Google “Alsatian specialties” and try not to salivate all over your keyboard. I dare you. Baeckeoffe, flammekueche, choucroute, fleischschnacka, tarte à l’oignon… These are hearty and filling dishes served in generous portions, perfect with a glass of local Riesling or Gewürztraminer on a frosty winter’s eve. It’s the kind of food you not just want, but need, after strolling the fairy-tale villages of Ribeauvillé, Riquewihr, Eguisheim or Thann. In December, Alsace is drowned in fog. It’s a kind of sticky, humid cold that blows right through your coat and into your bones, through your ear canal, enveloping your brain. When we arrived, it was allegedly 2°C but it really felt like -10°, which became increasingly clear during the 20 minutes we spent struggling to get the heat to work in our rented Citroen. The only remedy to this genre of cold, as far as I’m concerned, is some form of pork and potatoes and the steam coming off them. And that’s exactly what we got on our first meal in Ribeauvillé, a lovely little town of half-timbered houses and the home of the famous Trimbach winery. We called ahead for a reservation at Restaurant au Cheval Noir, and it’s a good thing we did, since we were greeted upon arrival with a “restaurant complet” sign on the door. In Alsace, it’s all about the winstub, a wine-lounge-turned-pub-restaurant, like a tavern, serving the region’s old-school classics with carafes of house Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürz and Pinot Noir. Cheval Noir is a kind of modernized version, with a minimalist-rustic-chic interior.
The first thing I ate in Alsace had to be a choucroute garnie, the region’s flagship dish and perhaps one of the most symbolic of Alsace’s long history with being French, then German, then French again. Cabbage, fermented in a brine of juniper berries and baking spices, is cooked with regional white wine and several different types of pork product, which are then used to garnish it. This version was a thing of beauty. Dragging aside the piles of meat revealed the real star of the dish, a pile of steamy, wonderful cabbage, packed with the smoky, sweet porcine zest of the meat with which it spent hours slow-cooking in lard on a low flame. This complex tangle of pork flavors was beautifully balanced with the tart funk of the briny cabbage, as well as the mineral and white fruit flavors of the dry Riesling used to cook it. After tucking into the choucroute, I began slicing off small pieces of garnish to taste. These were the usual suspects: one juicy Vienna sausage that snapped when sliced into, one Montbéliard sausage that practically screamed out for a dab in Alsatian mustard, a slice of naturally sweet, cooked ham and another slice of smoked, salty ham, an unapologetic-ally indulgent slab of smoked bacon and two boiled yellow potatoes. Simply magnificent. While seemingly quite fatty, most of the two slices of ham were actually pretty meaty and lean, requiring just the outer rim of fat to be sliced clean off. The bacon was significantly fattier but not too tough to eat and the intense smoky-saltiness of it all was perfectly counterbalanced with the acidity of the cabbage. This was my first experience with choucroute (apart from a more German version I tried at Fabrica Moritz in Barcelona).
Luckily, I had completely blocked out the events of June 8th during this trip, as well as the infamous “last lunch photo” on Tony’s Instgaram, which continues to haunts his many fans today. I’m very glad I did, otherwise I would not have been able to enjoy this emblematic dish, an indulgent and heart-warming mainstay of Alsace.
The first thing Ben ate in Alsace had to be a Tarte Flambée, locally known Flammekuechle. This is another must-have specialty and Cheval Noir offers a wide range, including one with Munster cheese and another with chanterelle mushrooms. Ben chose one of the more basic ones, the gratinée, topped with the perfect combination of salty bacon, clean cream and sweet, sweaty onion, along with caramelized, nutty gruyère cheese melted on. The thin bread dough base offered a crunchy texture and the slight char around the corners added a smokiness that I certainly did not mind. Five simple ingredients transformed into magic when combined under the heat of a wood oven.