It’s sometimes striking, in fact, just how “un-French” an Alsatian menu can seem. Thanks to Jewish immigration in the 1100s, foie gras is a firm favorite, but German influence on local culinary habits is everywhere in evidence – sauerkraut (choucroute), wursts, pretzels, braised meats, gingerbread, and kougelhopf still loom large on an Alsatian plate.
Choucroute garnie is the Alsatian dish par excellence: salt-pickled cabbage braised with salted and smoked pork, and seasoned with juniper berries.
The dish seems encoded in Alsatian genes, and everyone has a favorite way of making sure the choucroute is silky, the sausages perfectly simmered, and the pork addictive. Most recipes also include bay leaves, garlic, onions, potatoes, white Alsatian Riesling wine, and a dollop of duck or goose fat to get it started. Above all, the flavor should be delicate, not tart, so the pickled cabbage is rinsed twice before it is added to the pot. Some like to go whole hog and add a titanic ham hock, smoked pork chops, or even liver quenelles (dumplings).
When it is brought to the table, a glistening hillock of choucroute crested with slices of smoked and salted pork, fat sausages, and steamed potatoes should provoke a gasp of delight.

Above : The canal-side restaurants of La Petite France allow diners to sample authentic Alsatian food in a time-honored setting

Best Places to Eat Choucroute Garnie

Chez Yvonne
Chez Yvonne is something of an institution in Strasbourg. Sandwiched between 16th-century timber-fronted houses in a street just a step or two from the mighty cathedral, this woody winstub oozes old Strasbourg. Rustic and down-to-earth, it has a menu that includes all of Alsace’s tried and tested, true and timeless dishes: goose foie gras, presskopt, coq au Riesling, jambonneau, and, of course, choucroute garnie. Winstub cooking is, above all, familial, and Alsatian families tend to have a favorite one that they like to call their own.
Chez Yvonne is that kind of place. Winstub translates as “wine room,” and the room (stub) refers to a cozy one in someone’s house where everyone relaxes. Yvonne herself may have retired long ago, but the kelsch (gingham) curtains, warm wood paneling, and pottery live on, along with the generous plate of choucroute garnie, a happy confluence of pork liver quenelles, pork knuckle, blood sausage, Strasbourg and Monbéliard sausages, salted pork loin, smoked pork belly, and fermented cabbage. It’s perfect with the restaurant’s dry white Sylvaner wine.
10 rue du Sanglier, Strasbourg; noon–2:15 PM & 6 PM–midnight daily;

Above : Choucroute garnie is nostalgia on a plate for many Alsatians, evoking precious memories of childhood and home

Also in Strasbourg
Captivating Le Clou (; inexpensive) is everything you could wish for in a winstub: welcoming, warm, woody, and full of delicious smells. Tables are shared, so you’ll be rubbing shoulders with strangers, but somehow that doesn’t seem inappropriate when you’re eating this kind of food. People dream of the consommé with bone-marrow quenelles and the choucroute royale avec wädele, a regal version of choucroute garnie that substitutes champagne for wine and adds a hefty pork knuckle to the meat contingent.
Also in France
Drouant (; expensive) in Paris started out as a humble tobacco-bar in 1880, but today it’s a first-class restaurant owned by three-star Michelin chef and Alsatian Antoine Westermann. Its founder Charles Drouant also hailed from Alsace, and his former customers included the artists Renoir, Rodin, and Pissarro. Westermann champions French products and traditions and has a particular penchant for his childhood home of Alsace.
Come winter, choucroute pops up on the menu.
Around the World
The choucroute Alsacienne at Brasserie Jo (; moderate) in Boston, MA, is the real thing; founder and owner Jean Joho hails from Alsace and cooked for many years in Strasbourg and the award-winning Auberge d’Ill before decamping to Boston.
A Day in Strasbourg
With its picture-postcard houses and lapping canals, Strasbourg is full of charm.
A good way to get your bearings in this city is to take a canal cruise.
MORNING : Visit Notre Dame Cathedral with its pink-hued sandstone facade and soaring spire (at 465 ft/142 m, it was the tallest monument in the world from 1647 to 1874). Its elaborate astronomical clock parades the 12 apostles at 12:30 PM. Sidle into a winstub (wine room) such as the one in the marvelously medieval Maison Kammerzell for a glass of Sylvaner wine.
AFTERNOON : Spend the afternoon at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain (MAMCO) appreciating the works of Kandinsky, Arp, and the German Symbolists, and admiring the museum’s impressive collection of belle époque posters. Take tea (and cake) in the light-filled Art Café.
EVENING : Wander the cobbled, illuminated streets of La Petite France, with their geranium-festooned Hansel-and-Gretel-like houses. Follow the canals to the Ponts Couverts and survey old Strasbourg from the Barrage de Vauban, a dam designed to protect the city. If you have time, walk through the grandiose German Quarter and ponder the historical to-ing and fro-ing of this fine city.

Getting to Strasbourg

Aéroport Strasbourg International is 6 miles (10 km) from the city; there’s a shuttle train.
Strasbourg has high-speed train connections across France and Europe, and a good network of trams and buses around the city.

Where to stay in Strasbourg

Hotel 21 Siècle (inexpensive) is a minimalist, modern hotel that also offers apartments with kitchenette.
The Cour du Corbeau (moderate) is housed in a 16th-century building.
The Régent Petite France (expensive) is a contemporary riverside hotel in a former ice factory.
17 place de la Cathédrale;

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