Alsace Traditions


Even in Alsace, with its extended harvest, this year’s wine is safely in cellars. Winemakers there are beginning to take it easy. Perfect timing as this is the most Christmas-y of all French wine regions.

A sprinkling of snow, candles in windows, beribboned evergreen boughs decorating balconies of picturesque old houses, nothing could be prettier than the streets of Colmar at dusk in December. In five different squares, each with its own atmosphere, wooden stalls are erected to sell artisan made, charming wooden decorations, toys, spiced hot drinks, gingerbread and bredle, little sweet biscuits to hang on the tree.

Specialist food shop windows bulge with gastronomic treats. The celebrated local foie gras, usually served with a fine Late Harvest sweet wine, is sold either fresh or in terrines ready for the festive meals. Then there are the local dried pears, plums and figs, gathered in September before they are overripe, and luscious candied orange and lemon peel - all essential ingredients for Berawecka (recipe follows). No self respecting Alsace family would be without this wonderful fruit and nut laden cake to serve to their visitors with a cup of coffee, a glass of rich but almost dry Gewurztraminer, or maybe a home-made eau-de-vie, during the 12 days of Christmas.

The famous Christmas markets start at the beginning of December, attracting visitors from all over France, neighbouring Germany and, increasingly, from further afield. But as the Tourist Board cranks up the publicity machine, some local residents are becoming disgruntled. The municipality struggles to keep control as out-of-town traders move in, renting rooms on the high streets in order to claim pavement space for their booths, which sell not–so-typical souvenirs, or, as one local told me, trash. Christmas doner kebabs are definitely seen as a step too far.

The cathedral city of Strasbourg has the biggest market of all, attracting thousands of visitors. In the pretty town of Riquewihr, at the heart of the local wine trade, a steady stream of well-oiled revellers in reindeer hats and flashing Santa Claus bonnets make it almost impossible for bona fide shoppers to force their way through to the wine-shops, butchers, and bakers supplying their festive fare.

For those in search of the old-fashioned charm of real markets, the village of Kaysersberg is the most traditional, with the household illuminations supplied by the municipality, and trades-people obliged to conform to a colour code for lights. It certainly is lovely but it is a victim of its own success, overwhelmed by visitors. Nearby Eguisheim, another wine village, is perhaps the nicest. Small and user-friendly, stalls housed only in wooden chalets, it offers the best of long established produce, crafts and food. On a frosty morning, with the smell of cinnamon in the air, cheery stall-holders engaging their customers in chat, it feels like another, slower era.

Alsace’s good old days?

When I was first researching Recipes from the French Wine Harvest in Alsace I met Mme Koehly, a formidable lady in Rodern. Brought up in a family of wine-growers who also had a small merchant’s business and a restaurant with rooms, she let me know that she was used to hard work. She married her husband when times were tough for the Alsace vignerons and prices achieved for their wine were low. They were determined to succeed but it meant working long hours. They took no holidays. Everything they made was put back into the estate, to buy more land or to install better equipment.

She remembers her mother making sure that the men working in the cellars got a good start to the day - there was soup, two fried eggs and a pair of Strasbourg sausages each for breakfast. At 10.00 a.m. there was a break for coffee and schnapps - it was the custom of the older people to pour some of their schnapps over a piece of bread and eat it.

Harvesting was affected by weather and very often started only at 1.00 p.m. and finished at 5.00, so there was no need to provide a mid-day meal, just coffee and the inevitable schnapps at the start, ‘and the old peasant women insisted on being given cigarettes,’ remembered Mme Koehly. Everyone had a miniature barrel (le tonnelet) filled with something to drink to take to the vines.

A pig was killed to provide pork dishes for the evening meals at harvest time. Joints were salted or smoked, sausages made. Boudins (black puddings) sometimes burst while they were being boiled. This was turned to good account as a soup, poured over toast.

The head, feet and lungs were all used to make a dish glorying in the name of schweinspaper. It does not sound very enticing and Mme Koehly admitted that it was not much liked and hardly ever made in more affluent days.

One way of using the pig’s head that has survived is called presskopf. After cooking, the skin and bones are removed, and the meat, with the tongue and ears, pressed into a mould. This is a kind of brawn, excellent when sliced and eaten cold with little gherkins, as a first course. The fillet of pork was, and still is, salted, then smoked to make kassler. This can be eaten cold, rather like raw ham, or roasted and eaten as a hot joint.

To help you get into the Christmas spirit Alsace-style,

here’s a recipe for Berawecka

This was given to me by Mimi Freudenreich, ace cook and matriarch of a winemaking family in Eguisheim. It serves 10.

Ingredients:

500g dried pears

250g pitted prunes

100g walnuts

250g blanched almonds

125g hazelnuts

250g dried figs

120g raisins

a little candied orange and lemon peel

3 pinches of ground cinnamon

a pinch of ground cloves

a small pinch of ground black pepper

a few aniseeds

a pinch of salt

125 g castor sugar

250cl plum eau-de-vie or Kirsch

250 g plain white flour

15g fresh yeast, or half a sachet of quick-action dried yeast.

Method:

Simmer the dried pears in enough water to just cover them for about 15 minutes.

Soak the prunes in water so they plump up.

Drain the fruit, keeping the water.

Roughly chop the fruit – pears, prunes and figs – and the nuts (these quite finely) not forgetting the raisins and candied peel. Mix all these ingredients in a bowl with the sugar and spices. Pour over the plum eau-de-vie/Kirsch and leave to macerate for 24 hours, stirring from time to time.

Make a yeast dough by mixing fresh yeast with a little of the water from the pears or prunes in a small bowl. Pour the yeast mixture into a well in the centre of the flour and mix. Stir in a little more of the water you have saved to make the dough. (If using dried quick- action yeast, just add to the flour, and then stir in the water). Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave to rise for aprox. one hour in a warm place. Now add the fruit and nut mixture and mix well to incorporate – best done with the hands. Form into long, fat sausage-shaped loaves, decorate the tops with walnuts and almonds and place on a greased baking tray.

Bake in a medium oven for 45 –60 minutes, making sure the tops don’t burn (cover if necessary). While they bake, prepare a sugar syrup. Take them from the oven, brush the tops with this syrup and leave to cool on racks.