Wednesday, 26 June 2013

I can go for that... a tale of The Alsace part 1

I must first declare that I have had, for many years, a desire to go to The Alsace. Ever since seeing the marvellous Keith Floyd making a programme in the region in his landmark cookery programme ‘Floyd on France’ I became intrigued by the picture book quality of the medieval architecture and the rolling vineyards nestling on the foothills of the Vosge Mountains and the banks of the Rhine. In recent years I had also developed a taste for the region's delicious white wines, what little arrive on our shores, and had been waiting for a perfect time and travelling companion to accompany me to this land brimming with a rich history and choc-full of fine gastronomic experiences. So it was I found myself travelling on the 11:25 flight from Gatwick to Mulhouse-Basel airport on Sunday 9th June with my father for what would turn out to be an epic holiday by anyone’s standards. 

A bit of context first. For those of you who don’t know it, The Alsace region is situated on the Eastern tip of France Stretching across from the Vosge Mountains to the banks of Upper Rhine, across which are the South German State of Baden-Wuttermberg and the Swiss city of Basel. An area punctuated by turmoil and uprising galore it has been the scene of some of Europe’s most bloody conflicts from the 30 Years War to World War 1 and World War 2  and has changed hands between the French and the Germans intermittently over the last 1000 years making it a veritable melting pot of different influences and a unique places where both cultures meet for a fantastic experience. History lesson over for now, let’s get on with the trip. 

Arriving at the airport following a strangely fuss-free flight we were greeted by one of my father’s friends from Basel, with who we ushered in the holiday in style over the Swiss border with a few drinks at the world famous Drei Koeniger Hotel where, sipping on some cooling demi-pressions of dreadfully expensive beer and smoking relatively cheap cafe creme blues we watched the teal Rhine rush through the medieval bridge that connects the upper and the lower town. The sun was out and the conversation was sparkling but soon over and we were on our way back over the border to our intended destination Labaroche in the heart of the Vosge Massif. One day, when I make my millions inventing something thoroughly useless that no-one can do without, I would like to return to this luxurious venue and partake in some of the incredible collection of cigars, that they keep and sell at highly luxurious prices, in the comfort of their plush smoking saloon (which I couldn’t resist having a peak at), although in my rolled-up sleeve pink linen jacket, Sting and the Police t-shirt, tan jeans and deck shoes (as I was dressed that day) I think I would turn me away millionaire or not! 

It took me a little bit of time to get used to the map, much to my father’s frustration as we tried and failed many times to find a road that lead out of the highly uninspiring suburbs of Colmar. Soon, however, we were on the twisting and turning roads that lead into the mountain range and after a picturesque journey through tarn and gully we rolled into the small village of Labaroche  and to our hotel the Spa Tilleule. It was a clean, friendly establishment run by a charming, hunchbacked old crone who seemed to do everything from booking us in to manning the bar to serving the food - a real trooper of the old school of hospitality, the weight of the recent poor weather and as a result poor season on her shoulders. 

Where the hotel was simple but comfortable the food was hale and hearty, trencherman sizef portions for hungry walkers who had braved the mountain slopes at 17 euros for four courses. Over the first three evenings of our holiday we tucked into fabulous plates of charcuterie, fillet steak, roasted best end of lamb, maigret de canard, perfectly ripe Munster cheese and fresh fruit as well as one of the best cheese souffles I have ever eaten, full stop! The cooking was simple country food but prepared with experience, and was very tasty, the perfect thing to round off the evening after a day of site-seeing and rich food. All this of course was preceded by a few demi-pressions of the saucily named ‘sans coullote’ Alsatian beer and accompanied by delicious wines from Ammerschwir (just four miles down the road), of particular note was Heitzmann 2007 Pinot Gris (100 times better than the Italian acid-water also known as Pinot Grigio, which is made with the same grape).

Looking beyond the hotel, we jumped in the car and headed down ‘Rocky Mountain Way’ or the Route des Cretes as it is more commonly known in France and indeed the rest of the world. Bucolic mountain pastures punctuated with the gentle sound of cowbells and the heady smell of alpine herbs played off against rugged rocky outcrops under a brooding sky, the weather was not looking promising on this, the first day of the holiday. After turning and turning around winding roads stopping every now and then for a cigarillo break here, a photo opportunity there we drove into the town of Munster, so famous for both the pungent (but delicious) cheese they produce and the most majestic storks that nest atop every building in the town, the air was filled with the sound of their call as they flew back and forth gathering material for their nest and food for their young. 

After walking around town for a bit we became both thirsty and peckish. After a glass of refreshing but slightly tart Edelzwicker (the vin ordinaire of the region, used in much of the cooking) we moved onto a small restaurant and a very agreeable Riesling which went very well with my beautifully cooked rabbit and my father’s Flammekeuche (a very thin pastry base topped with white sauce, cheese, bacon and mushrooms toasted under the grill - a speciality of the Alsace) followed by a fortifying plum eau de vie which slipped down the gullet like fire. 

Sustained by our vittles we headed back into the mountains and up to the largest of the peaks, the Balon de Vosge, stopping on the way to enjoy a coffee and an a delicious tarte au myrtille (bilberries, another speciality of the region), giving us the energy to take on this sizeable peak. Parking the car the wind started to whip up and rain began to fall ever so lightly as we started our ascent, the radar station sitting atop the peak looming over. What should have been a spectacular view from the summit was slightly marred by the weather, yet the sky was so dramatic it seemed wholly appropriate when looking out on the lush green mountains and populated valleys which, in their time probably posed a formidable obstacle to many a lonely wanderer.

After some more breathtaking views a couple of eau de vie and a lot more cafe creme cigarillos two weary travellers made their way back to the hotel for some of Madame’s hearty food and gracious hospitality. The next day the weather was to improve and I was to have one of the best meals I have every eaten, but that will have to wait until the next instalment...

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