After a sensational whirlwind week in Paris with the best girlfriends from back home, the tranquil life of the Alsace region was a welcome respite. We all hopped a train on Thursday and headed east for a bit of country scenery, splendid food and wine traveling in Alsace. The eight of us shoved ourselves and luggage into two rental cars and happily got “lost” on the Route des Vin for a couple days before they headed home and i stayed on for a work stay at a local vineyard.
This region of France makes up the Rhine River valley, bordering Germany and culturally bearing character from both due to centuries of exchange ruling. From its spotted past of identity crisis a unique culture evolved within it’s many villages. One will find a pidgin language of French and Deutsch mix, a cultivation of daily habits and traditions from both sides of the Rhine, and a rich and healthy palette for simple foods and fabulous local wine. A continuous panoramic of rolling hills are covered with vineyards and orchards.
The winding way finds quaint medieval villages dotting the landscape every three to five miles. A storybook scene of ancient stone fortress walls surrounding colorful multistoried timber laced houses many with sandstone carved featured doorways or gates, along narrow cobblestones lanes, each with inner courtyards and steep clay tiled roofs. Antique village fountains still flowing off the spring waters from the vineyards and large venerable wine presses at intersections landscaped with a kaleidoscope of flora highlight lane corners. Within these villages a peaceful life of routine exists, with the church bells chiming heartily at 6am to wake you for the days work and every hour there after. Early morning trips to the butcher or baker for daily essentials, or the weekly excursion into Stausbourg, Selestat or Colmar for proper shopping. Lunch time marks a time of rest and rejuvenation as the world of commerce stops here and everyone sits at the table to enjoy a heavy meal, a glass of wine and a small catnap before reopening the shutters or heading back to the vineyards. The taste of Alsace is a simple yet delicious one that is directed by the seasons and has not changed much for a few thousand years.
Home “brewed” schnapps from various locally harvested fruits distilled with a “community” still that rotates homes, each with distinctive delightful flavors and all with a kick to please. Wood fired ovens in nearly every families courtyard, fired up on the weekends to bake fresh loaves and Flammekuechen, that delightful flat bread crust of creme bacon and onions. Fresh baguettes, whole grain paines, apple stollens and pretzels quickly disappear each morning from the boulangerie (bakery) shelves. Amazing regional cheeses can be discovered from neighboring farm shops and markets. And bouchers (butchers) offering cases filled with mouth watering sausages, traditional pâtés en croute, and various charcuterie in both German and French traditions.
The wine of Alsace is one based in rich traditions gauged by the land and Mother Nature. The rocky fields thick with a clay based soil seem perfect for varietals such as Pinot noir, Pinot Gris, and Gewurtztraminer. I had the great fortune of being hosted by Daniel and Carine Ansen in Westhoffen. The tradition of grape growing by Daniel’s family in this village can be traced back at least as far as the 1600’s, but Daniel is the first of his family to commercially produce wine. Living in the 450+ year old home his great x6 grandfather built he has established Domaine Ansen Estate Vineyard and is producing some of the regions top quality and tasting wines. A degree in food science, a wine education from Bordeaux, the work ethic surpassed by no one, and an inherited passion for wine, Daniel puts his heart and soul into each
bottle – and it is evident in the outstanding product. From the earthy plum warmth of his Pinot Noir to his crisp clean Pinot Gris to his sweeter and lingering Gerwurtztraminer none of these will disappoint, only delight and its only a short time before this new vintage is a run away hit. After helping three weeks in Daniels fields, planting new starts, snipping vines and pinching buds; I have a new appreciation for the unbelievable amount of back breaking work and time and devotion it takes to produce a bottle of wine, especially a superior bottle such as that from Domaine Ansen Estate Vineyard.
The social atmosphere is famille (family) and intimate and community coming together for annual traditions of celebration based around religion and harvests. One evening as we were enjoying dinner of various fromage, fresh bread and my hosts own 2012 vintage we heard the village brass band coming down the street with a host of neighbors parading behind. Grabbing the camera and out the gate we joined in, it was May 8 Victory in Europe Day commemorating the end of WWII hostilities, and everyone was headed to the church courtyard war memorial for ceremony. A lovely evening of the village mayor reading the President of France’s letter of memorial for those lost in the war, anthems sung by the village men’s choir, and neighbors standing together in tribute and community.
Religion is mainly catholic and throughout the countryside you’ll see roadside stone crucifix memorial blessings for the vineyards, but like most of Europe has seen centuries of religious persecution and movement depending on the political current of the time. I was surprised to continuously spot the Star of David in architectural elements across the region especially at the large mountain top Chateau Haut-Koeingsbourg and learned that the Jewish culture and history in Alsace is one of the oldest in Europe, recorded as far back as 1000 ce, but not without much persecution and strife. Medieval antisemitism in Alsace (and much of the Holy Roman Empire) was particularly rampant in the 1300s during the height of the pogroms which is evident in much of the times art to still be found arictectual elements of the Gothic and Romanesque Cathedrals. And it goes without saying the detrimental effect on the Jewish population in Alsace with the more recent times of undue persecution and exportation of Jews during World War II. In 1870 it was recorded that over 35000 Jews lived in the relatively small region of Alsace, in Westhoffen alone there was thought to be over 300 in a village of near 1200, in some 140 years later there are only
2 left in this now town of 1600. Roger a warm and hospitable 83 year old neighbor and his sister. He graciously toured me and shared memories one rainy day through Westhoffen’s synagogue, with translation via my host Daniel. The village synagogue rebuilt in the 188o’s Oriental style still stands, a shell of itself from a time gone by when the blocks surrounding
were home to Jewish family’s, their business and their school. Stripped of it’s contents and sold or burned by the Nazi’s, the building is held by the village and preserved to some degree with an unknown future. Roger recounts how “fortunate” the Jewish families of North Alsace were in the days of deportation in 1940 as they were allowed to leave on their own terms within 48 hours and with only one suitcase, where as the southern region of jews had less than 12 hours and were trucked out by the Germans. Roger told of his family’s journey over the Vosges Mountains where they remained for four years to eventually return back to Westhoffen and reclaimed their place in the community. A community of both Christians and Jews who have always coexisted in great harmony and understanding, to the point Roger tells of Christian neighbors who would rekindle fires and light lamps for their Jewish neighbors on the sabbath and despite harsh centuries old government trade laws for the Jews never experienced bigotry in commerce. I must say of all the conversations I struggled through with body language or rough translations none so more as the ones I had with Roger did I yearn for a Babel fish (because to be honest I’m just too thick headed to retain the French language I did try to learn prior to my journey). Speaking of Jewish Fish…. I asked Roger to share with me a traditional recipe, not to disappoint his sister rough wrote their long time family recipe for Carpie a la Juvie which roughly translated to :
Remove the fins and the scales. Open and empty the belly. Wash the fish. Cut it in slices
(ca 4 cm thick). Add some salt. Leave for one day.
Brown flour in hot oil. Add ginger and chopped parsley. Add some water and the slices of
fish. Cover and let cook ca 15 minutes.
Eat warm or cold. bon appetit !
A trip to France must include a drive through Alsace, eating in “Winestubs” such as Arnold in Interswiller that serve only the local vintages, popping in the beautiful Romanesque churches, wandering the village streets grabbing a treat from the boulangerie or boucher, and just relaxing amongst the history and beauty to be found there.
An endless amount of THANKs to the Labadie Ladies for journeying to France to spend an unforgettable week consuming history and calories with me and to Daniel and Carine for sharing their lovely home with me and the priceless education I gained in the art of making wine!