Vendanges à la carte they call it in Alsace, the most northerly of the French wine regions. The harvest is different from most other areas in that it does not necessarily continue uninterruptedly for two or three weeks. It may start with several days in September, picking the Muscat grapes which ripen earliest - they need to be picked before they are over-ripe because otherwise the crisp acidity which balances the intense fruitiness is lost. In October, the later-ripening Riesling is picked. There may be a gap of three weeks before the vendanges tardives. Cooler weather means that harvest food tends to be robust. Choucroute Garni fits the bill.
In the old days, families made their own choucroute, but now it is usually bought ready-prepared from a charcuterie, which also sells the sausages and pork joints to go with it.
The first step is to track down a source of good choucroute (of course you can get it in tins), as well as smoked boiling sausages, such as Strasbourg or the similar Frankfurter sausages, and the salted and smoked pork joints needed. A jambonneau (hock and hand), a neat little ham, is often used, and
sometimes carré salé (salted fore loin in a piece). If no salted pork is available you might consider using some fried pork chops, or roasting a piece of loin of pork or adding some different sausages.
FOR 6 PEOPLE
1.5 kg (3 lb) choucroute 2 medium onions 125 g (4 oz) goose fat or butter 1 large glass of Riesling 250 ml (8 fl oz) stock (chicken stock would be suitable - if no stock is available use water and increase the amount of wine) 1 bay leaf 1 clove garlic 10 juniper berries 6 coriander seeds salt and pepper
FOR THE GARNISH:
750g (l1⁄2 lb) salted loin of pork 500 - 625 g (1 - 11⁄4 lb) smoked bacon in a piece 6 medium potatoes, peeled a jambonneau (see above), if available 6 Strasbourg or Frankfurter sausages 1 small glass of kirsch or other eau de vie, optional
‘Wash the choucroute in cold water once or twice depending on the season,’ it says rather quaintly in a traditional recipe. This is because a large quantity of choucroute would be made to last the whole winter - by the end of winter it was likely to be fermenting in the barrel and needed washing very thoroughly.
Drain the choucroute, pressing it to squeeze out the moisture.
Peel and chop the onions finely, then fry them in the goose fat or butter in a flameproof casserole large enough to hold all the meat. Before the onions brown, add the choucroute, tossing it in the fat with a wooden fork for about 15 minutes.
Add the glass of wine and some of the stock or water - just enough to moisten it all without the choucroute floating in it.
Add the bay leaf, garlic, juniper, coriander seeds, salt and pepper.
Cover and simmer for about an hour. Stir the choucroute and check that it has enough stock, then add the salted pork, if you have it, and the smoked bacon joint to the casserole and cook for another hour. Now put the peeled whole potatoes to cook on top of the choucroute for a further half hour. Boil a pan of water to simmer the jambonneau, if you have it, and the Strasbourg or Frankfurter sausages for 20 minutes.
Some people add a small glass of kirsch, or one of the other eaux de vie liked so much in Alsace, to the choucroute just before serving. Pile the choucroute up on a dish, arrange slices of the pork joints and the sausages on top and potatoes round the edges. Serve with mustard.