Tuesday, 9 July 2013

An incredible meal... a tale of The Alsace part 2


Sometimes you have meals which are truly forgettable, others which are so memorable that their flavours nostalgically linger on the taste buds and conjure up wonderful images when recalled. The meal that I am about to recount to you certainly falls into that category. 

It was the second day of the trip, and I wanted to go and see a little bit of the famed viticulture of the area so, hopping into the car we whizzed down to the village of Lapoutrie, famed for the production of potent fruit brandies. The Eau de Vie museum was an eccentric mix of copper clad machines, hundreds of liqueur bottles from around the world and assorted barware, from ashtrays to absinthe glasses, followed by an extensive tasting of the museum's homemade wares in the shop. It was jam-packed with a vast array of different flavours, starting with the well known Mirabelle and going right through to more eccentric flavours like pine-nut or gentian (alpine violet) root. After a number of different samples, 3 bottles of house-produced 'Rene de Miscault' richer and £50 poorer it was time to move onto the renowned town of Kayserberg, a stop on the world famous Route de Vins.

The tourist books had depicted Kayserberg as a beautiful city - an idyll surrounded by vineyards in the shadow of The Vosges and the birth place of humanitarian and Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer. I have to say though, for all it's hype I was slightly disappointed, although tasting rooms abounded, the whole place was a tourist trap with each shop offering Kugelhopf (the regional cake) moulds, toy storks (the regional bird) and acid-etched riesling glasses. There were, admittedly some pretty buildings but so many were populated by restaurants fronted by gaudy signs giving examples of specialities like bakehoefe (three meat stew with potatoes), Choucroute Garni (Sauerkraut topped with cured pork and sausages) and Bouche a la Reine (Vol au vent stuffed with sweetbreads and mushrooms bound in a white sauce) - not what two gastronomic gourmands (opposed to gourmets) were looking for on this occasion. Then inspiration came to mind.

My father, who never fails to meet new people on holiday, had got talking that morning to a fellow guest at the hotel - the one other UK tourist in the area - who had been coming to the region for 12 years (for an annual MG rally). Thankfully he asked that most important of questions, 'where's the best place to eat out here?' almost instantly came the response, 'The Hotel Schwendi!'

It was situated in a village in close proximity of our previous destination - I say no more you will have to find it for yourselves, if you are intrepid enough. Where Kayserberg had been the hive of activity this little town, on the edge of a vast ridge of vineyards was like something from the Old West, deserted, dusty and with the sound of trickling water (from a sluice) ever present. Perhaps a Frenchified version of Clint Eastwood or Lee Van Cleef would suddenly pop out of the woodwork and standoff against each other, but nothing. A lone old gent sat on a bench in the sunlight, nodding sagely to himself over a walking stick and swallows chirruped around the Eves of the houses. We suddenly came upon a quintessential French Square with obligatory outdoor seating and sun umbrellas, we were at the Hotel Schwendi.

The buxom Angelique (as we found out her name was) ushered us to put table in the main restaurant of the hotel and placed a plate of bacon and walnut cake in front of us and went to get the menu. Usually I dislike cake but this had a lovely bready texture with the deliciously smokey taste, a perfect start to the meal when washed down with a flute of the local - and excellent - Cremant d'Alsace.

On first glance at the menu we decided that this was going to be a no-holds-barred lunch, the plethora of well considered combinations was something to be seen... and very rich. But we decided to go the whole hog and opt for the full works!

The wines on offer at the restaurant were from the estate of the same family who run the establishment (Shille-Gisie) and we chose to match each of our courses with the most appropriate wine from their cellar as the list was large and we, I fear, we're too ignorant at that early stage of the trip to pair the wines to dishes ourselves!

Our starters came, mine were two croquettes of Munster cheese, one young, one older and evidently washed in a marc of some kind. It was served simply with a punchy green salad and a beetroot vinaigrette. It was paired with a Pinot Gris. The melting, pungent cheese oozed lovingly out of its parcel as I cut into it and the crunch of the fried crumb coupled with the crunchiness of the salad was glorious, cut through by the slight acidity of the wine. It was a simple but well defined plate. My father had a slice of the homemade foie gras, pressed from the lobe, it had a most beautiful texture and coupled with the 'premier cru' gerwurtztraminer it was a triumph. 

Onto our main courses, I really hit the jackpot with the most spectacular quail, ballontined with sweetbreads and served on braised celery, with b├ęchamel croquettes and a Riesling sauce. It was, in a word, incredible. Both a feat for the eyes and a sensation for the palate, each mouthful was glorious an left you wanting a little more. The finesse and technique of the dish was something so seldom seen these days that it made my heart sing just to see them executed as they were there.

My father tucked into a delicious (I had a little taste) fish stew comprising of delicately cooked cod, scallops, and other fish flavoured with a mild curry sauce and topped with an amusing piece of pastry shaped like a fish or a phallus, I'm not sure which! Again all this was washed down with a glass of their excellent Riesling. 

I needed a rest by the cheese course and forwent this luxury, but my dining companion had other ideas and ordered a taste of the local offerings. The two lesser known examples on the plate (both heralding from the valley) were pas mal, but the Munster was top notch, a symphony of taste. This was paired against a rare fish indeed, and one you would never see in the UK, the Alasatian Pinot Noir! Never acknowledged to be the finest wine, the one we ordered at Schwendi was a very pleasant little number, now-way near up in the leagues of neighbouring Burgundy and far-off Bordeaux but a great drop none-the-less.

My dinner companion suggested that we decamped outside for our puddings and a glass of plum eau de vie from the renowned maker Gilbert Holl of Ribeauville. Pudding was an ever-so-smooth honey parfait on a pistachio base accompanied by stewed pears and a caramel sauce, nicely topped off with a brandy snap tuile. It was rich but cooling, the perfect pudding for a balmy summer's afternoon. 

We finished the meal with a very well appointed Montecristo Edmundo more eau de vie and strong black coffee, decadence to the full! And there we sat for most of the afternoon taking in the wonderful weather as sparrows hopped around our feet searching for crumbs. On could not ask for more.

We returned to the Hotel Schwendi on our last day, but I will cover that equally memorable meal in my next post, which focuses on the second half of the trip, spent in the valley, just south of Colmar.

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