Recently I took a weekend trip to Strasbourg- the capital city of Alsace situated on France’s East bordering Germany and only 2.5 hours out of Paris on the high-speed train.
To me, Alsace is a perfect example of France’s great regional diversity. Arriving in this region really gives you the impression of crossing borders: the architecture, local gastronomy, culture, climate and even language are so uniquely, strikingly Alsacien. Hosted by the lovely Agnès and friends, my weekend getaway just outside the capital of Strasbourg turned out to be both a cultural and gastronomic delight. If I had to put my Alsacien culinary impressions into three words I would call it the “Land of choucroute, pork, and pastry”- and lots of it!
Alsacien cuisine, strongly based on Germanic culinary traditions, is marked by the use of pork in various forms. Additionally, the gastronomic symbol of this region is undoubtedly “Sauerkraut”- or in French “Choucroute”. That is, slow cooked white cabbage. And this is one thing I have really grown to love. On this trip I must say I had one of my all-time most memorable meals. After luckily scoring a table at the famous “Maison Kammerzel” perfectly positioned to bask in the midday sun at Place de la Cathedral whilst dining to the sound of street musicians and church bells, I ate my first Choucroute aux trois poissons – un vrai plaisir! How they turn the humble cabbage into something as savoureuse and mouth-watering as this, seasoned with the delicate flavours of juniper berries and cumin and finished off with a light lemony butter sauce…I will sadly never know, since the famous recipe form this restaurant recipe is one of the region’s best-kept secrets.
Anyway, aside from eating of course, my most treasured travel experiences are undoubtedly those that involve cooking with locals. On this particular trip, I was shown first hand how to prepare three typically Alsacien dishes:
Firstly, a lesson in the famous dish ‘Baeckeoffe’ (a hard-core, heavy, meat and potato dish designed for the thick of freezing winter).
Secondly, since white Asparagus is also in season right now and the local produce was of impressively quality, our neighbour showed me the traditional blanching method in boiled water with salt and sugar, served at room temperature with a heavenly light mousseline mayonnaise in which she folded in whipped egg whites at the end. Divine.
But of course the one thing you simply cannot beat is cooking with produce freshly picked right out of the garden. My lovely host Agnès is luckily enough to live in a stunning Alsacien home, tastefully and artfully renovated by her very own hands with gardens and surrounds so magical in their blossoming springtime beauty that this place practically teletransports you into a romanticised scene from a children’s fairy tale- right down to the original Alsacien stove restored to pristine condition in her kitchen.
Agnès, an avid nature lover, keen gardener and passionate home cook had a real treat planned for me. My trip coincided perfectly with the first rhubarb of the season- growing in her garden directly beneath the kitchen window. And just to sweeten the story further, by Alsacien tradition- the first Rhubarb of the season gets baked into a pie. Now is this the stuff fairywonderland is made of or what?
Lucky me had the honour of sharing the baking (and eating) experience personally with Agnès who has, over numerous variations, now perfected her very own Tarte à la Rhubarb recipe. This delicious treat, I can confirm, perfectly balances the slightly tart character of the rhubarb with the sweetness and softness of the almond biscuit cream base with the delicately crumbly sweet butter pastry.
A note on Rhubarb: The French, for some reason all seem to peel their rhubarb, and their asparagus too for that matter. Personally, I don’t see the point since when you peel it you lose the gorgeous red colour by removing the skin, as well as a lot of the fibre and the nutrients in the outer layer. Additionally, if the rhubarb was also totally organic or grown in your garden then there are no pesticides nasties to worry about. I’ve also had this conversation with my local organic greengrocer at the markets who simply tells me “Il faut eplucher la rhubarb Madame” but when I ask why, I get the classic French response “it’s just what we do”. So… to peel or not to peel- it’s in the end up to you!
Wine Matching: Some of the world’s greatest dessert wines come from Alsace. Try a Gewürztraminer, the perfect match for this tangy tart.
Thanks to Agnès for her hospitality, recipe sharing, and our sneak peak into her delightful fairy-wonderland home.
Recipe: Agnès’ Alsacian Tarte a la Rhubarbe
• 1kg grams rhubarb, diced into small pieces or 10 cm pieces, arranged spirally
• 75 grams sweet butter shortbread biscuits- crumbled
• ½ cup almond meal
• 1 sheet shortbread pie pastry (pastry recipe here)
• 3 eggs
• 250 mls fresh cream
• 1 tbsp vanilla essence or I pod fresh vanilla seeds
• 150 grams icing sugar
• 3.5 tbsp caster sugar or raw sugar
• Slithered almonds- to serve
• Preheat your oven at 200 degrees C/420 F.
• Peel (or simply rinse well and don’t peel) the rhubarb and cut into small pieces or 10 cm strips as desired.
• Place them in a colander placed over a bowl and sprinkle with the icing sugar. Leave it to rest for 1 hour, stirring and turning the rhubarb each 15 mins so that the rhubarb sweats out its water content.
• In the meantime, position the pastry into the base of the pie dish, leaving 2 cm’s of pastry overhanging to allow for shrinkage. If you have a conventional oven, you can very lightly blind bake your pastry base now however bear in mind that this tart does not need a lot of heat to cook through. (Agnès’ traditional oven did not need this and the pastry cooked right though without pre-baking).
• After very lightly blind baking or if not required, crush the shortbread biscuits into fine crumbs and combine the biscuit crumb with almond meal evenly in the base of the pastry
• In a separate bowl whisk well together the cream, vanilla and egg
• Once the rhubarb has lost a lot of it’s water, drain and remove from colander and place evenly or arrange longer strips spirally into the pastry tine, over the crumb base.
• Sprinkle remaining caster or raw sugar over the top
• Pour egg and cream mix over the rhubarb and sprinkle with slithered almonds
• Cook for about 20 minutes, taking care that the top does not burn or cook too quickly
• Remove from the oven. Allow to cool to room temperature and using a sharp knife, shave off excess pastry from the edges of the tin.
Serve with vanilla ice cream, fresh cream and/or Gewürztraminer wine.