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“Il ne nous reste qu’une seule voiture, Monsieur (We only have one car left Sir).”
“Pas de problem. C’est bon (No problem, it’s fine).”
My French wasn’t good enough to ask what type of car. Perhaps, I was to later conclude, I should go back to language school…
This Blog comes to you after a few days in Alsace, often described as the ‘Germanic’ region of France but in fact it’s got a character all of its own. The region lies between the west bank of the Rhine and the Vosges Mountains and houses some of the prettiest landscape and villages you will see anywhere.
I was there to visit the famed Alsace Wine Trail with former Diageo Global Travel & Middle East Managing Director Vince Horne, a long-time friend and by common consent one of the best strategic thinkers travel retail has seen. His retirement in early 2005 (way too early in my view but he may disagree) was the industry’s loss.
Alsace is home to some of the most distinctive wines on the planet, more perfumed than a Sephora store, aromatic and often with some residual sweetness (though some, notably the finest Rieslings, are as dry as a dinosaur bone and crisper than a mid-winter’s Strasbourg morning).
The people are called Alsations, which can be confusing for British dog-lovers of a certain breed [note: the term Alsation to describe German Shepherds (i.e. dogs not workers on sheep farms -Ed) was apparently introduced in the UK (where the term is still used by many) during World War II due to sensitivities over the German connotation].
In fact there’s an old and very bad joke which asks:
Q: “How do you make an Alsation wine?”
A: “Pull its tail.”
There’s a more contemporary follow-up too.
Q: “How do you make a German Shepherd cross?”
A: “Pull its tail?”
Q: “No, interbreed one with a Labrador.”
Ok I just made that second one up.
What isn’t at all clear to me, though, certainly after several glasses of Alsation wine, is how a British tourist would describe a local walking his German Shepherd. The Guide Books are distinctly unhelpful on this point. It would get even trickier if the local sat down outside his local Weinstub (a café/restaurant/bar) and asked for a glass of wine and the dog became unhappy. I suppose it would be a case of one Alsation wining while another whined.
But I digress. Back to our friendly Hertz assistant in Strasbourg. Our joy at securing the very last car on offer (there had been a horribly long Monday queue) was abruptly stalled (something we would do repeatedly over ensuing days) by the sight of a very small car in a very large car park. In fact you could have fitted two, perhaps three, of this particular car into a single parking bay. I’d been looking forward to a chic and comfortable, perhaps open-roof Citroen, Renault or Peugeot; or even, with deference to Alsace’s Germanic links, an Audi, a BMW or a Mercedes. After all, we had planned this trip for months. We were going to do it in style.
It was a Fiat 500 (below). And I can tell you that the 500 is not a reference to how many students you can fit in one. Our two suitcases and briefcases combined looked bigger than the vehicle itself. After a couple of decent helpings of the legendarily sized Alsation speciality, Charcroute (more of that later), would we even fit into the car? The old Everly Brothers hit ‘Love Hertz’ came to mind but faded just as quickly.
I shall not bore you with a full travel report. But let’s just say with Vince at the wheel (a capable enough driver but the choice of car rendered any allusions to Lewis Hamilton redundant) and me navigating, our achievement in even finding the Alsace Wine Trail rather than ending up in Bavaria was a quietly pleasing triumph.
In our little metallic grey Fiat 500 (online reviews call it chic; I think they mean passenger and driver practically sit chic to chic) and with my innate ability to read a map upside down, especially after a heavy night, we made for a contemporary equivalent of Walter Matthau’s and Jack Lemmon’s Grumpy Old Men. With steely determination and raging heads though we ensured that we reached base by lunchtime every day, thus allowing time for a gentlemen’s lunch, a suitable (though short) recovery period, a pre-dinner Alsation beer or two and then an assault, for that’s all it could be called, on the full-on, in your face (and I say that literally) local cuisine.
Let me say this. Alsace is a place you must visit before you die. Charcroute, on the other hand, is a dish that could very well make you die, at least if you eat it more than once in a week.
