Dancing in the vines


“Vins d’Alsace. Pierre Freudenreich & Fils. De père en fils depuis 1653”. A polished brass plaque in the wall, next to an archway in the charming main street of the village of Eguisheim, announces proudly that this family has been making wine here for over three hundred years. The archway leads to a flowery, galleried courtyard where a trailer of grapes is being unloaded into the vat-house. Up some wooden stairs the cooks are busy in the kitchen. Since I first visited here, some of the faces have changed but the Freudenreich family continue to feed their pickers in the same way.

Lunch is served punctually at mid-day in the vines. At a quarter to twelve, the food is loaded into a small jeep backed up to the foot of the stairs. Mimi Ling-Freudenreich takes the steering wheel.

Alsace villages are usually either Protestant or Roman Catholic, not mixed. As this one is Catholic it is not a surprise to find a large Christ on the Cross by the roadside at the corner of the vineyard where the Freudenreich’s pickers are just finishing their rows. A table and benches have been set up next to it. Mimi starts laying out plates and cutlery and other members of the family arrive to help. One brings a baby who is passed from lap to lap during the meal, happily trying a taste of this and that. Vegetable soup is ladled out, turkey escalopes in breadcrumbs are kept warm to follow it, and the pickers sit down in the sunshine. Neighbours driving by with truckloads of grapes hoot and wave.

The cheese - a local Munster - is on the table. A few leaves of salad are left in the huge bowl and Mimi is encouraging people to finish them. Some, following the local habit, are eating their cheese with potatoes rather than bread. One of the pickers fetches her accordion, which has come up in the jeep, and sits on an upturned hotte (the grapes are emptied into these by the pickers when their baskets are full) to play. It quickly turns into a sing-song and one older couple get up and dance, to applause from the rest.

Among this small band of sixteen pickers many have been coming back for twelve, or in some cases fifteen or sixteen years. Their fidelity is in part to do with the food. Here they continue to cook the old- fashioned dishes of Alsace so suited to feeding hungry people working in the fields. There is red cabbage with apples, cooked slowly for two hours and served with roast pork and potatoes; choucroute garni, the Alsace version of sauerkraut - for which finely chopped cabbage is salted in a barrel so that it ferments slightly, then rinsed of salt, cooked in white wine and served with smoked bacon joints and smoked sausages; there is coq an Riesling, which is chicken cooked in local white wine and usually served with the special Alsace noodles called spaetzle. There is also the other celebrated local speciality, baeckaoffa, a mixture of pork, beef and lamb, layered with carrots and potatoes, and cooked for at least three hours. The harvest menus, here as elsewhere, also include the range of country cooking such as blanquettes, fricassés, boulettes to use up left- over meat, and a good purée rose (pink purée) made by mixing potato and carrot in a smooth mash to serve with roasts.

Included in the dessert repertoire are the classic floating islands, caramel cream, apple compôte and the local fruit tarts made with yeast pastry. No wonder pickers keep coming back here.

SPAETZLES

ALSACE NOODLES

Mimi (or rather, Marie-Léonce) Ling-Freudenreich constantly wins prizes for her Coq au Riesling and Spaetzles- these things are taken seriously here. This is her recipe. It is enough to accompany one chicken cooked in Riesling, see below for recipe. The method for spaetzle may sound a little daunting, but is well worth trying.

FOR 6 PEOPLE

8 eggs salt grated nutmeg 500 (1 lb)flour 2 tablespoons fine semolina 100 ml (31⁄2 fl oz) water 1 tablespoon sunflower or groundnut oil

30 g (1 oz) butter

Break the eggs in a big bowl. Beat them as though for an omelette. Add salt and a little nutmeg.

Stir in the flour and the semolina little by little, working into the eggs carefully. When they are incorporated, add the glass of water and stir it in. Aim for a consistency between a batter and a dough. Leave to rest for at least an hour.

Get ready a large pan of water. Add salt and a spoonful of oil and bring to the boil. Pour, or press, the flour mixture through a colander with large holes (it needs to be one without a foot - there is a special implement for the purpose but you can improvise) into the hot water. As it goes through the holes into the hot water, it turns into worm-like, or tadpole-like, pasta. Like gnocchi, the noodles are cooked when they rise to the top of the pan. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and plunge them into a large bowl of cold water - the water stops them going dry and they swell a little.When all the noodles have been cooked and cooled, drain them, then sauté them in butter until slightly crisp, in a frying-pan.

COQ AU RIESLING

Chicken cooked in Riesling, with a cream sauce

I Have posted this recipe before as it is one of the most delicious in my book.

It is the version used by the Freudenreichs, served with Spaetzle. I recommend it highly.

Use a free-range chicken. Cut it up into 8 portions, or buy chicken joints such as legs (drumstick and thigh attached).

FOR 4 - 6 PEOPLE

1 chicken, weighing about 1.5 kg (3 lb), jointed

60 g (2 oz) butter

1 tablespoon oil 4 shallots 1 clove garlic 1 small glass cognac 500 ml (15 fl oz) Riesling sprig parsley and bay leaf salt, pepper and grated nutmeg

400 ml (14 fl oz) crème fraîche

Brown the chicken pieces in a mixture of butter and oil in a flameproof casserole. Put aside. Peel the shallots and garlic and chop finely. Add them to the butter mixture and let them take colour. Put the chicken pieces back. Warm the cognac in a small pan. Pour it over the chicken and, standing back, ignite carefully. When the flames die down, add the Riesling just to cover and the herbs. Bring to simmering point, cover and leave to cook gently for 30 to 45 minutes, until the chicken pieces are tender.

When they are cooked, lift them out and keep them warm. Taste the broth. You could now choose to reduce it by fast boiling for 5 to 10 minutes in order to give it a depth of flavour. If you take this step, add the seasoning afterwards, having tasted again.

Stir in some of the crème fraîche and perhaps a little butter. Taste and add more cream until you feel it is right. Sieve the sauce, pour over the chicken and serve.