And this is why. To make it, you take about a tonne of sauerkraut, some fresh ham hocks, a boneless pork loin, a pound or two of smoked ham, a half slab of bacon, six fresh pork sausages (saucisses de Strasbourg are ideal), three blood sausages, three onions and 12 red potatoes. Season with salt, pepper, a laurel leaf, three whole cloves, enough garlic to scare off any vampires in the whole of western Europe and a handful of juniper berries. Then (now it gets really interesting) add a pint of Sylvaner or Riesling wine, half a pint of water and a stock cube. Stew slowly then serve on a specially reinforced plate on the sturdiest table you can find. My culinary guide tells me the whole thing takes about three hours to cook but I think they mean three hours to eat.
Now, to be fair, I am told that the recipe above will feed eight people. But from what I saw on Vince’s plate the first night (pictured), I swear the restaurateur mistook him for a travelling octet. The Charcroute was bigger than our Fiat for goodness sake.
Still, he seemed happy. “How were the sausages?” I asked.
“Not the wurst I’ve had,” he replied much more dryly than our wine.
My favourite dish was another local favourite, Coq au Riesling. That means chicken with Riesling, of course, but the fact that you could easily pour the sauce into your wine glass and be over the drink drive limit within seconds suggests it may well be a case of Riesling with a hint of chicken. They make an excellent Poire William in Alsace (Eau de Vie with a whole Williams Bon Chrétien pear trapped inside the glass bottle) and by mid-week I was half expecting to see the Riesling equivalent with a large, herb-crusted Chicken leg inside.
To accompany the Coq they serve a pile of Alsation spaetzle (a tasty cross between pasta, dumplings and gnocchi) almost as high as the Vosges mountains but much more difficult to get over.
[My starter, Alsation style]
All this has to be washed down of course. You can (and we did, repeatedly) opt for a delightfully zesty Crémant d’Alsace sparkling wine to start, followed by a bottle of Grand Cru Riesling. Alsatian Riesling is highly flexible (certainly it made my body do many strange contortions) and can accompany just about anything from Charcroute, through to another delicious local favourite, flammekueche (or tarte flambée) – essentially a thin-crusted version of pizza but very, very good.
A common criticism of Alsation wines is that it is hard to identify by the label what is dry and what has significant residual sugar levels – the “Alsace cloy” as Vince adeptly put it. Tightened regulations of recent years have helped but it’s still hard to know which is which, a factor that has hurt the region’s wines internationally in recent times.
But hey, methinks they doth protest too much. Is there anything more glorious than a near ice-cold glass of Gewürztraminer from a top Alsation producer such as Hugel or Trimbach? Lychees, Turkish Delight, honey, peaches, roses. No I’m not talking about the dessert that follows Charcroute but the wine itself. It just has to be the most scented wine in the world and it’s that unique combination of aromas and flavours that makes it one of the rare wines that can accompany spicy Asian food, even a good Indian vindaloo.
I told you earlier that my French was a few letters short of A-level. After an outstanding meal in the pretty city of Colmar, I asked the waitress for, I thought, a glass of Gewürztraminer instead of dessert.
“Mademoiselle, un ‘glass’ de Gewürztraminer, s’il vous plait.”
Now, as most of this Blog’s readers know, the French for glass is ‘verre’. ‘Glass’ as pronounced by a Kiwi pretending he did not fail his French lessons woefully at secondary school some four and a bit decades earlier was heard as a Gewürztraminer ice-cream. And here’s the thing. There was one – or at least a Gewürztraminer sorbet.
Duly it arrived, sweet, ice-cold, exquisite Gewürztraminer… mush. This caused much merriment for the waitress and Vince as, in his considerably better French, he explained what I really wanted. The end result? Un verre de Gewürztraminer avec une glace de Gewürztraminer. Talk about the wine going with the food.
And so it went. After four days of this we were no longer on the Alsace Wine Trail. The wine had begun trailing us. We were not only visiting Weinstubs but we had turned into Weintubs. But, I kid you not, if you love wines of character and uniqueness; food of unfashionably rich but great character; scenery that will make your heart race, your spirit soar and your soul burst with the glory of it all; magnificent examples of Renaissance architecture; spectacular hill-top castles; villages so pretty they make you pinch yourself to be sure they are real; swathe after swathe of green vineyards; old half-timbered houses with more colours than a chain of paint shops, Alsace is the place for you. Just make sure you pre-order your hire car.